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Come for the wine, stay for the cause

by Olga Deshchenko, DOTmed News Reporter | April 19, 2011
From the April 2011 issue of HealthCare Business News magazine

For years, Arlene Willis served on the boards of her children’s schools and was involved in the work of several social causes and foundations. But although she was successful at raising funds, their distribution remained a mystery. “Every time I raised money, I couldn’t see where it went,” she says.

So Willis decided to start her own foundation, which at first supported landmine victims, a cause to honor her brother, Louis Confrancesco. In 1968, he was killed in Vietnam when he picked up a landmine. But since its inception in 2003, the Grapes for Humanity Global Foundation, the organization Willis co-founded and now chairs, expanded its efforts to help many disabled men, women and children across the world.

To raise money for projects benefitting amputees, Willis decided to combine her fundraising expertise with a passion she shares with her husband – wine. “I’ve always raised money for organizations through wine,” she says. “I thought I’d put all of that together and start our own foundation, not thinking that it would take off as it has and take every minute of my life to run it,” she jokes. “It’s absolutely wonderful.”

The Grapes for Humanity Global Foundation raises money for initiatives that aid the physically disabled through wine-related events, such as tastings, dinners and auctions. Willis works out of a home office and recruits high-end wine producers to donate bottles of their product for the events. “We’ve had in the neighborhood of $50,000 to $70,000 [worth of wine] donated to us,” she says.

For the wine dinners held in New York, Dr. Christine Wheeler, who serves as the foundation’s vice president, sells most of the tickets and sponsorships. An individual ticket to an event costs $3,000 or attendees can pay $25,000 for a table. Organizations can also serve as sponsors for the events. (Past sponsors include companies such as Mutual of America and Navios Maritime Holdings Inc.)

Willis plans and organizes the dinners by herself, as the foundation has no employees or administrative expenses. “We just have a personal touch to these events,” she says. “When you’re charging $3,000 a person, you have to make sure the event is spectacular and nothing goes wrong. We work very hard on the little details.”

During the dinner, the organization features a speaker and shares a brief video about the foundation’s work. “People usually come because of the wine but when they get there, they get involved with us because they see what we do,” says Willis.

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