Last Thursday night, a philanthropically minded Toronto society type had a host of events to choose from: There was the 50 Years of Bond fundraiser at the Bell Lightbox to benefit TIFF; the sixth annual Innovators Ball in support of the Ontario Science Centre; the Canada International Council gala dinner featuring Christine Lagarde as a guest speaker; and the Art Toronto opening night preview.
For those of us who live outside the world of tuxedos and tiny hamburgers and tax receipts it’s a mind-boggling amount of activity, but to the city’s swishy fundraising set, it’s just another Thursday on a calendar of do-goodery – galas, screenings, luncheons, fashion shows and doggy fashion shows – that has started to feel as congested as rush hour on the Queen streetcar.
“If I went to every event I get invited to, I would never be home, and if I accepted every charity invite, I’d be broke beyond belief,” jokes Ainsley Kerr, a frequent gala-goer and one of the “it” girls who event organizers are eager to woo. The term “first-world problem” is certainly relevant; still, this sort of party overkill says something about the supply-and-demand of charitable events.
Case in point: For the recent Viva La Vida fundraiser, timed to the arrival of the Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera exhibit at the AGO, the $300-per-head after-party was cancelled because of poor ticket sales. This was the second gala fundraiser of the year for Ontario’s art gallery.
“When I started doing events several years ago, it was about trying to plan something on a night where nothing else was going on,” explains Candice Best of Best PR, the boutique firm that handled this year’s Laughter is the Best Medicine benefit for Toronto East General featuring Jerry Seinfeld and Will Arnett. “Now it’s more like, I hope there aren’t five or six other events on the same night.”
These days, it seems almost impossible that the Brazilian Ball, which held its final flesh-and-feather extravaganza last month, was once the social event of the year. There are plenty of flashy upstarts vying to be “the new Brazilian,” but the reality is that such a superlative designation isn’t even possible in a fragmented and ADD-ridden social landscape.
If you look at arts organizations alone, there is the AGO, the ROM, the COC, the NBC, the TSO and the TPL, which hold high-price fundraisers as well as more affordable events for young professionals. (At $150 a ticket, the recent Operanation party is an example of what’s considered a “friend-raiser,” as much about building loyalty as raising cash.)
At the same time, many money-givers have their pet causes, or conversely, the things they don't do; one notable arts patron is known to joke, “I don’t do kids.” It may sound glib, but that’s one way to manage obligations.
Once a fundraiser date is set, committees get to the business of oneupmanship, whether that be an unexpected venue or a retro-cool musical guest (Ace of Base and Sheena Easton performed at the recent AmFar gala and the 007 TIFF event, respectively). Meanwhile, perks that once seemed special are now de rigueur: “If you have an event without a photo booth, everyone is wondering where it is. Same with complimentary transportation service,” says Ms. Best.
Of course, there are pros to the prolific social scene – it creates a thriving party economy for photographers, florists, caterers and fake-tan providers.
Perhaps as a way to recapture the air of exclusivity, the most coveted charity invites these days are to fundraisers at private homes. Tonight, developers Joe Brennan and Daniel Greenglass are among 13 couples hosting intimate, celebrity-chef-prepared dinners as part of the annual Grand Cru Culinary Wine Festival. The cost for the Bennan/Greenglass dinner is $25,000 a couple, which helps explain how the University Health Network benefit has raised $10.2-million in just seven years. Clearly the funds are out there, even if the will to party is waning. “People do need to sleep,” Ms. Best jokes. “Sometimes we forget that.”