A Peruvian-themed potluck for nearly two dozen organized by Dining for Women in Vienna, Va. The local chapter has monthly dinner meetings at members’ homes, during which they try to feature the food of a possible grantee’s country or culture. At the meetings, members also view grantee presentations and discuss funding possibilities. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

A dinner party in late April gave Nahal Gadalla, a biomedical scientist from Sudan, a chance to connect with other smart, professional women. But the event was more than just a chance to break bread. The monthly gatherings offer Gadalla and her peers a way to support groups that aid women and girls in some of the world’s most remote and impoverished areas.

Gadalla recently became a member of the Vienna-Fairfax Chapter of Dining for Women, a nonprofit organization that promotes grass-roots philanthropy. The members take turns hosting elaborate dinner parties and pledge what they would have paid to dine out as a donation to a charity. The April meal benefited the Chicuchas Wasi School for Girls in Cusco, Peru.

Each month, the national Dining for Women organization awards a single grant, from $35,000 to $50,000, to a nonprofit group. Additionally, 10 times a year, it identifies a single nonprofit group it has previously funded. That grantee gets $20,000 a year for three years to help with continued work. April marked the first time Dining for Women has raised money for the Chicuchas Wasi School. DFW used online materials and videos to promote the school’s mission with potential donors.

For its 25th anniversary, DFW, which has 8,000 members in 409 chapters spanning 45 states, has set a goal of increasing its membership to 20,000 by 2020. Dining for Women is one of a growing number of “giving circles,” whose members pool their dollars and decide together where to donate them.

“No circle looks or acts like any other,” says Lynn O’Connell, the director of a local nonprofit who also belongs to four giving circles and serves as DFW’s grants chairwoman. “Dues, size, structure and mission are all a little different. It’s not just about writing a check, but the circles are a major force in helping individuals learn about philanthropy and about nonprofits.”

Colleen McLain, left, and other members of the Dining for Women chapter in Vienna, Va., watch a presentation about the Chicuchas Wasi School in Peru. The school was granted money by the chapter. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

Giving circles make commitments on their own terms, which, in part, explains their popularity, according to an upcoming study by the University of Nebraska and the Women’s Philanthropy Institute at Indiana University-Purdue University. Preliminary data has identified 1,314 active giving circles, plus 525 chapters or affiliates of giving circle federations, such as Dining for Women, across the country. That’s twice as many as there were in a similar study eight years ago, according to Angela Eikenberry, a University of Nebraska professor and a lead author of the study.

“These groups are emerging as traditional philanthropy becomes more bureaucratic,” she says. “Over the last decade, they are forming to make things more personal, giving directly to organizations where people live.”

Gadalla says she enjoys the fellowship with like-minded women.

“Dining for Women resonates with my beliefs,” says the 41-year-old executive director for the Sudanese American Medical Association. “The Peruvian school empowers girls, supports their education and teaches them leadership skills,” all values she shares with the former Peace Corps volunteers, USAID aid workers, educators, doctors and lawyers who were gathered at Marsha Sabin’s home in Vienna for a Peruvian potluck at the April dinner party.

Sabin’s event included a buffet of Andean specialties: Peruvian grilled octopus in a bed of olives and avocados, spicy potato terrine, red onion salad, fiery black beans with mango, cilantro chicken, onion and lime relish, corn tamales, and dulce de leche cookies. Before dinner, chapter co-leader Colleen McClain led a discussion about the DFW-funded school.

“We learn to be global citizens in a nonpolitical way,” McClain says. “Collective giving can make a huge impact,” she says, noting that this grant will help cover “teacher salaries and meals for the girls who often go hungry.”

Giving circles tend to start small. Dining for Women began at co-founder Marsha Wallace’s 43rd birthday party with 25 friends in Greenville, S.C., in 2003. That same year, Giving Circle of Hope was founded around a kitchen table in Falls Church by four women who wanted to help a local family after a fatal car accident.

“They decided to do something permanent,” says Joy Meyers, 39, outreach director for Giving Circle of Hope. So they kept the group going after that family’s need for help had ended. The group remains focused on Northern Virginia, with an average grant of $7,000. In 2016, it directed dues to eight projects, including assistance for abused and neglected children, bilingual culinary job training, and peer support for youths and adults with mental health conditions.

Meyers joined Giving Circle of Hope when she moved to Reston a few years ago. “This not only has linked me to Reston and made Reston my home, but it has made me feel like I am helping my neighbors in need,” says Meyers, chief development officer at the Campagna Center in Alexandria.

For Giving Circle of Hope, she programs a full slate of activities in what she calls “philanthropy boot camp.”

“I want to bring in a new generation of givers,” she says. Already this year, she has hosted the Empty Bowl Fundraiser, as well as a Members Mingle at a bar, and put on the Big Give, a “Shark Tank”-like event that awards money to nonprofits on the spot.

“Gen X-ers really like the direct and immediate return on their investment. The impact far exceeds what a young person would most likely achieve independently,” she says. And because they operate with little overhead, nearly all the money they raise goes to grants.

Giving Together follows a similar model. It aids groups, including nonprofits that serve low-income women and children in the Washington area, each year focusing on a specific theme. In 2016, its 60 members voted to address hunger, and gave $30,000 to Nourish Now, a food recovery and redistribution center in Montgomery County; $25,000 to Food for Others, a food bank and pantry in Fairfax; and $8,000 to the Maryland-based Crossroads Community Food Network, to support a community kitchen.

“We learn by doing and volunteer for the organizations we support,” says Karen Gilgoff, vice president of Giving Together. In late March, Gilgoff met with eight other members at the Food for Others warehouse to assemble food packs the pantry delivers weekly to 1,980 students at 29 elementary schools in Fairfax County. “I was surprised to the extent of hunger in communities as wealthy as ours, but it exists, and we’re addressing it. The power packs help kids get through the weekend.”

Food for Others expects to distribute 67,000 packs this academic year, and has requests for an additional 6,000 packs. “We really couldn’t do this without their help,” says Food for Others Executive Director Annie Turner. “Giving Together’s action echoes what Food for Others stands for, neighbors helping neighbors.”

Research from a previous University of Nebraska giving circle study found that people who join giving circles give and volunteer more and, like Gilgoff, are more engaged in their communities. But Gilgoff says giving circles can’t fill the gap left by cuts to local, state or federal agencies. “We can play a role, but it doesn’t substitute for the funding. It’s frightening to think what will happen.”

Giving circles often make grants to small nonprofits that would be ignored by traditional philanthropy. “Those that are so small that would literally fall under the radar,” says Tracey Webb, founder of Black Benefactors, a group that directs funds to nonprofits in the District that are founded and led by African Americans.

That was the case with Chess Girls DC, a tiny group started by D.C. resident Robin Floyd-Ramson, who wanted her then 5-year-old daughter to have an opportunity to play chess with other girls. “I felt like I hit the lottery, because somebody believed in us,” says Floyd-Ramson, who home-schools her daughter.

In 2015, Chess Girls DC received $500 from Black Benefactors. Floyd-Ransom used the grant to buy chess boards and age-appropriate chess books. She has since parlayed that stipend into attracting other donors, increasing club membership and organizing the mid-April D.C. All Girls Scholastic Chess Tournament at the Pepco Edison Place Gallery.

“These girls are learning critical life skills like managing tough decisions, acting strategically and considering options,” Floyd-Ramson says.

“We are so pleased with the progress they’ve made,” says Webb, who was joined at the event by Edward Jones, program director for the Association of Black Foundation Executives and a founding member of Black Benefactors. “This has been a great opportunity to build philanthropy from the ground up and leverage our experiences with a committed interest in imFdproving lives,” he says, watching 9-year-old Mikayla Hammond chart her game.

“Chess keeps me focused,” Hammond says with a smile, while planning the moves she’ll make to beat her opponent.

It’s this kind of tangible result that has made giving circles a passion for Lynn O’Connell of Dining for Women.

“It’s been a life-changer for me,” she says. Her advice for grass-roots philanthropists: “Don’t rush out next week to start a new circle. Explore your options, then join a group and learn.”