Class and the Charity Gala
The "royal court" of philanthropy
Cater-waiters glide by with canapés and trays of bellinis, champagne and white wine. Suits and dresses gather at the open bar, picking from three themed cocktails or just calling for straight liquor. Some are models, others lawyers or owners of regional car dealerships. There’s entertainment, dinner, and a silent auction. There are actors from the 1980s and 1990s and maybe a news or reality television personality.
Welcome to the charity gala.
Nonprofits large and small throw signature events for their supporters and it’s often their largest fundraising opportunity of the year. This is where the money is raised for all that public good work. But the events are, more often than not, at complete odds with causes like social justice, poverty alleviation or promoting cultural inclusion. As in so many other parts of our economy, only wealthy people can afford to donate enough to make a difference to these charities and so the fundraising caters to the tastes, concerns and demands of wealthy people and famous influencers.
In a lot of ways, the problem of charitable donations are akin to the problem of political donations. People with money, or the ability to raise it, direct resources towards their pet causes, increasing their influence over society through both law-making and on-the-ground activism. In this way, a wealthy donor to, say, a school district or an educational program that supports public schools, has a louder voice in curriculum, teaching methods and priorities than the parents who send their children to be educated. We call support for charities philanthropy but it is also an expression of social power, and a wildly undemocratic one at that.
Middlebrow Musings does not take donations.
If a political donor buys a politician, after all, they can still be reigned in by the hoi polloi at the polls. Charities are less constrained. And nowhere is it clearer that nonprofits can be captured by the wealthy than at their largest fundraising extravaganzas.
Imagine you are attending a gala held by a group advancing the cause of world peace. It’s a great cause and the charity is very effective, around the world. But at the gala, you notice something interesting — there’s a segregated VIP cocktail reception, even though everybody attending the event is either there as guest of a large corporate sponsor or, if paying their own freight, likely as not wealthier than the middle-grade celebrities deemed so special. The only normal people at the venue are the roster of cooks, waiters, bartenders, bussers, custodians, security guards, photographers, videographers, program directors, stage managers, theatrical technicians and bag holders.
The class structure of the gala divides the VIPs (celebrity rich), the IPs (rich but not celebrities) and the Ps (servant class). Since the VIPs and IPs will be asked for money, they are treated as favored members of a royal court. They are praised, no matter how they made their fortunes or treat their workers, and they are feted. Contradictions are routinely ignored. Have you met Wendy? She runs a socially conscious investment fund largely on the backs of unpaid interns. This is Walter. Tomorrow he’s going to underwrite debt financing for a project that will deforest central Chile.
We gather here in support of world peace. Now, please welcome your master of ceremonies, CNN’s own Anderson Cooper, here to sip cocktails on stage while praising the economic and social hierarchy that is responsible for pretty much all of the world’s violence.
Now it’s time for the silent auction. Who will wind up owning a ukulele signed by Tiny Tim’s alleged son? If a celebrity owns a vacation home that they have used less often than the gown or tux you’ve worn to the event, it’s for auction. A character actor will record a welcome message for your Alexa (actor must approve message contents). Buy an abstract painting from a retired hockey team manager!
If the cause is world peace and the attendees are believers, can’t they just cut their checks? If the cause is world peace and the attendees are believers, shouldn’t they insist on getting rid of the VIP, IP, normal person hierarchy?
Because, of course, the gala doesn’t have to look the way it does. Imagine a communal event where people served each other, as equals. The people who prepare the food would eat it with the guests. Everyone would clean up, according to their abilities. Rather than platitudinous keynotes from leaders not actually chosen by the public they claim to serve, we’d have an open forum for ideas.
If the cause really is world peace.