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No Filet Mignon This Year

Washington is a city with lots of fundraisers, and in recent years the YouthAIDS fall gala has become one of the liveliest—kicking off the holiday season with boldface names (Ashley Judd, Bono), power players (Ted Leonsis, Sheila Johnson, Nancy Pelosi), and civilians paying upward of $2,500 for an evening of mostly tax-deductible revelry. Last year, as global markets nosedived, guests at the gala’s “rock-star chic”-themed party dined on filet mignon and Courvoisier Exclusif while John Mellencamp played a set and musician/activist Bob Geldof made a speech about poverty. Recession? What recession?

This year, October came and went without an influx of celebrities. “In this time of extreme need and economic uncertainty, we feel it is most appropriate to allow YouthAIDS’s generous donors to support our grassroots programs in a more discreet and direct manner,” says Kate Roberts, the group’s director.

Her sentiment isn’t unique. Even though GDP growth seems to signal an upturn, nonprofits that have depended on fundraising events are struggling. Gone this summer was the Smithsonian Young Benefactors’ polo cup on the Mall; gone, too, evidently is the Spina Bifida Association’s roast, which last year featured comedian Stephen Colbert.

Says charity-circuit fixture Pamela Sorensen: “It’s the climate. Big charities are smart enough to say, ‘We don’t have it in our budget right now to pull off an event and raise money, and we can’t ask people to pay that kind of ticket price.’ ”

Katherine Kennedy, star of the Washington-focused reality show Blonde Charity Mafia, has noticed a more somber mood: “Now a lot of people aren’t showing up to the smaller, non-black-tie events, or they’re choosing them selectively. From a charity point of view, they’re sticking to one platform.”

Kennedy has seen cutbacks in events she’s attended: “People who used to do galas are doing luncheons. Some of the smaller gigs for twentysomethings used to be open bar, and now they’re just doing beer and wine.”

This article first appeared in the December 2009 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from that issue, click here.

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