Commencing in March, the cultural calendars of many benefactors grow congested with glamorous galas, marquee benefits, and charitable luncheons. With the onset of in-person giving season, individuals don’t only incur the costs of tickets and tables, but also of designer outfits, the potential expense for auction items, and an array of tangential costs. Do most patrons, then, prefer to donate rather than turn up in smoking jackets or gowns? For some the answer is yes, as funds find their way directly into initiatives without all the pomp and circumstance. For many, however, the answer is no, thanks to an abundance of benefits derived from being present.
For individual and corporate backers, in-person participation can stretch the reach of a charitable commitment. “I feel like it’s important to attend the gala, both to support the evening and those who work tirelessly to put on these events, and to also invite people who may not already be familiar with the specific foundation and its mission,” says Jonathan Stein, a leading luxury real estate agent at Douglas Elliman. Stein supports the Headstrong Project, an organization that provides mental health services for American military veterans. “I put a lot of thought into who I feel will really resonate with the charity, as I love watching them get involved on their own after the fact.”
“I think it’s important to attend galas and show physical presence, if at all possible,” says architect and artist Suchi Reddy, founder of Reddymade Architecture and Design, who supports Storefront for Art and Architecture, the Design Trust for Public Space, and the Young Women’s Freedom Center. “I think giving is an essential act that reminds us of the connective tissue we all share as humans.” According to Reddy, attending events translates to firsthand knowledge from leadership about what more can be done.
Vogue contributor Elise Taylor has become a beloved fixture on the charity gala circuit. She uses the South Bronx organization East Side House, which assists over 14,000 children and families in achieving their education and career goals, as an example of the spectacular motivational efforts that galas provide to communities. “Their biggest fundraiser is the Winter Show, an annual antiques fair that takes place in late January at the Park Avenue Armory. You can buy tickets to the glamorous Opening Night, or the design luncheon which includes a talk between the biggest names in interior design (Alexa Hampton! Billy Cotton!). Of course, I’m partial to the Young Collectors Night, which I cochair. Drinking a gin and tonic while perusing 5,000 years’ worth of decorative objects? Can’t say I get to do that every day.”
This enthusiasm is emulated by Dawn Davis, an executive editor at Simon & Schuster. “I wouldn’t miss the Studio Museum of Harlem’s Spring Luncheon, a companion to their extravagant fall gala. I love the room, a grand space at the Mandarin Oriental hotel, because the beauty in the room — an integrated crowd full of NYC’s most dazzling African American women — can compete with the splendor of Central Park.” Davis invites friends, including her authors, like Dawnie Walton, who penned the Aspen Words Literary Prize-winning The Final Revival of Oprah & Nev.
In contrast, an anonymous donor shares that, “We don’t need to spend lavish amounts of money on galas in order to support those in need. It’s the same with the arts. I find it more effective to donate directly, or volunteer time.” This person regularly contributes to nonprofit dance companies, AIDS organizations, and animal shelters. In lieu of conversations at red-carpet events, she dedicates time to speaking with board members and volunteers when they’re not trying to dazzle a crowd into opening their accounts further.
Other philanthropists strive to balance it all. “Giving is a responsibility and a true pleasure, yet it can be time consuming and exhausting,” says architect and designer Lauren Rottet, founder of Rottet Studio and Rottet Collection. “There are so many charities dealing with so many worthy causes and I want to participate in them all, but that is impossible. The ask to donate comes literally daily. Sorting through them, figuring out which ones are the most direct and which ones to support, is challenging.” Rottet spends time in Los Angeles, New York City, Montauk, and Houston. Both international and local charities, in all of those places, reach out to her. She researches what each does with the funds they’re given and uses that to determine her specific involvement.
“There is nothing like being personally involved on the ground experiencing giving directly with your own hands,” she adds. But with a family and a business, she says, “I feel donating financially is the next most helpful.” Rottet personally supports Africa Renewal (ARM), the Peconic Land Trust, Preservation Houston, as well as the University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture endowment, among so many more. Her firm sponsors We Care in Los Angeles, which is run by volunteers who focus on the homeless, sheltering people and pets, and Recipe for Success in Houston. With a scope of commitment so extensive, donating is far more effective than slotting in a gala, and its excessive prep and transit time, every day for an entire season.