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Soup, Syrians and Solidarity: How to Host a Fundra...

Soup, Syrians and Solidarity: How to Host a Fundraising Dinner

Syrian Fundraising Dinner cookbook

When confronted with the Syrian refugee crisis, Lebanese-American Barbara Massaad—cookbook author, restaurant consultant and photographer—was determined to find a way to help. After visiting a makeshift refugee camp in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, the idea for Soup for Syria was born.

“Had I been a barber, I would have cut their hair for free. Because I am a cookbook author and photographer, I decided to create a cookbook,” Barbara said at the book’s launch in Beirut, where I first met her.

Soup for Syria is a collection of over 70 soup recipes from international celebrity chefs and cookbook authors, including Alice Waters, Mark Bittman and Anthony Bourdain. The book has been published in Lebanon, the US, UK, Italy, the Netherlands and Germany, and a Turkish edition is forthcoming. All proceeds go to support Syrian refugees.

I’ve been living in Lebanon for the past five years, thanks to my husband’s work with the United Nations. There are more than one million Syrian refugees in this postage-stamp country, and the protracted nature of the crisis means that they won’t be going home any time soon. The need for assistance is as great as ever. Inspired by Barbara’s ongoing commitment to refugees, I decided to organize a “dining for a cause” gathering.  Soup for Syria was my theme, and 20 expat and Lebanese women gathered at my apartment in Beirut for an evening of soup and solidarity.

Syrian Fundraising Dinner group

Amy and her guests gathered for soup and solidarity. (Photo courtesy of Karin Sanner)

I asked my guests to forgo bringing the usual bottle of wine or bouquet of flowers, and bring a contribution to support Syrian refugees instead. I invited Barbara to come and talk about her work, and I served soups prepared from recipes in her cookbook. My guests chose from among the pots of lentil-chard, pumpkin-cardamom, lemon-chickpea and chicken-freekeh soup, and we talked politics and poverty, kids and schools, weather and travel as we warmed our spirits along with our stomachs. Best of all, we raised $600 that evening. Barbara has deep connections with one of the many makeshift refugee camps in Lebanon, and at the request of the inhabitants, we purchased $100 worth of medicines, plus diesel stoves to warm five refugee tents—much needed in the snowy winters of Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley.

This isn’t the first time that I’ve turned a social get-together into a fundraiser for a cause I care about, and it’s an easy thing to do. Here are my best tips for combining a gathering of friends with a gathering of funds.

Choose the type of event

Generally speaking, the more people you can invite, the more funds you will be able to raise for your favorite cause, so plan accordingly. Keep the menu simple; the selections of soup, salad and baguette that I served was both easy and economical. Don’t defeat the purpose by spending more money on food and drinks than you end up collecting. Since the dinner was informal, those who ended up balancing their plates on their knees while seated at the couch didn’t mind. 

Another time I hosted a backyard birthday party and asked friends to bring a donation for a non-profit I had selected rather than gifts. I simplified by making it a nighttime party, offering just drinks and music. I was planning a birthday bash anyway, so why not make it for a cause?

Prepare your invitation

The more personalized, the better. Every invitee should feel that it matters if they can make it, and the text should clearly communicate the importance of the cause. For my “Soup and Solidarity” dinner, my email invitation emphasized solidarity among women, and solidarity with the refugees in our community. The request for donations in lieu of a “hostess gift” was right in the email, so guests weren’t caught by surprise. (Added bonus: it meant that some of those who couldn’t attend saw my request and made donations anyway.) I sent text messages to each person who hadn’t RSVP’d within a couple of days, to let them know that I really hoped they would join.

Make the evening stand out

Do you have someone who you can invite to talk about your cause? Pictures or a short video that you can share? At my soup dinner, Barbara spoke about her cookbook and her work with refugees. The food served was of course thematic, and the wine, hummus and baba ganoush that I served was from a fair trade organization in Lebanon, to make it cohesive with the idea of solidarity.

Syrian Fundraising Dinner Syria

The makeshift refugee camp in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, where Amy and Barbara delivered diesel stoves.

At my backyard birthday bash, on the other hand, I skipped the serious talk, limiting it to just a few words when I blew out my candles and thanked everyone for coming. But to make things memorable, I asked my guitar-playing husband and his friends to play a mini-concert.

Plan how you will receive the money

Money exchanging hands at a party? Awkward! At my soup dinner, I left out a lidded soup tureen with a basket of envelopes next to it. Guests put their donation in an envelope, and dropped the envelope in the tureen. This worked brilliantly, because it kept every donation completely private. 

At my backyard birthday bash, I turned a shoebox into a “donation box,” something like this one on Pinterest. If people prefer to contribute directly to the non-profit online, ask them to bring a copy of their receipt to include in the donation box, so that you can track the total funds raised.

Thank your guests

Thank them passionately and profusely. If you can, tie an amount of money to something tangible. For example: “Barbara’s work with refugees is important and your support is critical. For every $100 we gather, we will be able to provide a family with a heating stove to stay warm this winter. Thank you for your generosity tonight.” At the end, thank them one more time for coming and for contributing.

Demonstrate the contribution

Syrian Fundraising Dinner stoves

Small diesel stoves serve both as heaters and cookstoves in refugee tents.

When your event is over, send a text message or note to all the guests, thanking them (yes, again!) and letting them know the total funds raised. If the money will be given by you to the charity, obtain a receipt and attach a picture of that to your message. If you are donating goods directly to someone, take pictures and share them. This allows everyone who contributed to share in the results, and lends transparency to your donation process.

Words and photos by Amy E. Robertson


Amy E. Robertson writes about travel, food and culture for a variety of publications, including NPR, Vice MUNCHIES, Wall Street Journal and more. She currently resides in Beirut, Lebanon.

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