Lean times force volunteers to scale down glitzy galas of past


September 05, 1991|By Mary Corey

It was hardly your run-of-the-mill garden party.

Sure, you had your requisite cheek kissing and glad handing, a straw hat and seersucker suit or two.

But what were socialites doing slurping fudgcicles? Why were Jaguars fender to fender with Chevy Chevettes? And who were these people in sweat pants and Reeboks, T-shirts and jeans?

The hoopla Sunday at the Monkton home of benefactor Michael Wettach -- including the Good Humor truck serving dessert -- was all for a good cause: Lifesongs 1991, the AIDS benefit on Sept. 28 at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. It was also part of a trend.

As the recession and post-glitz '90s continue, many fund-raisers are being forced to come up with creative ways of drawing people to their events. One solution: Ask volunteers to hold small, informal parties to supplement or replace galas.

That's exactly what Lifesongs did when Maryland National Bank cut back on its charitable giving -- and the event found itself $25,000 in the hole. To make up the difference, organizers have called on various supporters to hold intimate get togethers. Judging from the first one on Sunday, which raised $12,000, the approach is likely to catch on.

"People are having to find innovative ways to do things," explains Carole Sibel, co-chair of the parties committee. "People are not going to sit-down dinner after sit-down dinner anymore. Everyone's cutting back some place, and charity dollars are the first to go."

This new attitude reflects the tenor of the times, says Susan Badder, executive director of Maryland Art Place. "A few years ago, the idea was to rent the Hyatt and make [an event] as glitzy as you could. Now the idea is, 'Why doesn't every board member have 10 people to dinner at their house?' " she says.

Downsizing and downscaling parties has its advantages. By holding smaller, more intimate affairs, usually in someone's home, hosts are able to reach a more diverse audience -- one that's often intimidated by or simply can't afford black-tie dinners. Volunteers normally foot the bill or get supplies donated, so the nonprofit organization rarely incurs any expense. And guests have the satisfaction of knowing their donations (normally between $20 and $75) are going directly to the cause.

That has been the reason for the success of Planned Parenthood parties, which began in July and have ranged from a Homeland barbecue to a bridge party in Columbia, says Jim Guest, president of the Maryland organization.

"There's some real mobilizing at a grass-rootslevel," he says. "It's people calling their neighbors or friends. . . . And they go because a neighbor has invited them. It helps new people get involved who hadn't been before."

For the organizations themselves, less ostentatious events often fit the image they are trying to convey, particularly in financially austere times.

Over the summer, volunteers with the Child Abuse Prevention Center held several "little fetes," as they called them -- from a keg fest to a bowling night to a Southwestern cocktail party -- and raised $5,000.

Jami McDonald, the CAPC board member who came up with the idea, sees these as a welcome alternative to black-tie affairs: "We're not the kind of organization that has the money to throw a gala. Nor does it fit the image of the organization."

Personally, Ms. McDonald, the vice president of marketing at Alex. Brown & Sons, finds that galas don't hold the appeal they once did. "In the early '80s, they were fun and exciting," she says. "Now there are so many galas in town. I could go to one every single weekend. They end up not being very distinctive and costing $175 or $200 a person for essentially a chicken dinner and a dance."

For volunteers, a party often winds up being more time-consuming and more rewarding than hobnobbing at a gala. Cameron Barry, who was a host of a CAPC party earlier this summer, found that the real trick was trying to entertain 100 people on a shoestring budget. She and three other hosts worked round- the-clock for four days, preparing food, taping music and decorating a no-frills community room with art donated by a kindergarten class.

"This is a whole lot more work than writing a check," says Ms. Barry, 34, who owns a public relations and marketing firm in Baltimore County. "Fund-raising can often be perceived as the purview of the wealthy -- the people who have the time to volunteer, the money to donate, the corporate connections. But there isn't any reason why all different kinds of people can't be involved in all different kinds of causes." No one believes these events will ever replace the gala, yet they do offer the gala-weary an alternative. "Galas are going to continue to exist, and they should, for the right purpose and the right organization," says Paul Wolman, president of P. W. Feats, a special events firm. "But there are many other ways to raise dollars, and the more creative the better."

Nelson Schreter, however, says he and many of his friends would prefer an informal party any time. "People don't like getting all gala-ed up," says Mr. Schreter, a host of the Lifesongs party. "It's embarrassing, especially when you drive up Park Avenue and see 300 people standing in front of Our Daily Bread."

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