Never has my social calendar been so swiftly and radically reordered. As social distancing, that now ubiquitous and important directive to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, sweeps the globe, gala throwers and goers are left grappling with the new realities of Canada’s social and philanthropic scene.
Thursday, March 12, saw the first fundraiser fall – the gala in support of Canada’s National Ballet School and the institution’s 60th anniversary. The school relies heavily on this yearly happening for its bottom line, with the evening raising about 40 per cent of its annual operating budget. This year’s target was $900,000, 93 per cent of which was already raised going into the event.
Tessa Bulham, the school’s director of development, told me that three days before the gala, they started fielding calls from concerned, mostly older or health-compromised donors. “We were communicating that we were going ahead,” she says. Even the evening before the event, a board meeting was held and all involved felt comfortable with proceeding. “And then that night happened,” she says. “We had Tom Hanks and his wife come down with the virus. We had the NBA cancel. There had been no government directives, but at that point we knew there was no chance of us having the event because of the anxiety.”
In an e-mail sent to gala guests on the morning of the event, co-chairs Tanya Taylor and Jen Lee Koss expressed their regrets and said they were signing on to steer next year’s gathering.
Across Canada, invitations have been rescinded for spring events scheduled into June. Among the social-calendar cancellations are Montreal’s McCord Museum Ball, AGO Massive and Evening Epic, a fundraising dinner and concert to support the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s music education programs. Then there’s the postponed: the Canadian Arts & Fashion Awards, the Biblio Bash in support of the Toronto Public Library, Vancouver’s Face the World Foundation gala and Ottawa’s Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards, the organizers of which have decided to recognize this year’s honourees in 2021.
Meeka Walsh is another organizer who is postponing. Walsh edits Border Crossings Magazine and hosts a biennial gala, considered by some Winnipeg’s favourite party, to help fund the magazine’s operations and raise the profiles of visual artists. The 2020 edition, which had been slated for March 21, was in her words, “a wonderful coming together and phoenix-like celebration.” Last year, a Winnipeg warehouse containing the studios of more than two dozen artists and creatives was ravaged by fire. Her dinner, in part, was to mark their comeback.
Walsh says she’s “holding funds in good faith” and is crossing fingers for a gala in the fall. “I haven’t had one inquiry from ticket-purchasers saying, ‘Can we have our money back?’ Not one.”
Postponement wasn’t an option for Montreal’s Daffodil Ball, a black-tie gala that ranks among the splashiest in the country and the Canadian Cancer Society’s biggest fundraiser. “We had a conference call last Thursday at 10 a.m. with the four co-chairmen and the head of the Cancer Society, and we decided at that point to cancel,” Alison Silcoff, the event’s organizer, said. “It was a miserable decision. Soul-destroying.” This event, scheduled for April 23, was projected to net $2.3-million and would be the swan song for Silcoff, who has steered the gathering for more than 25 years, raising more than $35-million along the way.
“Of course everyone is very sympathetic,” Silcoff says of the response from table-hosting gala-goers and donors. Silcoff said she has high hopes for a virtual auction, which in years past has contributed up to 5 per cent of the evening’s revenue, and her co-chairmen have written table hosts to see if they will consider converting that commitment to a donation. Many have agreed to do so.
Silcoff was quick to note the trickle-down effect produced by this sort of cancellation affecting caterers, hotels and the fashion and beauty industries. “There’s a ton of people for whom the Daffodil Ball is their biggest gig of the year.”
On the eve of the first wave of cancellations, Emmanuelle Gattuso was being invested into the Order of Ontario for her commitment to philanthropy. This cornerstone of Toronto’s social scene thinks of herself as an optimistic person, but admitted that the COVID-19 pandemic has her feeling, like so many, worried. Alongside fellow philanthropist Lynda Prince, Gattuso is set to co-chair Mad Hot Ballet, Toronto’s preeminent black-tie spring gala, which has raised nearly $15-million for the National Ballet of Canada since 2007. This year’s do is particularly important, as it honours artistic director Karen Kain and her 50th anniversary with the company. Gattuso said there’s talk of postponement, and though nothing has been finalized, she’s been wondering if, come gala night on June 9, “will people really want to go out with other people. You know, I don’t know.”
Gattuso underlined the need for other philanthropists to stay active in this time of instability. In the days following the announcement of widespread closures and encouraged isolation, she contacted many of the organizations she supports though her foundation, reinforcing her commitment. “I think that’s the most important thing we can do,” she says. “I really think that all the major donors to these organizations are going to step up to the plate. That’s the way I see it, and that’s what I’m hearing.”