Where’d The Gala Go?

Local charities find new ways to fundraise

If there’s one thing local charities have always been able to count on, it’s that Savannah loves a gala. For decades, local nonprofits have hosted annual fundraising affairs, packing elegant ballrooms with beaded gowns and the clink of crystal champagne flutes. While ticket prices often barely cover the heavy hors d’oeuvres, each organization benefits from donated silent auction items and other generous contributions.

This year, however, the tuxedos remained in the closet, the small talk silenced. COVID-19 has canceled large-scale social gatherings into 2021, and in the absence of revenue from annual fundraisers, organizations have been forced to trim staff and services. But nonprofit work by its very nature requires mettle, and executive directors and volunteers have found ways to adapt fundraising to the times — and still manage to give Savannahians some fun.

Savannah, Georgia Gala
2019 Alzheimer’s Association Dancing with the Stars
Photograph by Andrew Von Goellner

When Julia and Malcolm Butler agreed to plan the 2021 Telfair Ball three years ago, they couldn’t have imagined just how formidable the task would be. Following up the grandeur of past years already felt tremendous; chairing what may be the city’s highest standard of philanthropic celebration during a global pandemic seemed downright inconceivable.

But the Butlers believe deeply in the mission of Telfair Museums. As longtime members of the museum’s Director’s Circle and its William Jay Society, the couple knows how the phenomenal proceeds from the yearly Ball — 2020’s sumptuous February fete,

held at Bethesda Academy, raised more than $970,000 — directly translate into community access like free family Sundays, school tours and art classes for veterans.

“It was never an option to not have the Telfair Ball,” says Julia, who runs a local investment firm with her husband. “We have to enable those important programs to continue, even if those programs have had to be delivered virtually for a time.”

Unable to work within the traditional gala format, the Butlers have “deconstructed” the famous elegance of the annual, 500+ person event into a series of smaller dinner parties in January and February 2021. Each hosted by Director’s Circle members and adhering to social distancing and safety precautions, the black-tie dinners in private homes give donors a chance to dust off their tuxes. One evening promises an Italian-themed meal serenaded by opera singers, while another offers a Cajun-style repast overlooking the May River. The pinnacle of the series is a salon-style seated dinner at the Telfair Academy, surrounded by art. Tickets to the privately hosted dinners are a $1,000 donation to the Telfair Museums, and the grand banquet at the museum requires a $2,000-per-person donation.

“With revenue from ticket admissions to the museums dramatically reduced due to COVID-19 restrictions, there has never been a greater need to raise funds for the Telfair Museums to continue its important mission in our community,” Julia says.

While smaller, in-person breakouts are replacing giant galas, some nonprofits have migrated annual events completely online. After it became clear the virus wasn’t going away during the summer, Safe Shelter Executive Director Cheryl Branch realized her organization’s annual fancy fundraiser couldn’t just be postponed — it had to pivot.

Savannah, Georgia Gala
2019 Self Shelter Gala
Photograph by Andrew Von Goellner

“Our gala has grown to the point of becoming our biggest reve- nue source — we’ve topped $300,000 a year in the last two years,” Branch says. “We knew we were going to be facing a great big hole by January 2021.”

Since March, grant funding for Safe Shelter has been cut by 15 percent as reports of domestic violence have increased 20 percent. Even before that, however, Safe Shelter’s 48-bed emergency shelter for women and children has always been overtaxed. When the shelter is full, the organization pays up to $30,000 in hotel rooms a year, adhering to its policy to never turn away a survivor of domestic violence.

Branch and her board worried over their options until Jeremy Davis and The Fabulous Equinox Orchestra stepped in. An early adopter of the COVID-era livestream concert format, Davis has utilized the band’s ticketing partner Event Groove to help nonprofits bring in donations since the beginning of the pandemic. An exclusive video of the band premiered on the Safe Shelter Facebook page Oct. 8, allowing attendees to forgo fancy dresses and dance along in their living rooms.

“These organizations can’t afford not to raise money, but doing an online event right isn’t easy to implement,” Davis says. The keys for every nonprofit have been creativity and adaptability.

The local annual Walk to End Alzheimer’s went on as planned this fall, with a few caveats to ensure social distancing and safety. But 2020’s participants of the Alzheimer’s Association’s popular Dancing Stars of Coastal Georgia event will have to keep themselves limber until May 2021 for the cause. In the meantime, the organization continues to deliver support and education via virtual programming.

“Alzheimer’s isn’t going away because of the pandemic,” says Becca Rivera, Development Manager of the Alzheimer’s Association’s Coastal Georgia Office. “We have 150,000 cases in Georgia, and it’s the fifth leading cause of death. There is no cure, and donations continue to go toward patient care and support.”

Hosted at the Savannah Convention Center, the city’s version of Dancing With the Stars draws more than 1,000 people each year to support Alzheimer’s research and patient outreach, bringing in more than $300,000 in 2019.

Rivera remains hopeful that postponing the famously rockin’ event will give plenty of time for COVID-19 to pass so that people can attend in person — and be as generous as they have in past years.

“People have always had fun and really rallied behind the cause,” she says. “Savannah loves a party so much.”

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