The Shriver Report – How One Woman Started Changing the World, One Dinner at a Time
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How One Woman Started Changing the World, One Dinner at a Time

Wallace_M_DFW Chapter

In all my life, I never imagined I would establish an international nonprofit, spend time traveling, speaking to groups, meeting multitudes of inspiring women, and fighting for the empowerment of women and girls around the world.

As a teen and young adult, my mission and vision in life was to become a nurse midwife, to make the world a more peaceful place through gentle birth practices. I viewed natural childbirth as empowering for women as they claimed the authority of their bodies and birth experiences instead of relinquishing control of their bodies to medical professionals and systems. Even then, I was a feminist.

Marriage at age 18, the birth of a child, and subsequent divorce distracted me temporarily from my dream, but left me more determined than ever to become a midwife and to support my daughter and myself. I wanted to be self-sufficient, independent, and proud of my achievements.

Eventually, I remarried. My husband brought a child to the marriage too, and I took time off from work to meld our new family, intending to return to my plan of a career in midwifery. But one year led to two, which led to births of two more children. Before I knew it, I was in my late 30s and I realized that the demands of a successful midwifery practice wouldn’t work for my family.

I was in crisis. I missed the certainty and passion for work that I had felt destined to do. I was restless. Even though I considered myself a feminist, I still felt that if I chose to work, it needed to be lucrative enough to justify the time I would spend away from the family. I tried different business ideas, including a lactation consulting practice, independent marketing and sales in telecommunications. I learned a lot from each experience but nothing felt right, and nothing was successful enough to prove that I was on the right track. I was far from the independent, professional woman I had intended to become.

As my search for passion and purpose continued, inspiration came from an unexpected source. In 2002, I read an article about a group of social workers who connected regularly at potluck dinners. Each person donated what he or she would have spent if they’d eaten in a restaurant. Their collective donations went to a needy family in their community.

“…For my 42nd birthday, I had a potluck dinner. I invited 20 of my friends to bring a dish and their checkbooks, and asked them to make a donation to a global women’s organization.” 

I thought it was a genius idea. So for my 42nd birthday, I had a potluck dinner. I invited 20 of my friends to bring a dish and their checkbooks, and asked them to make a donation to a global women’s organization. We raised $750. I was so excited I couldn’t sleep that night. I was onto something!

What started out as one potluck dinner became Dining for Women (DFW), an international nonprofit giving circle dedicated to empowering women and girls in developing countries. There are now over 400 chapters with more than 9,000 members in the United States and internationally. Since DFW’s inception in 2003, we have raised $2.8 million for high-impact, grassroots programs that advance the rights of women and girls worldwide.

“…We have raised $2.8 million for high-impact, grassroots programs that advance the rights of women and girls worldwide.”

Dining for Women’s innovative model employs a platform of monthly potluck dinners, where members are engaged and inspired to become global agents of change through educational programming about our specific monthly project. Members donate what they would have spent on a meal in a restaurant, donating their “dining out dollars” to the preselected nonprofit for that month, one of a dozen annual grants ranging from $50,000 to $60,000 per month.

Related: How I Opened a Woman-owned Motorcycle Dealership and Became “Mama ROAR”

Until being inspired by a vision for Dining for Women, I was not only unfulfilled, I felt I had lost myself. My conviction that I had to make money in order to justify a substantial investment of time and energy outside the family was erroneous, but deeply ingrained. I had bought into the myth that productive work is work that brings in a paycheck, a definition that devalues most of the work women around the world do!

I have been a full-time volunteer with Dining for Women since 2003. I realized years ago that a paycheck isn’t what I really need to feel independent and strong. I have found everything I thought a paid professional career would bring: passion, meaning, and fulfillment by creating a dynamic organization based on a simple but very powerful idea: changing the world one dinner at a time.

Marsha Wallace is a Reporter for The Shriver Report.
Marsha Wallace is the founder of Dining for Women, an international nonprofit giving circle dedicated to empowering women and girls in developing countries.
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