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Galas thrive on a competitive approach to philanthropy, encouraged by charities and their backers. Until 15 years ago, it was standard practice at Jewish galas for hosts to call out individual attendees by name in front of the entire ballroom and ask how much they would pledge. This practice is now considered gauche, but modified versions are still common. At a Friends of the IDF event in March 2013, names weren’t called, but attractive women carried microphones to attendees who volunteered to stand up and announce their gifts.
Today, galas continue to give the wealthiest members of the community other, subtler ways to exhibit their wealth. Bigger gifts buy bigger advertisements in gala programs. And the wealthiest donors win the biggest items at the charity auctions that sometimes accompany the galas.
“It’s conspicuous consumption, no doubt about it,” Sarna said. “There’s subtle pressure. The Jewish philanthropy from very old times assumed that the wealthiest would set the standard.”
Not Just Dollars
Jewish galas haven’t survived a century and a half just because they let the rich show off. Charity officials continue to believe that these galas bring in donations that wouldn’t come otherwise.
Some people just like going to parties, according to Medin. But much of the $50 million that UJA raises each year comes from attendees looking to show respect to, and make connections with, the people that the galas honor. In December 2013, a UJA gala for Goldman Sachs chairman and CEO Lloyd Blankfein raised $26 million from donors looking to honor the Wall Street king.
“If you didn’t have the event, they wouldn’t be making the gift,” Medin said.
There are other, less apparent social functions, too. Galas can be fun, as the photos in the New York Times’ society page try to show each week. And they give the charities an opportunity to explain their work to donors.
“It’s a very important way to educate both your constituency and the broader community about the work that you do,” Medin said. “We have between 25,000 and 30,000 [people] a year that attend our different galas and events.”
At JUF, programs at galas focus increasingly on describing the federation’s work. “We spend a lot of time thinking about what we want to happen in that room and what we want to expose our donors to,” Sternberg said.
Other federations, however, have grown wary of big galas. “Most Jewish organizations are still highly dependent on a major fundraising event,” said Jay Sanderson, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. “They spend a lot of money and staff time. We’re moving away from that model.”
Sanderson’s federation still spent $1.1 million on fundraising events in its 2011 fiscal year — 2% of its total expenditures. But Sanderson said that his group thinks of its galas as “thank you” parties for big donors, not as a place to make a fundraising “ask.” His federation has pushed alternative events, like a fundraising bike ride.
Sanderson criticized the traditional fundraising gala as ineffective and “very old school.”
“Donors need to understand where the money’s going,” he said. “We can only do that by spending real time with donors.”
End of the Party?
At the New York and Chicago federations, there’s no sense that extravagant galas are in decline.
“In New York, fundraising galas are still a very important part of what we do,” Medin said. “Every city is different.”
What’s been most remarkable about galas is their universal appeal. “The gala dinner seems to be one of the few things that transcend denomination and organization: Every American Jewish institution — synagogues, landsmanshaften day schools, benevolent and charitable societies — made a point of mounting one,” said Jenna Weissman Joselit, professor of history at the George Washington University and monthly columnist for the Forward.
Carmel Chiswick, a professor of economics at the George Washington University, noted that galas were most popular in the 1950s and ’60s, and not only among Jews. As large umbrella organizations like federations decline, along with people’s connections to them, big galas may fade away, Chiswick said.
“The era of the umbrella organization has really declined, and they’re the ones that really benefit from the galas,” Chiswick said. “If you’re going to give to three organizations and you know what they are, then you give to them. You don’t need a gala.”
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