Early last decade, Adam Robinson was working with a small youth charity, puzzling over just how tough it was to raise money. “People want to help,” he says, “But you have to give them an easy way to do it.”

He happened upon a clever method in the UK and adapted it here as DineSmart – asking patrons at restaurants, cafes and bars to leave an extra $2 or more with their bill. Since 2003, DineSmart has raised more than $3 million in this way, including $445,921 last year, which has gone to hundreds of small community organisations, mostly homelessness charities, and often within the same community as the restaurants where donations were made.

“It’s a way for people to support groups they sometimes don’t know exist,” Robinson explains. This could be the most crucial aspect of Dinesmart. Australia’s biggest NGOs spend a sizeable portion of donations on advertising, raising their public profiles in a way grassroots groups simply can’t. In contrast, private and corporate donors cover all of DineSmart's administrative costs, meaning 100 per cent of the money raised goes towards local projects such as homeless shelters, kids’ camps and prison rehabilitation programs. The donations at each venue are spent in the immediate vicinity, making a visible difference to each restaurant’s local community.

This year, more than 30 Melbourne venues have signed up so far, including Chin Chin, Kong, Mamasita, Longrain, Ezard, Cumulus Up, Papa Goose, Saigon Sally, The Duchess of Spotswood and Mitte, and Dinesmart would love to hear from more.

Unlike sister program, Cafesmart, which asks cafes to donate $1 for every coffee sold, donations for Dinesmart come from the diners, with front of house staff letting patrons know they have an option to include a donation to a local charity with their bill.

“It’s very easy to get people to contribute,” says Alex Glaitsis, general manager at Papa Goose. “Last year I think we had one table who didn't want to.” Lauren Tow, assistant manager at Longrain, reports a similar level of success. “It’s great,” she says. “I think it should be done all year round.”

The donation period runs from November 10 to December 31. Find the full list of participating restaurants here.