Ballet Benefits: Parties That Pay

With plenty of advance work, a gala can turn fun into money.
Published in the October/November 2005 issue.

"Anybody can do this; there is no magic to it,” says Alexander J. Dubé, executive director of Career Transition For Dancers, about staging a successful gala.

Every year Dubé and his team put together a celebrity-filled evening of fun, glamour and stellar performances to raise part of the backing the organization uses to provide a range of programs that assist professional dancers as they make the transition to another career. Typically, the event brings in 40 to 48 percent of the CTFD’s annual budget.

Lavish or minimal, fund-raising events are part of every not-for-profit’s fiscal strategy. And while there’s no one right way to create a profitable gala, imagination—and planning—are musts when it comes to putting together an event that is fun but also brings in the bucks. Ballet companies from Utah’s Ballet West to New York City Ballet have been practiced hands at staging galas for years. Behind a well-produced performance and dinner dance, a group of powerbrokers and volunteers come together to make it all happen.

“Where the real clout lies is in boards and people already associated with the organization that you can enlist to become active with committee members,” says event manager Michael Weiss, who oversaw the CTFD gala for several years. “We have a leadership committee, and it’s made up of about 50 people, the vast majority of whom actively go out and ask their friends and colleagues to support this event.”

Years of fund-raising experience have taught Weiss that a personal connection will hit the right chord. “Dance is one of the hardest things to find funding for when you go out knocking on doors cold,” he says. “Most people do not look forward to sitting in a room with 500 strangers, so the peer solicitation—friends asking friends—is how you fill a room for an event.”

Aside from individuals giving money from their own pockets, sponsorships on the corporate level can provide anything from cash to in-kind donations. Knowing someone with a personal connection in a corporation’s underwriting hierarchy can help immeasurably.

“What it means is that your board has to get on the phone and start making some telephone calls,” says Dubé. Once a relationship has been established, a proposal is drawn up and agreed on. “There are responsibilities on both sides,” he continues. “There’s a great deal of back and forth. When you are talking about a major sponsor, a final agreement might discuss things like approval of the invitation, what the ads look like and their placement.”

Another essential is choosing the right setting. CTFD’s gala includes a performance at a theater, followed by dinner and dancing elsewhere, but Ballet West’s annual gala, Evening of Elegance, rolls everything into one location.

“In Salt Lake there are not tons of options on space,” says Ballet West Special Events Director Lara Lockwood. “We’re always looking for something new and cooler. We usually end up in a hotel here because it will have something big enough for us.” Last year’s venue worked out well for an event that included a cocktail hour, dinner, special performance, silent auction, raffle and dancing.

“We had a dance floor and a band in the middle of the ballroom, so just before dessert we had the private performance right there,” says Lockwood. “One of the members of the company had choreographed a tango and two of the dancers who had been sitting down eating dinner in their costumes got up and performed.”

The hotel ended up being the big-ticket expense. In 2003, there were about 450 attendees. Total expenses were $27,000 (the dinner and alcohol bill alone came to $23,000). The benefit netted  $71,000 because Lockwood and her team do as much as they can on a shoestring.

“Our decorating budget is nothing,” Lockwood says. “We try and spend as little as possible. We really just beg and borrow and occasionally promise ballet tickets.”

Another reason that Ballet West—or any not-for-profit—can put on a fabulous evening and still make money is that most of the work is done by volunteers. From the committee members who plan the event to the board members who enlist their friends to participate or buy tickets to the helpers who stuff the goody bags, galas involve many layers of volunteer effort. Along with the pleasure of participating in a successful event, volunteers get the satisfaction of supporting an organization that means a lot to them.

Aside from the importance of location and sponsorship, having a great theme is guaranteed to put partygoers in the mood for fun. At New York City Ballet, one of the company’s annual fund-raising events is Dance with the Dancers, an event designed to cultivate hip patrons in their 20s and 30s. And NYCB dancers get a chance to help shape the fun.     

“Every year Peter [Martins] and Special Events [a part of NYCB’s development office] ask certain dancers to be the chairs,” says NYCB corps de ballet member Jamie Wolf. Wolf was a dancer chair with fellow corps member Seth Orza and principal Jennie Somogyi in 2003.

“It’s always a theme party, so determining and shaping our theme was the first step,” says Wolf. “We decided we wanted to do a ‘70s disco, so we called it Monday Night Fever. [Dance with the Dancers is always on a Monday because it’s the dancers’ night off and the theater is dark.] We knew that all the elements that make a party fun would be easy to incorporate into the theme: the music, the décor, the dress, everything.”

The party got some extra oomph when Wolf was able to get Debbie Harry to join them and perform. “She gave us the songs she wanted to sing for the party and company member Albert Evans did some choreography for the dancers,” says Wolf. “And of course, the guests loved it.”

Individual tickets for the event ranged from $200 to $500, and the event raised a hefty $300,000 for NYCB’s general operating expenses. Not every company can afford to do things on the scale of NYCB, but even modest galas can accrue more benefits than just the money they bring in.

“Depending on the caliber and scale, [events like these] raise the perception of the organization within the community,” says Weiss. “It’s also a great way to cultivate new board members by having them become committee members first. There are really few other opportunities to gauge people’s interest as actively as a fund-raising event.”

This fall, as the benefit season gets off to a start, CTFD will present its 20th Anniversary Jubilee gala. With “That’s Entertainment!” as a theme, Rolex once again as presenting sponsor and Liza Minnelli topping the bill, it promises to be another smash success—that is if everybody tells a friend, who tells a friend….