Posted by: Nathaniel | July 19, 2008

Devastated socialites lose their philanthropic playground

It’s hard for me to make it through an article in the NYTimes today without choking on cynicism. “In Hamptons, Slump Means Less Glitz per Gala,” narrates the simply heart-breaking story of the devastating impact the economic downturn has had on the social life of the Wall Street philanthropic elite, so used to carefree summers listed away on $1500 a plate gala dinners.

““It feels less giddy, sure,” said R. Couri Hay, a society publicist and a columnist for Hamptons magazine.” Indeed: “a ripple effect is that the Hamptons fund-raising circuit, long a richly appointed, celebrity-studded and well-intended archipelago of self-congratulation, has become a lot less festive.”

The article profiles a number of charitable events that have seen their numbers dwindle, even with reduced cost. The Children’s Museum of the East End had to settle for 150 guests for a cocktail party in the museum with a teenage jazz combo, despite slashing costs, for example.

Other organizers have chosen a different route. Not wanting to let down the charitable heroes that attend their event, Tangie Murray of Russel Simmons’ Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation made clear that they wouldn’t be losing any of the frill of their annual Art for Life gala:

“…Economizing hardly appeared to be a guiding principle as nearly two dozen workers assembled steel girders for a 10,000-square-foot free-span tent; expensive and pole-free, these tents are to outdoor parties what Gunite is to swimming pools and Sub-Zero is to refrigeration.

Ms. Murray explained, however, that there is pressure in the philanthropic world, despite the economic downturn, to always outdo past performances.

“There was some talk about getting a normal tent — our budget is about 10 to 15 percent lower than it was a couple of years ago — but we don’t want to give people less,” she said, adding that Mr. Simmons rented a free-span tent two years ago and didn’t want to do without it this year. “What does it say about you if you’re charging less or giving them less? Each year we’re expected to grow this event. People want to see some razzle-dazzle.””

And its not just a lack of pole-less tents that are hurting the abilities of charities to draw the magnanimous marvels to their events, either. Local police have been much more strict about closing down parties that don’t have alcohol licenses, as well. And as local author Dan Rattiner says: “My opinion is that nobody can buy a $100,000 painting without alcohol.”

All in all it makes it has becoming increasingly tough for the social elite to strut their grand ideals and good intentions. As Daisy Buchanan, errr, Debbie Bancroft laments: “It’s hard enough to get the Wall Street husbands to come to these things, and that’s when Wall Street is doing well.”


This is a farce, preposterous from top to bottom.

Yesterday Peter Deitz at Social Actions wrote a moving piece about the inspirational nature of the emerging citizen philanthropy, in which hundreds or thousands of people come together around an issue or cause or community or individual and have a combined impact far greater than the $20 they can each give alone. The excitement is the impact of now: the entrepreneur on Kiva who can open a second fruit stand in Delhi, or the community-owned savings association in Uganda who can afford record keeping materials. But it is also the sense of the potential: the possibility for the future when such a small amount of money, thought, energy or time can achieve so much in the present.

Wealth and philanthropy are intricately tied, and this is not a bad thing. Gates (and his new partner Buffet) are leveraging their incredible wealth in unprecedented ways to change health inequity around the globe. Clinton is leveraging the wealth of his Rolodex to undertake initiatives of a scale far greater than many even large foundations could attempt.

And it doesn’t take a Carnegie either. Family foundations and donor advised funds are some of the most important sources of capital, ideas, and inspiration in the philanthropic sector.

What’s easy to reject is the showiness and lack of depth of the Hampton gala philanthropy profiled in the article. What’s easy is to have a deep skepticism that the downturn has hit so hard that pre-bonus salaries of $100,000-$250,000 don’t contain enough wiggle room to participate in charity dinners. Now to be fair, for all I know, some of the participants in those galas might be, in their own right, committed and thoughtful philanthropists.

But the point remains. Paying $1500 a plate for a charity ball doesn’t show a commitment to childrens’ arts, it shows a commitment to conspicuous consumption.



  1. Hi Nathaniel. Thanks for mentioning my post. I like this juxtaposition between the NYT article and my piece. You’ve brought together the two ends of the philanthropy spectrum.

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