Fairfield County Charities Turn to Galas to Raise Funds
Nonprofits use events to raise funds
Published 9:21 pm, Saturday, November 16, 2013
STAMFORD — Flowers flown from abroad. Live animals. Goody bags with luxurious gifts. Back in the financial world’s heyday in the 1980s and 1990s, fundraising galas in Fairfield County were “hugely extravagant,” says Elaine Ubiña, a photographic chronicler of the philanthropic scene with the website Fairfield County Look.
“Hedge funds … the whole world of finance, everybody was just doing incredibly well and had less regard for the kind of money they were spending on the events,” Ubiña said. “They knew there was always somebody who would underwrite” the lavishness of parties.
While the embellishments arranged for galas have been stripped down from years past, that has not meant any slackening in the number of special events put on by charities in Fairfield County and the rest of the greater New York City area.
“The competition is really fierce,” said Christopher J. Riendeau, senior vice president of the Stamford Hospital Foundation.
Riendeau said that there are only five ways for nonprofits to raise funds: special events like galas, runs and golf outings; annual giving campaigns; large gifts of $25,000 or more from donors; planned giving in which nonprofits are named in donors’ estate plans; and grants given by corporations and foundations.
As major gift-giving has decreased, more regional charities are undertaking special events, Riendeau said.
“The special event dollar, particularly on the corporate sponsorship side, is not infinite,” Riendeau said. “It’s definitely finite. I worry that we’re going to get to this super-saturation point.”
According to 2012 data from the Chronicle of Philanthropy, Fairfield County’s $1.3 billion in giving ranks it 10th in the nation.
After hearing from donors that they were fatigued about the number of special events they are invited to, Stamford Hospital decided against having more than three special events, Riendeau said.
The hospital has a black-tie gala, a run/walk/bicycling event, and a golf outing.
The hospital’s Dream Ball raised more than $700,000 which is partially earmarked to purchase additional equipment for the hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.
Jack Moffly, co-founder of several lifestyle magazines covering communities including Greenwich, Stamford, New Canaan and Darien, said that 50 years ago there would only be one or two galas in the autumn and only one or two galas in the spring.
Now there are two or three galas per week, Moffly said.
The gala season hits high gear in September and doesn’t slacken until toward the end of July, he said.
Moffly agrees that corporate money has “dried up to a great extent,” and there has been a correlated “enormous increase in the number of galas raising money for nonprofits. Those that are not raising money in that way have gotten on the bandwagon.”
Anne Bradner, the Greenwich Historical Society’s development director, said now there are so many nonprofits holding fundraising events for their good events that the events either have to be “really beloved” or really new and exciting to be truly successful.
“You can’t get away with that tired old warhorse of a fundraiser,” Bradner said.
The historical society has a brand in its Antiquarius gala fundraiser, the capstone of the Greenwich Winter Antiques Show and the holiday house tour, Bradner said.
When there was a dip in the antiques market in recent years, the historical society took a break from holding the antiques show and the Antiquarius gala, Bradner said. Instead, the historical society partnered with the Bruce Museum on a special event last year.
Following the market crash in 2008, “a lot of people cut back their giving small and large,” Bradner said.
But the historical society, at least, is seeing corporate sponsorships come back.
“People are investing again in good nonprofit causes where they think they have an alignment with their businesses,” Bradner said.
“The world changed in 2008,” but special events can weather economic downturns, Riendeau said.
Donors will scale back on their participation in the events to what they can afford, he said. For example, a sponsor would take a $5,000 table instead of a $10,000 table.
However, special events are much less extravagant than they were in the past, Bradner said.
According to Bradner, in the 1990s, goody bags with fairly extravagant gifts were donated to be given out to special events attendees. Food is less opulent. Post-recession, decorations are more restrained too.
Now “donors don’t want to see you spending the money about” those things, Bradner said.
Charity Happenings, an online social hub for philanthropists, found in a survey from three years ago that a majority, or 46.9 percent of respondents, wanted to see 75 percent of ticket proceeds go to charity. The survey found that 32.8 percent of respondents wanted to see at least 50 percent of ticket proceeds go to charity.
The food served at galas is getting simpler too.
Marcia Selden, the proprietor behind Marcia Selden Catering & Event Planning in Stamford, said that there has been a surge in interest in less fancy food at galas.
Customers want local, sustainable and green food, as well as small tasting plates, she said.
“It’s not going to be oozing with sauces and butter and cream,” Selden said. “It’s going to be much cleaner food and healthy.”
Selden has seen some galas have their attendance fall by almost half.
“People get bored with it,” she said.
Even as a caterer, Selden said she looks to do new events all the time because of the novelty of working with a new organization and on a new cause.
Ubiña said the locations of parties also have changed as a result of budget-conscious gala organizers.
Instead of having the expense of paying for tents to accommodate hundreds of people, more charities are using country clubs where “it’s almost a full-service kind of thing,” Ubiña said.
There remains a concentration of events in Greenwich, Moffly said, because “that’s where the money is the big money’s here and it has panache.”
However, Stamford is starting to host more galas because the Hyatt Regency Greenwich is the only venue in Greenwich in which really big events can be held, Moffly said.
Both Bradner and Riendeau said that special events do something for nonprofits than other forms of fundraising cannot do.
Special events create a community of donors around the organizations, remind donors about the nonprofits’ missions and introduce new people to the causes, including for annual giving, they said.