Local Nonprofits Switch To Virtual Galas Amid The COVID-19 Crisis

Galas, charity balls and fundraisers are a huge part of the spring and summer (social) season in Saratoga Springs, as well as the Capital Region. (Up until mid-March, this website had a booming vertical devoted primarily to party pictures.) But, just as the COVID-19 crisis is preventing people from gathering at Saratoga Race Course and the Saratoga Performing Arts Center this summer, it’s also making in-person fundraisers next to impossible. While some charities and nonprofits have been forced to cancel their fundraising events altogether, some are trying something a little different: virtual galas.

“Every year, we hold a fancy-dress cocktail party at Saratoga National, around the anniversary of when the museum was founded,” says Sarah Smith, the executive director of the Children’s Museum at Saratoga. “This was going to be our 30th anniversary bash.” Unfortunately, COVID-19 touched down in New York State just a few weeks before the event was scheduled to take place, and the museum had to switch gears. “We’d already sent out our invitations,” Smith says. “How do you make lemonade out of your lemons?”

The answer was the museum’s first-ever “Gala to Go,” which, held on April 3, featured an online silent auction, online raffle and takeout dinners from Prime at Saratoga National. It wasn’t the big 30th anniversary bash Smith had envisioned, but it was a success, and the Children’s Museum raised more money than it would have had it not had an event at all.

Fast forward to mid-May, and many other charities have opted to go the virtual route. On May 7, the Albany-based Interfaith Partnership for the Homeless (IPH) hosted its annual Taste of Albany culinary showcase virtually. “We expected a pretty significant loss on the event; we weren’t really sure what type of engagement we would get,” says Eric Guzman, IPH’s assistant director of development. “But we are really pleased with the results that we saw this year. Our online auction is actually the highest yielding auction in Taste of Albany history.”

This Thursday, May 21, the Saratoga County Economic Opportunity Council (EOC) will hold its first-ever virtual event, May Day Online, in lieu of its annual May Day fundraiser that was scheduled for earlier this month. Typically a ticketed event held at the Canfield Casino, this year’s fundraiser is free to the public and will be live-streamed on the EOC’s website and Facebook page at 6pm on the 21st. Donations are encouraged.

“Beyond just the fundraiser every year, May Day has been our way to see our supporters and be a part of updating them on how our mission has been at work in the community,” says Krystle Nowhitney Hernandez, the deputy director of the EOC. “This will still be an opportunity for people to hear from us and to interact, whether it’s on Facebook or just sending us notes of encouragement and sending in donations.”

Delmar-based To Life!, an organization that provides education about breast cancer and support to people affected by the disease, also has a virtual event in the works. On June 2, To Life! will host “A Toast To Life!,” featuring a silent auction and program with messages from breast cancer survivors and an awards ceremony. Attendees are encouraged to order takeout from local restaurants that would have participated in a dine-around, had the event happened in person.

Even as New York begins the process of reopening, it remains unclear just how this summer’s gala season will be affected. Saratoga Bridges has already decided to take its popular White Party, which is usually held mid-July, virtual.

“I keep thinking we’re like the little train in The Little Engine That Could,” says the Children’s Museum’s Smith about the way the museum is operating during COVID-19. “You just keep chugging along, and you’re not sure what’s going to happen, but you know it’s important to keep going up that mountain.”

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