Gala season in full swing

Special to SunSpot

America is at war. The nation's economy continues to struggle at a sluggish pace. And Maryland legislators still are working to close the state's $1.3 billion budget deficit.

Still, this Saturday night will be among of the busiest this year for many nonprofit organizations in the Baltimore region.

The American Heart Association, the Maryland Lupus Foundation, the Women's Committee of the Walters Art Museum and Greater Maryland Chapter of the Alzheimer's Association will hold gala fund-raisers to sustain their organizations.

"It's a weekend that seems to be very popular," said Todd Langenberg, vice president of corporate relations for the Baltimore chapter of the Heart Association, whose "Heart Ball" will be held at the Hyatt Regency Baltimore. He's quick to note where the other groups will be holding their galas, too. "Maybe those who are renting tuxedos will get a discount."

But it was just as busy, if not more so, last Saturday night -- as the Children's Guild, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, the American Lung Association, the Baltimore County Public Library and the Institute of Notre Dame all held their fund-raisers.

These events, many of which sell out at $250 to $300 per ticket, are indicative of the busy solicitation season for local nonprofits. While the gala season generally stretches into the summer -- and often encompasses charity golf tournaments and other sporting events -- April can be the cruelest month for those participating in Baltimore's social scene.

But with reductions in government and private contributions caused by the struggling economy -- and now, war with Iraq -- these organizations are forced to court supporters who are receiving more pitches for fewer philanthropic dollars. Still, these nonprofits are finding creative ways to attract and retain donors. And they're doing it while keeping their own budgets intact as they help stablize the organization's bottom line.

"No one can predict what the economy will be doing," Langenberg said. The Heart Association set the date for its $300-a-person gala last year. "The economy is hurting foundations and corporations in their giving. The federal government is making fewer grants -- and the nation being at war is on everyone's mind."

In 1998, Marylanders donated $2.9 billion to charities, according to a study by the Association of Baltimore Area Grantmakers. In the Baltimore area, the top 25 corporate donors gave nearly $34 million to charitable causes in 1999, the study said.

As for employment, Maryland's 13,000 nonprofits now account for 8.9 percent of the state's 2.4 million jobs, well above the national average of 7.2 percent, according to a recent report by the Institute for Policy Studies at the Johns Hopkins University.

In past years, organizations mounting big fund-raisers have relied on strong support from corporate sponsors, but the nation's economic climate in recent years has made that far less of a factor now. "The era when all you had to do was just ask for a contribution is long gone," Langenberg said.

Stephen H. Morgan, executive director of the Arc of Baltimore and chairman of the 1,200-member Maryland Association of Nonprofit Organizations, said stock market losses have hamstrung many foundations, whose annual giving is directly tied to its assets. "They are being much more reserved in their giving," he said.

The Arc of Baltimore helps retarded and developmentally disabled citizens develop their potential and live independently in the community.

In addition, many companies make charitable donations from a pool of funds invested in the stock market. As those returns dwindle, the number and amount of donations are reduced.

Stacey Schiano, development director for the Greater Maryland Chapter of the Alzheimer's Association, said corporate support of its annual Memory Ball is down about 30 percent this year. Some of the organization's regular supporters have cut their gifts, she said, while others have had to withdraw their financial support completely.

At the Associated Black Charities Inc., an umbrella organization that supports at least 50 nonprofits, the effort to raise $3.5 million from a variety of sources is more challenging this year. Corporate support also has been slow for its June 14 gala at the Walters Art Museum. "We're still optimistic," said Donna Jones Stanley, ABC's executive director.

Ralph Rizzo, chief executive of R&R Events Inc. in Canton, he has seen a significant reduction in spending on events over the past 18 months. His firm has produced the National Aquarium's annual "Splash" fund-raiser, the 1998 opening of Ravens Stadium and the Susan G. Komen Foundation's annual "Race for the Cure" for breast cancer research.

"The first thing I noticed right off the bat is that the corporate entertainment dollar has shrunk," Rizzo said. Organizations are cutting back on the number of events, as well as the scale of those events.

For the United Way of Central Maryland, for instance, Rizzo's firm has organized its annual kickoff luncheon featuring the Baltimore Ravens for the past four years. While the number of people attending the event has grown each year, the budget for the event has remained the same.

Johns Hopkins University already has canceled several events planned for this year, Rizzo said, because of the lackluster economy.

Still, nonprofits are sponsoring these gala events -- and people are selling them out. How? Supporters continue to find these unique entertainment experiences a worthwhile investment, even -- and perhaps especially -- in uncertain times, event planners said.

It also helps to make each event as memorable and as meaningful as possible, so people come back year after year, they said.

The Baltimore Zoo will celebrate its 20th "Zoomerang!" on June 13. It is expected to sell out. Last year, 2,800 people paid $250 apiece, raising a quarter of a million dollars.

"It's your only walking interactive party," said Theresa Alcarese, the zoo's director of special projects. "Zoomerang! is probably the most unique gala in town, because it's the only place where you can party with the animals -- real party animals."

Not all nonprofits, however, throw lavish parties for their supporters. The Domestic Violence Center of Howard County is charging $75 for its dinner dance and auction this Friday.

"We want to make money on the event, and we do make money, but it's also very much a gathering of people who support our mission," said Judy Clancy, the center's executive director. "We have many volunteers who give us their time throughout the year. We don't want to make the ticket price so high that people we care about wouldn't be able to be there."

Anticipating cuts in government support, the center sponsors live and silent auctions to help it meet its $1.1 million annual budget. The fund-raising goal for the dinner is $50,000.

Event managers said nonprofits must offer corporate supporters more tangible value than in past years.

Alcarese, who has been with the Baltimore Zoo for 14 years, said organizations now must offer sponsors such benefits as more say in how they are recognized and free admission to employees -- or an annual party for a supporter's workers.

"It goes beyond asking people for $300 for a nice dinner, dancing and a silent auction," said Langenberg of the Heart Association. "Now, we have to say, 'Come and have a wonderful evening, but here's another way you can identify with the organization.' "

The association does that, he said, by naming a sponsor to one of its research committees, by having a company back an educational campaign or by encouraging a supporter to help advance the association's legislative agenda.

"They're able to get an additional bang from the advertising or marketing," Langenberg said. "It doesn't directly benefit their bottom line, but it might give them additional exposure."

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