Party with a purpose

Raleigh giving party co-hosts, from left, Melissa Colantuoni, Christina Woelffer, Natalie Best, Jennifer Venable

Raleigh Giving Party co-hosts, from left, Melissa Colantuoni, Christina Woelffer, Natalie Best, and Jennifer Venable; photo by Annie Cockrill

by Settle Monroe

Home shopping parties, where women invite friends and  neighbors over to shop for everything from skin care products to frying pans, are all the rage. In 2011, a small group of Raleigh girlfriends hosted their own “sip and shop” party, but instead of asking guests to open their wallets for a pair of earrings or an onion slicer, they asked them to give their time and resources to charities instead. Surrounded by new and old friends, a vast spread of homemade treats, and the warmth of holiday cheer, guests were introduced to representatives from four local nonprofits, and invited to contribute. The Raleigh Giving Party was born. 

Christina Woelffer, one of the hosts, attended her first Giving Party in Chapel Hill in 2007 as a representative of Summit House, a nonprofit that provided an alternative to prison for women with children. Though she expected to find guests dutifully writing checks while making small talk, she experienced a genuine enthusiasm and inspiration among friends. Woelffer knew she wanted to bring the Giving Party to Raleigh. So she did what any smart woman leader does when she needs to give legs to a vision – she called her girlfriends. With the help of Natalie Best and Melissa Colantuoni, she brought the Giving Party to Raleigh. The following year, Jennifer Venable joined as the fourth Raleigh Giving Party host. 

The women knew the party needed to be full of festivity and fun – not pressure or obligation. To do this, they adopted the motto “Give until it feels good,” and made all financial gifts anonymous. They were admittedly a little nervous the first year, unsure if friends would actually show up or if they could raise any money at all. Their fears were quickly put to rest. Within moments, about 75 women poured through Woelffer’s home; before they left, they’d raised a staggering $10,000 for four nonprofits. 

Group effort

The parties are undoubtedly a group effort, with Woelffer as the chief organizer. Each host prepares food and pitches in for drinks. In past years, local businesses have donated cakes and wine. Throughout the year, the four hosts keep their eyes and ears open for new and promising local nonprofits to support. They naturally gravitate to organizations that connect with their own personal experiences or interests. For example, Colantuoni is a horse lover, so one party showcased Hope Reins, a local organization that provides equine therapy for hurting children.

photo by Caroline Christman

photo by Caroline Christman

As working mothers, each host understands the overwhelming demands that women carry, particularly during the busy holiday season. They know how the hurried frenzy of gift buying, office parties, and school holiday activities consume time and energy. Woelffer says it is because of their understanding that they intentionally create the parties to feel relaxed, festive, and inspiring. “As women, we are constantly asked to give of our time and money,” she says. “We didn’t want to add just another thing to our friends’ already full loads.” Best nods in agreement: “Instead, the guests come and leave inspired. The women get this non-pressured introduction to new nonprofits that are making a difference in their own communities. They may decide to give from their purse, but they may also decide to give their time.” 

For Venable, this is the key to her passion for the Raleigh Giving Party. “We don’t think of it as fundraising, but as ‘friend-raising.’ And we see our friends getting excited about helping. I hear guests say, ‘I have found my thing. I’ve been wanting to volunteer and get involved, but I didn’t know how until now.’ That is what I love about the parties.” The anonymous giving adds to the night’s relaxed and comfortable atmosphere. The festive drinks and eggnog bread pudding with peppermint topping don’t hurt either.  Colantuoni agrees. “There is a great vibe inside the house. It is fun and warm and really doesn’t feel like a fundraiser at all.”

photo by Caroline Christman

photo by Caroline Christman

In spite of, or maybe because of, the party’s relaxed atmosphere, the Raleigh Giving Party has been quite successful. Since 2011, it has raised $66,000 for 20 local nonprofits. Equally as important, the Raleigh Giving Party has created an army of volunteers and advocates. Past beneficiaries of the Raleigh Giving Party include BackPack Buddies, the Poe Health Center, InterAct, and many others. 

And the group has inspired others across the country and even the globe to start their own local Giving Parties. Just nine years after the first Giving Party in Chapel Hill, these events now occur in 12 cities including Charlotte, Cincinnati, Charleston, and London. Altogether, the Giving Parties have contributed to over 74 organizations, hosted almost 2,000, guests, and raised $315,000.

This year’s nonprofit beneficiaries are the Autism Society of North Carolina, the Military and Veterans Resource Coalition, the Miracle League of the Triangle, and Carroll’s Kitchen. All women are welcome, and if unable to attend, online gifts are appreciated. The Raleigh Giving Party website has all of the details. 

Woelffer sums up what makes the Raleigh Giving Party so special. “It’s part girl power, part holiday giddiness, all altruistic, with the potential to transform our community, four nonprofits at a time. We love when a houseful of women get together to kick off the holiday season, checkbooks open. We look forward to continuing to play a small role in building awareness and financial support for as many local organizations as possible. That’s the power of women and of the Raleigh Giving Party!”