Chicago has dozens of big fancy hotels. And every big fancy hotel has a big fancy ballroom, if not two or three. Many of those big fancy ballrooms on any given night hold big fancy charity dinners with crowded bars and framed Blackhawks memorabilia and baskets of wine laid out on endless silent-auction tables.
As the good-hearted souls attending these dinners shout small talk at each other and angle themselves to strip chunks of prime rib off passing trays and in general passionately wish they were home watching “The Big Bang Theory,” a thought forms: “Why don’t we just give money to the charity and skipthe dinner?”
Good news: Next year is here, and has been for 20 years.
“It goes back to the 1990s,” said Marc J. Swatez, executive director of the The Ark, which holds an annual “dinner-less dinner” to raise money for its programming. “We had a development director, Bernard Saltzberg, who saw an article about a New York charity that did it. In 1998 we did our first dinner-less fundraiser and sent out a package of powdered soup, asking people to enjoy a cup of hot soup in your own home and help us. It was successful.”
This year, they sent a block of chocolate.
“We’ve send out soup and tea, cookies and popcorn, luggage tags, keychains,” said Swatez. “It gets people’s attention. In 2008 we did our first chocolate. It’s been very successful.”
Given the economics, it’s surprising more charities don’t do it, though Swatez noted there is a social, team-building aspect to actual dinners.
“If you throw a dinner, about half the money you raise goes back into the dinner itself,” said Swatez. “The dinner-less dinner costs us about $50,000 to put on and we bring in almost $800,000. Right from beginning, the dinner-less dinner brought at least as much as the dinners, if not more.”
My father-in-law, the late Irv Goldberg, used to volunteer for The Ark, delivering food to shut-ins, some younger than himself, and I assumed The Ark primarily serves the elderly. Not true.
“There’s a huge misunderstanding about what we do,” said Swatez. “The Ark is a multi-service social service agency. We serve the Chicago Jewish community in the broadest way. We do case management and clinical work. Give away a lot of money in supplemental assistance. A very significant medical clinic, dental clinic, food pantry, homeless shelter. A huge phychiatric services department. All of our clients are poor.”
Wait a second, I said. There are poor Jews?
“Half our clients are below 250 percent of the poverty line,” he said. “We opened an office in Northbrook. I see 800 clients out of that office.”
We got on the subject about how poverty affects Jews.Could I say, I wondered, that Jewish people are affected equally by poverty as non-Jews?
“You can say that very safely,” he said
Actually, I can’t. Those pesky facts.
Last year the Pew Research Center, did a study placing Jews at the top of American religions when it comes to household income, with only 16 percent earning below $30,000 a year, less than half the national average of 35 percent. Also, 44 percent of Jewish households earn more then $100,000 a year, compared to a national average of 19 percent.
This doesn’t mean there aren’t poor Jews — that struggling 16 percent — but there is a financial upside to having parents noodge their kids about doing their homework.
Not that education guarantees a person won’t someday receive canned food from The Ark.
“About half our clients have a college degree,” said Swatez.
If your degree served you well enough that you want to give to give back, you can participate in the dinner-less dinner at http://arkchicago.org/dld/ I just did; it was easy, fun and I didn’t have to dress up, show up at a hotel ballroom and make dinnertime small talk with people I’ve never met before and will never meet again.
“Most social service agencies get money from three buckets,” said Swatez. “A big chunk from government; second, from fees to clients, and third, fundraising. I take almost no federal money, and everything we do here is 100 percent free of charge. We have to raise everything else, which is why this dinner-less dinner is so important.”