A painful annual ritual has just begun in Boston’s corporate community, a test of stamina, the limits of compassion, and the palate.
It’s called gala season.
If you work for a company that buys tickets to these charity fund-raisers, you likely know the drill. The windowless ballroom filled with tables for 10. The program on each chair listing generous sponsors. The tired chicken breast followed by dessert with a swirl on top. The tender moment, perhaps an inspirational speech or heart-rending video or both. The talking heads at the podium who talk far too late into the night.
That collective groan you hear? It’s from the business types obligated to populate these events during gala season, which generally revs up in March, goes full steam in April and May, takes a summer hiatus before resuming after Labor Day, and continues through the fall before pausing again over the winter.
“For many of us, once April rolls around, it’s night after night after night, and on many nights it’s several of them,” said Joanne Jaxtimer, head of corporate affairs in New England at BNY Mellon, who estimates she attends at least 40 galas a year. “Sometimes you’ll literally find yourself in the same ballroom four nights in a row and think, ‘Huh, I wonder what we’re having for dinner tonight? Oh — the same thing!’ ”
About 500 of these galas are held in Greater Boston each year, according to Dianne Butt, who teaches event management at Lasell College and maintains a coveted list of nonprofit fund-raisers in the city — indispensable information for event planners trying to avoid overlap.
That heavy volume means each spring and fall many Boston hotels and other venues are booked nearly solid with galas, which are often the single largest fund-raiser of the year for the charities hosting them. They can reap windfalls for causes ranging from domestic violence shelters to medical research. But even ardent supporters of these good causes sometimes gripe that the tradition has grown stale, with one gala blurring into the next.
“I hear it when I go to them: People don’t want to be here on a Tuesday night in a dark ballroom with the same people,” said Karen Kaplan, CEO of the Boston advertising firm Hill Holliday and a go-to gala chairwoman known for her fund-raising prowess.
Those who rarely or never attend these sorts of events may, understandably, view gala fatigue as a world’s-smallest-violin type of lament. And the well-heeled corporate types who eat and drink at them for free — it’s usually their companies paying for seats or whole tables, although attendees often make individual donations — are well aware that the overload is a quintessential First World burden.
“It’s not a bad problem to have,” said Jaxtimer, of BNY Mellon, “but there are nights, especially if the event is a drag, that you say to yourself, ‘I would so love to be home in my PJs and slippers right now.’ ”
Some frequent gala-goers employ strategies to get in and out quickly, like befriending valets who make sure their cars are optimally parked to allow a fast exit once the event ends. Another technique: “There’s a whole group of people who just go to the cocktails and never go into the dining room, and they’re out by 7 p.m.,” Kaplan said.
“I love a party, but my husband would literally pay not to go to a black-tie thing,” added Hannah Grove, who spends time on the gala circuit as chief marketing officer at State Street Corp., “so if you can change up the formula, it’s a big thing.”
Some nonprofits do offer “un-galas” or “no-go galas” where supporters make donations in return for skipping a sit-down dinner. Others are switching to shorter, more streamlined breakfast, luncheon, or hors d’oeuvres-only fund-raising events. And some shun formality. For example, the Women’s Lunch Place, a Newbury Street day shelter, hosts a family-style spaghetti dinner served atop checkered tablecloths by singing chefs.
Other nonprofits try to differentiate their galas by amping up the wow factor. Last year’s gala for the Boston-based Steppingstone Foundation had a “Wizard of Oz” theme. Zoo New England’s black-tie gala, called Zootopia, features actual wild animals.
Galas “can get very, very similar and tedious,” acknowledged David Hirschberg, vice president of development at Boston-based Bay Cove Human Services. “There are so many rubber chicken dinners out there, so you want to create an event that people want to be at, not that they have to be at.”
To rejuvenate its gala, Bay Cove has adopted another hot trend in nonprofit fund-raising: celebrity chefs. Two years ago, former White House chef Walter Scheib designed Bay Cove’s gala menu, which didn’t have a rubber chicken in sight. Instead, guests ate tequila-glazed smoked angus tenderloin with warm fruit salsa and chipotle corn sauce while Scheib regaled them with tales about feeding presidential families, like coming up with new recipes when Chelsea Clinton turned vegan.
Despite the grumbles about gala purgatory, few nonprofits have resorted to ditching them entirely, primarily because they are often so lucrative.
“For some organizations, this can be the bulk of their operating budget,” said Liz Page of the Quincy-based special events firm Liz Page Associates. Galas are basically weddings on steroids, so they can be costly to put on. But if nonprofits scrounge for enough donations and discounts to defray expenses, and build in additional money-makers like auctions, “you go into this golden area where you’re walking away with $400,000 or $500,000 or more in profit,” Page said.
Another reason nonprofits cling to the gala model is that even if they could raise that kind of money without throwing a fancy party, they relish the opportunity to extol their virtuous works and tout their successes in a room filled with hundreds of well-connected people who can evangelize on their behalf.
So the gala tradition persists, and “as much as people complain about them, most of the events I know of are sold out,” Page said.
Many of those sellouts, however, rely on companies buying tables because corporate heavy-hitters cajoled them to do so, or because they pressed someone else to buy a table at another gala and now it’s payback time. And it’s not always CEOs and senior executives in attendance; another open secret of the gala world is that some companies send interns or administrative assistants to fill tables. That’s disappointing to nonprofits, because who occupies those seats makes a big difference to their bottom line.
“Sometimes fill-in-the-blank corporation will buy a table for $10,000 and send eight admins to sit at it, but they’re not going to raise their hand to bid on auction items,” said Courtney Church, a partner at Boston-based Corinthian Events.
“My husband used to work at a bank, and he was offered a table when we were in our late 20s, so we ate and drank for free,” she added. “We were those people, and it was awesome. But if I were that 20-year-old today and I knew what I know now, I’d at least buy a raffle ticket.”
For companies struggling to fill seats, there is a face-saving option: They can offer to “donate back” their table. In that scenario, the nonprofit keeps the money, the company is off the hook for filling the seats, and the nonprofit can give away the tickets to willing takers.
That way, explained Church, “the organization doesn’t have to pay for 10 rubber chicken dinners that don’t get eaten and doesn’t have to pay for those admins to drink all night at the bar,” making a happy ending for all.