Last week, I published this story on Taste about how people are using potlucks and dinners as a force for good all over the country. I featured one particular potluck I attended last month in Hopewell, New Jersey, created by a new organization called Foodies for Refugees. I found it especially inspiring that the organizer, Maricel Hermann, pulled off this great event even though she only recently moved to town. She also had very little event planning experience. It proved to me that anyone with a mission can create a similar event.
A few days after the potluck, I chatted with Hermann about her efforts behind the scenes. "I had three different goals," she says. "I wanted to raise awareness about the plight of the refugees. I wanted to eat really good, international food, which you can't always find in Hopewell. And I wanted to bring the community together."
At first, she thought she'd host a catered event, but with no budget, she decided to make it a potluck. She skipped charging a ticket price in favor of asking for suggested donations, with all of the money going toward a refugee resettlement organization called InterfaithRISE.
She admits, she was nervous about the potluck format in the beginning. Because of her career as a financial-industry projects manager, she say she thought constantly about risk. "I wrote down all of the risks and had contingency plans. My biggest fear was that 10 people who committed to bringing entrees wouldn't show," she says. She had money on hand and a phone number so she could call for pizza if necessary, but her fear proved to be unfounded. Not one of the 133 people on the RSVP list canceled. And everyone, as far as she knows, contributed what they signed up to bring. Here, she shares some tips and lessons learned for throwing a large potluck fundraiser.
Find a venue. She knew from the beginning she wanted to host a big event. With no budget, she needed to find donated space. She had once attended a meeting at the local Presbyterian church, which has a huge basement and commercial kitchen. As long as the potluck stayed focused on the humanitarian aspects of the refugee crisis and not the politics, she was able to use the church for the potluck. She did need to purchase liability insurance and follow their clean-up instructions. "Only fair," she says.
Manage the menu. If you don't care if five people bring deviled eggs and no one brings a main course, this step is not necessary. The Global Table, which I featured recently, did not ask people to sign up for dishes in advance. For Hermann, however, she wanted to make sure there was balance to the menu. "At one point, I was telling people, no more chicken dishes with rice!" she says. She created a spreadsheet that lived on GoogleDrive, which people could access and change. (This checklist I created includes questions to ask when you book a venue.)
Stagger the arrivals. Hermann started the potluck at 7 to accommodate families with kids. She liked the early start, but not the crush of people who all came at once. Next time, Hermann says, she'll ask people with appetizers to arrive a little earlier.
Ask for plenty of volunteers. Hermann had a group of volunteers, but she didn't anticipate the set-up would require as much work as the clean-up. "I thought we'd set up in no time, but it was actually more work than I thought," she says. Luckily, a group of Boy Scouts were meeting at the church, so they helped her move around tables.
Have office supplies on hand. "At one point, I needed some tape. At another, scissors. These little things became stressors during the set-up and the evening." Next time, she'll buy these things in advance.
Ask people to label their dishes. Some of the cooks created signs for their dishes that included whether they were gluten-free or vegan. Hermann says she'll ask everyone to do this next time.
Plan a silent auction. Hermann decided against having entertainment because she wanted people to engage in conversation. But she did coordinate a silent auction, which she considers one of the successes of the event. Not only did the auction help raise money, but she says it gave people something to do before it was time to sit down. "It's especially nice for people who don't know anyone and are shy," she says.
Think about decor. "It was a no-budget affair, so I figured tablecloths weren't necessary," she says. At the last minute, she made a run to the party store and bought whatever color table covers she could. "They really did make a difference," she says. A local florist donated flowers and vases for the tables.
Hermann is now creating a cookbook of recipes from the event to sell to benefit InterfaithRISE. If you're inspired to throw your own large potluck, you can download a copy of the Potluck Nation: Checklist for Organizers to help you with the planning.