The secret politics of gala fundraisers
Contrary to popular belief, there are actually five seasons in a year: summer, autumn, winter, spring and “gala season.”
Gala season takes place in those precious few weeks spanning late spring and early summer when charities, arts organizations and public institutions throw lavish bashes to raise awareness and funds for their respective causes. It’s warm enough that women can fearlessly wear their best heels and dresses with long trains, but not so warm that the A-listers have jumped ship for their yachts.
A well-connected socialite can attend upwards of a dozen galas in just a few short weeks, and it’s no cheap enterprise. In addition to the costs of hair, makeup, gowns and drivers, tables can go for anywhere between $5,000 and $500,000 at top-tier events like the Met Gala. In Toronto, Canada’s gala capital, tables tend to range between $10,000 and $25,000.
While everyone is ostensibly there to support a worthy cause, the gala circuit more often resembles The Hunger Games than a gathering of sympathetic souls. Behind the flamboyant fashions and perfectly plumped and pressed faces is an unspoken culture of shrewd politics, unspoken expectations and ulterior motives.
A $25,000 table is much more than a charity donation and fun night out; it can be a business driver, status symbol, image builder and weapon of social warfare. Multi-million dollar deals and lifelong friendships are forged or broken over the most expensive plates of slow-roasted tenderloin most people will ever see. At the end of the night, no one’s really there for the dinner.
In most cities, the gala circuit is comprised of a small community of wealthy individuals and, in Toronto, even more so. The same dozen or so individuals and the companies they represent purchase the majority of tables each year. Among this elite circle are names like Suzanne Rogers, Sylvia Mantella, Simona Shnaider, Victoria Webster, Vonna Bitove, Kate Daniels, Vanessa Mulroney, Catriona Smart, Krystal Koo and Joan Kelley-Walker.
You may notice something all those names have in common: they’re women.
Charity galas are one of the few arenas in which women solidly hold the power. Outside the ballroom doors, they may take second-place to high-earning CEO husbands, be dismissed for supposedly frivolous tastes and judged for their choice to be stay-at-home moms. But inside those gilded walls, these women become queens of the social Amazon. They make the rules and command the room. Not only do they purchase tables, many of them also take on chair and committee positions to organize the galas they feel most passionate about.
The gala circuit is one big game of quid pro quo, though. If you buy a table at someone’s gala, it’s then expected they’ll buy a table at yours when the time comes. Chairs and committee members can sometimes play the role of clique-y queen bees rather than pillars of philanthropy when they block rival socialites from purchasing tables at headline events.
At one well-winged healthcare gala this season a prominent socialite was told tables were completely sold out, only to hear a close friend bought a table without incident hours later. Other times, committee members will sell tables to women they despise behind closed doors just to meet their quota (a point of contention between Kara Alloway and Joan Kelley-Walker on The Real Housewives of Toronto).
Vogue editrix Anna Wintour is well-known for banning or un-inviting those who’ve offended her or her friends, including Tim Gunn, Rachel Zoe and Coco Rocha. She reportedly once told Calvin Klein they couldn’t host Josh Hartnett at their table because he wasn’t relevant enough. International juggernauts amfAR and Amnesty International try to uphold their organization’s good image by discouraging celebs with hard-partying reputations from attending.
On the other hand, some elite galas turn a blind eye when arms dealers, corrupt businesses and guests with nefarious connections and sources of money open their bank accounts. Ethical concerns often take a backseat to raising a number with lots of zeroes. The Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation infamously took a hit when the U.S. Department of Justice accused them of accepting funds from a multi-billion dollar embezzlement scam in Malaysia. Bernie Madoff was a major donor on the New York City gala circuit for years before his arrest. Then there are the donors – every city has them – with vague backstories and an untraceable ever-growing stash of cash. In these cases, don’t ask, don’t tell is the name of the game.
Once the tables are sold and guests are invited, the most delicate of tasks is crafted: the seating plan. Business considerations and divorces play a prominent role. As such, it’s important a chair or host know the most recent status of guests’ relationships, which can change by the month. Feuding socialites will have tables on opposite corners of a room and never, under any circumstances, be photographed together. It’s also important to manage egos by ensuring rival socialites or companies aren’t given a more prominent table than their competitors. If you want to snub someone, you put them in the back of the room. Planning a table is like planning a dinner party; you want to have the perfect mix of personalities to stimulate engaging discussion
If there’s a live or silent auction, there’s often an unspoken expectation that invited guests will pony up to at least bid, if not purchase an item. This can either be an effective way of leveraging a table purchaser’s network to raise more funds or a cringe-worthy disaster. When expectations aren’t communicated beforehand, the silence and averted eyes of a failing auction are among the most awkward of experiences.
At one celebrity-studded Toronto gala, the auction went so poorly that organizers actually refused to serve dinner until all the items were sold. It was dark outside before entrees hit the tables to the relief of famished guests. In other instances, committee members and chairs will rescue the event by bidding on items themselves. I’ve witnessed Sylvia Mantella purchase almost an entire slate of auction items when other guests neglected to open their wallets. John McEnroe once bid $20,000 on his own donated item (a private tennis lesson with the star himself) at a Palm Beach gala “not to have to do it.”
Any pursuit that combines high levels of money and ego comes with a delicate set of politics. Behind the champagne and formalwear is a high-society chess game where pawns plot, purchase tables and peacock with the goal of becoming queens.