Beth Ellen Holimon’s mission throughout most of her career has been helping women. For the past five years, she has led Dining for Women, dedicated to eradicating poverty in the developing world for girls and women and achieving gender equity, using a unique model for women’s collective giving. DFW educates approximately 8500 member donors on the underlying issues contributing to women’s inequality. Under Holimon’s leadership as President and CEO, the global giving circle has grown to 500 chapters throughout the U.S.
Each month, DFW selects a charity to receive funding though a rigorous vetting process. The organization’s grant making is guided by the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Holimon emphatically asks: “What woman around the world doesn’t want their children to have the very best education, be provided with safe birth options, address climate change, safeguard themselves and their children from domestic violence and acknowledge issues of aging?”
But according to research from the Women’s Philanthropy Institute’s research, 3.3% of all non-profits are focused on women and girls’ causes. Only 1.6% of all giving is directed to girls and women. Since DFW’s founding in 2003, the organization has been dedicated to increasing this giving. In the past seventeen years, Dining for Women has contributed over $8 million dollars to its grantees. Grantee causes vary from providing rural Guatemalan women with reproductive health services, to educating Malian women on how to protect themselves against HIV infection and supporting Tanzanian women economically with a beekeeping initiative while sustaining the surrounding habitat.
When Holimon was tapped to lead Dining for Women, it was an opportunity to bring together all her passions: supporting women, community building, and international politics. After graduating from University of Colorado at Boulder with a B.S. in women’s studies, Beth Ellen worked at a rape crisis center and in domestic violence prevention. She also traveled widely in Asia and Central America before earning a Master’s in Linguistics. While working as a graduate student with limited-English-proficiency survivors of domestic abuse, Holimon saw firsthand how PTSD had an effect upon their ability to learn a new language. She gained an understanding of the ripple effect violence has on women, their daily survival and that of their children and the need to find work and housing, school their children, and get adequate health care.
The Three Pillars of DFW’s Model for Women’s Collective Giving
At DFW, Holimon, her staff and the board of directors focus on three pillars: learning and education, community building and grant making. She estimates DFW has educated over 35,000 people in the U.S. about global gender inequality. “DFW is giving voice to many other women,” says Holimon. She wants to ensure DFW is known for its advocacy and grass top approach by reaching those attached to a good cause and ensuring the money raised goes to the right place.
Dining for Women prides itself on their significant number of repeat donors. Members are engaged, educating themselves about the grantees and the issues–all highly desired attributes by fundraisers. In fact, one reason the number of giving circles has tripled in the past ten years, according to a 2019 Wall Street Journal article, is that younger people and women are seeking a more collaborative and informed style in their philanthropy.
Volunteers are the backbone of DFW. Some start and lead chapters. Others participate on the grant-making selection committee and the organization’s diversity, equity and inclusion initiative. Training is vital for volunteers. Chapter leaders are assigned a mentor and connect regularly with their regional director, of which there are thirteen around the country. Technology improvements ensure a steady flow of information to volunteers, which is managed by the national staff. Communications includes chapter meeting resources about featured grantees, donation processing, fundraising and branding guidelines.
DFW Going Virtual During COVID-19
Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, in person meetings, generally held at chapter members’ homes on a monthly basis, have been replaced with virtual gatherings. Through videos and detailed presentations by each grantee, DFW breaks down the issues the chosen organization is addressing into digestible bits. At meetings, members decide the amount they would like to contribute to a particular grantee, typically the cost of a restaurant meal. In addition to the chapter meetings, national meetings have recently been instituted via video conferencing technology. These gatherings will continue weekly through April, providing another venue for DFW members to connect and learn about the 2020 grantees. Beth Ellen says, “Spending a lot of time with volunteers is a highlight of my job. We are all walking in the same direction for gender equality.”
Members on the grantee selection committee follow DFW’s rigorous guidelines, including doing the necessary research and investigation of the grant applicants. Non-profits applying for a DFW grant must have IRS 501(c) (3) status or have a 501(c) (3) fiscal sponsor. Applicants are expected to meet certain financial requirements and have at least 50% women on their board. Those who fulfill the criteria provide detailed project proposals, how and why they raise money, and their methods for creating a connection to women around the world. This vetting process ensures that DFW funds will be utilized to make an impact and produce outcomes of how lives have been transformed.
Grantees typically receive between $35,000 and $50,000 and are required to report on their progress and the achieved impact. The March 2020 featured organization, Women’s International Network for Guatemala Solutions (WINGS), has provided reproductive health education, contraceptives and cervical cancer screenings since 2001. In Guatemala, the most populous country in Central America, a third of women have no access to sexual and reproductive health services. WINGS will receive $50,000 over two years to expand its services, directly impacting 1,150 Guatemalan youth, women and men, many living in remote rural areas.
GAIA Vaccine Foundation, another 2020 grant recipient, is working to reduce the incidence of infectious diseases that disproportionally affect girls and women in Mali. Only 22.2% of Malian women are literate and in the Sikoro neighborhood of Bamako, illiteracy rates reach 90%. Traditional families include one man with several wives, causing further spread of HIV. Young women may become HIV positive after their first sexual encounter. Should they become pregnant, they will pass the disease onto their children. The foundation has created a unique storytelling tool in the form of printed textiles to visualize the issues, deliver information and provide instruction to girls and women on making informed decisions about their health. They are also encouraged to utilize the testing services of GAIA’s supported Hope Center Clinic.
DFW is keenly aware of the climate change repercussions around the globe and how they affect women. African People and Wildlife, received a sustained grant for 2019-2021 building upon the results of their 2016 East African conservation work that supports habitat protection. Their efforts resulted in finding untapped resources, 150 Maasai girls and women, who are now Tanzanian champions involved in preserving their land while creating and running sustainable enterprises.
In addition to the roster of grantees who have received support, Dining for Women has a partnership with UNICEF USA. Currently in its third year, the partnership has provided resources to forgotten and displaced people in Northern Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. This includes helping Syrian refugees in Jordan with employment, addressing gender-based violence in South Sudan and supporting Rohingya refugees, among the most persecuted minorities, by improving maternal and newborn health for women and their babies in the Cox’s Bazar district of Bangladesh.
A deep interest in changing women’s lives for the better is among the reasons DFW attracts big thinkers, such as those serving on DFW’s Board of Directors. Now at fifteen members, the board is involved in setting goals for a new decade with Holimon. The organization expects to unveil a strategic plan later in 2020 with the aim of tripling the amount of funds DFW invests in grantees and partnerships. DFW is also committed to creating a more inclusive and diverse community building upon their passionate base of supporters and recurring donors in the years to come.
In Nicholas Kristof’s and Sheryl WuDunn’s book, A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity, a Dining for Women chapter meeting is described this way, “like a religious service, it provides fellowship and spiritual returns and leaves members uplifted.” In these difficult times, fulfilling social and emotional needs while improving and upholding others’ well-being has become more important than ever.