Today, there were seven of us at the Lansing Country Club. The distance from a country club to the little table in a kitchen where a family doesn’t have enough to feed everyone is about a million miles.

But here we were, being honored with the Food Bank Council of Michigan’s Beacon of Light Award for having done something in our area that made a difference in local homes where food insecurity is a daily struggle. 

We seven were selected as award winners from our particular region of Michigan by the local participants of the Food Bank Council of Michigan and the Michigan Harvest Gathering, created by Bill & Cynthia Schuette twenty nine years ago.

This award should be for the tireless workers at Greater Lansing Food Bank, who have, for the past 13 years, followed a guideline and re-created the Empty Plate Strolling Dinner and Auction each spring bringing to life what is now the largest fundraising event in the capitol region of Michigan. 700+ attendees donating more than $500,000 each year. And as the event moves into its 14th year it has collected more than $4.5 million dollars and counting.

So, how do you do this kind of thing in your own community? I’ll tell you. First, you have to run out of ideas on how to raise more funds for your non-profit. Second, you need to have a creative genius on your board who realizes you are going to need one crazy-good idea, and that creative genius needs to reach into their collective of other creative friends and see the best match for the task. Third, you need to have a board that is open to new ideas, no matter how far fetched they may sound. 

All those things happened fifteen years ago. The creative genius: Jim Wardlaw, formerly Chief of all things at Publicom and today, Executive Director at Buffalo Center for Cultural Innovation; still doing genius level creative things. When Jim called me and said “blah, blah, blah…crazy-good idea…event…fundraising…want to pitch us?”, I said, “Heck, yeah. I’m in.” 

Here is where an idea moved towards fruition. I did my homework, researching fundraising efforts in other states. What worked, what didn’t, what resonated with the community where we were, how we could use what was around us to make it unique, memorable and most of all, fun for the attendees. Free tip: Never leave out the fun element when you are creating a fundraising event. Your donors and participants get hit up to give or purchase tickets to dozens of events each year; rubber chicken…speeches…yawn. 

When I gathered my findings and laid out my plan to the Board at GLFB, what they didn’t say was, “Uhh… that’s never gonna work.” 

What they DID say was, “How can we help?”  There it is. The difference between success and failure. The magic words. How can we help? Imagine if everyone, everywhere approached everything they do with that thought in their mind. How can I help? You know what would happen? Everything would get done. Everything. 

The amazing people at GLFB, with Sarah Jaworski leading the way, have grown this little event to the EVENT that it is today. They’ve made changes where they were needed and have evolved the details; adapted to current needs and now the Empty Plate has a life of its own. 

12,000,000 meals. That’s what’s been provided in the Greater Lansing area in these years since the first time the doors opened at Kellogg Hotel & Conference Center for the 1st Empty Plate event.

12,000,000 meals. (So glad I didn’t have to do the dishes.)

MSU and Kellogg Hotel & Conference Center continue to host Empty Plate and with Joel Heberlein’s wide connections in the world of food, wine and hotels, he’s managed to (gently) twist the arms of his buddies and gather an astonishing offering of donated items for the live and silent auction. Local restaurants and vintners line up each year for a chance to set up a space in the Big Ten Room and offer the best of their food and drink; all donated. 

It’s a wonder to behold; community working together to help other circles of our community who may never get to sit at a table in the Lansing Country Club for a banquet. 

I am very proud to be the momma of The Empty Plate and I am grateful for the nod today. I am even more grateful for the dozens of people that keep this alive and growing and for the new GLFB Board members and directors. I am grateful that they will never have to sit in a meeting feeling a little hopeless at the lack of donations when their goal is to help more people. They are now fueled with the inertia that comes from a really, truly, crazy-good idea that works. 

Thanks Jim, for hearing “crazy-good idea” and thinking of me. Wanna plan something bigger? Let’s talk.

To close, here’s my advice to anyone that wants to make a difference in the world. Do what you can, where you are, with what you have. And don’t forget the magic words; How can I help? 

With much love,

Thanks Everybody. 


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