There’s something special about sitting down around the dinner table with friends. The conversation flows freely, laughter often rings out, and the night ends with that wonderful feeling of being loved and accepted – not to mention, a full belly from a delicious meal!
Dinner Guys, a group of friends in New York City, leans into the power of food and community by meeting regularly over meals to talk about the important things in their lives and find ways to make a difference. Many Dinner Guys members are part of the AAPI LGBTQ community or work in the nonprofit sector, so it wasn’t surprising when the dinner table talk turned to philanthropy, particularly ways the group could support the AAPI LGBTQ community in New York. Eventually, the suggestion went around to ways this group of friends could make a difference while celebrating their dinnertime tradition.
The solution? A giving circle! Where friends meet for a lower-budget meal at someone’s home or a local restaurant, and pool all the funds they would have spent on high-end cuisine to donate to charitable causes.
Their vision is simple and effective. In fact, this unique giving circle has carried on for the past nine years because it prioritizes fun and a sense of family: Dinner Guys makes sure their giving process “doesn’t feel like work.”
“At the end of the day, we are just a group of friends who like to get together,” says Frank Liu, a founding member of Dinner Guys. “We became philanthropists even though we never saw ourselves as philanthropists, myself included.”
In its early days, Dinner Guys leveraged corporate matching donation programs through members’ workplaces and participated in Asian Americans / Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy (AAPIP)’s former grant-matching offerings to get off the ground. The group acknowledges early ties to AAPIP, a network of giving circles, and their understanding of the broader needs in the AAPI community to inspire them to move their dinner dollars towards social impact. Past grantee partners include GAPIMNY (Gay Asian Pacific Islander Men of New York), SAGE (Services & Advocacy for LGBT Elders), and API Rainbow Parents.
Even in the face of change, the group has found ways to keep moving forward. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dinner Guys immediately leapt into action to support restaurant workers in their community. Within a few weeks, the group donated their entire reserves to NQAPIA (National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance) to support small businesses and restaurant workers in NYC's Chinatown. With AAPIP's continuing support, they gave out more money in 2020 than they have in recent years.
“We’re here for each other, and that’s a beautiful thing,” says Liu.
The evolution in their giving felt natural as the needs of the community changed., Dinner Guys has recently grown past their private giving roots and innovatively turned to partnerships with other organizations to grow their impact. In 2021, Dinner Guys piloted a new way of giving with an online philanthropic grants challenge hosted by Asian American Futures and Gold House called the Gold Futures Challenge that awarded 10 grants between $25,000 and $100,000 to nonprofits and projects ensuring the AAPI community is “Seen, Heard, Empowered, and United.”
What started as an exploratory conversation around how to fill the gap in funding for great organizations who are applying to the Challenge turned into an opportunity for a meaningful strategic partnership. Dinner Guys piloted and awarded a “mini-grant” for trans-focused community projects that came through the Challenge.
“Traditional philanthropy is not flexible, and being flexible is the way forward,” says Helena Berbano, partnerships and outreach director at American Asian Futures and Gold Futures Challenge Organizer. “We wanted to create a different way to partner, allowing for creativity and a reciprocal learning process.”
The Gold Futures Challenge team provided ongoing dialogue and advice to Dinner Guys not only about grantmaking, but also ways to maximize their impact in the AAPI community.
“In the beginning we had the desire to learn but not the access,” says Liu. “This partnership made everything so comprehensive and easy [to make a grant.]”
It is with this early success and partnership model that Gold Futures Challenge developed a new support tier for the 2022 Challenge. The newly coined “Activist Partners” offer mini-grants of $2,000 for exceptional Gold Futures Challenge applicants whose projects meet specific giving circle partner’s interest areas. The hope is that more giving circles get matched with important grassroots projects that meet both donors and communities needs.
In addition to providing funding, the partnership between Dinner Guys and the Gold Futures Challenge allows for more collaboration, open communication, innovation, and flexibility when it comes to grantmaking — important tenets that both parties see as the future of philanthropy.
“It’s not just about us – it’s about the wider movement,” Berbano explains. “We’re all part of the same team, we’re all trying to accomplish the same things, and this is a community effort. We wanted to make everyone feel like part of the team when they were working with us. It wasn’t just about them giving us money and then going away. It was not just about us. We’re always keeping the Dinner Guys in the loop.”
Much of the structure of the Gold Futures Challenge is about community building, inclusion, democratizing philanthropy, and putting decision-making and grant-making power in the hands of those who understand their communities best. Online application process and voting models allow maximum flexibility for applicants, supporters, and winners. Support from industry partners like Resilia, Catchafire, and Node further provide access to unique networks and resources for Challenge finalists to maximize their impact. Meanwhile, partnerships with giving circles like Dinner Guys allow for additional flexibility, particularly when it comes to unrestricted funding opportunities like the Activist Partner mini-grants.
“There are so many new approaches to philanthropy, and when you partner [with other organizations], you’re able to learn so much from each other and also give back at the same time,” says Berbano. “We’re learning about communities together, and that informs the next time we give.”
Dinner Guys will be one of the first Activist Partners for the 2022 challenge, pledging a $2,000 grant to an applicant supporting the trans AAPI community.
For giving circles like Dinner Guys and new forms of philanthropy like the Gold Futures Challenge, establishing and growing a collective giving mindset is part of the challenge – and part of the fun – of improving giving structures year over year. What both have discovered is that new connections across the community and innovative collaborations can take giving to a whole another level.
For members of the AAPI community who may feel isolated and their actions are not enough, Berbano says that campaigns like the Gold Futures Challenge are “a reminder that we’re not alone. Sometimes there can be a scarcity mindset in giving, but there’s so much greatness in the AAPI community. We should continue to center the community in the philanthropic process.”
And to those individuals and giving circles looking for ways to get more deeply involved, Berbano says, “You’re part of this community, and we want you here.”
The article is dedicated to Jeff Helfgott, a founding Dinner Guys member who passed away in 2021. Importantly, Jeff and his husband, Peter Gee, are the group’s connection to Noelle Ito, a former staff member of AAPIP who inspired this giving circle to launch. Without these connections and friends, the Dinner Guys would not exist.
To learn more about Dinner Guys, visit their organization page. For more information on the Gold Futures Challenge and ways to get involved, you can reach out directly to firstname.lastname@example.org. Philanthropy Together aims to strengthen and scale the giving circle movement by working with giving circle networks like Dinner Guys. Learn more at philanthropytogether.org.