Charities seek new infusion of old money

Only in D.C.: The likes of Placido and Newt mingling amid grape-sized diamonds and tarantula feedings.

As autumn descends on Washington, and summer's swampy humidity finally fades, the national capital's partiers-for-a-good-cause are pulling out their ball gowns and tuxedos.

So begins the season of black-tie fundraisers – gatherings that serve as the social glue for wealthy Washingtonians and the financial lifeline for

the city's major arts and charity organizations. Tables for 10 can cost $25,000. And a guest at a charity auction might spontaneously bid $15,000 for a first-class trip to Paris. This is big money: It's no wonder so many politicians show up for face time.

Indeed, Washington's unique blend of power, politics, glitz, and social consciousness makes its charity scene unlike any other. This year, amid sinking stock markets and recession-fueled demand for social services, there's anxiety over whether the usual piles of money will be raised. The great hope is that the old-money elite, always charity-circuit mainstays, will carry the ball for the newly austere dot-commers.

Memories are still fresh of last year's Washington Opera Ball, which brought in a record $3 million. Hosted by Belgian Ambassador Alex Reyn, it featured a room filled with jaw-dropping chocolate treats and a receiving line with Placido Domingo.

"These aren't the freewheeling, write-a-check kind of days," says Holidae Hayes, who chaired the 2001 Make-a-Wish Foundation's gala. This year, she thinks many donors will be a bit more prudent, in part because the golden-toothbrush set can no longer count on rising investments – and tax write-offs that come from donating stocks. "That tax law is what's fueled a lot of the largesse in the charity world," says Ms. Hayes.

Among hundreds of causes competing for dollars are the Shakespeare Theatre, The Washington Ballet, the March of Dimes, and a fund to support Romanian orphans.

Last year's National Symphony Orchestra Ball featured Patti Austin crooning "It's a Grand Old Flag" and drew 850 guests, including GOP icon Newt Gingrich, power lawyer Vernon Jordan, Sen. Tom Daschle, and Redskins owner Daniel Snyder. It raised $1.2 million, and organizers expect this year's ball, with tickets starting at $1,500, to be at least as rich. "We're doing pretty well," says Marie Mattson, vice president of development at The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. "We've lost some donors but have attracted new donors."

The only constant on the scene, it seems, is the apparently recession-proof old-moneyed class – folks who still wear diamonds the size of grapes.

Newspaper heiress Betty Scripps Harvey chaired the chocked-with-chocolate Opera Ball last year, pledging $1 million herself. Another big-time donor, who prefers to remain anonymous, says the old guard will now be the philanthropic group to carry the ball, so to speak. "Big gifts aren't coming from dot-commers anymore," he says. "I think you'll see big gifts coming from older people who made their money over time and now are thinking about their legacy by having a building named after them."

Meanwhile, a new generation is being groomed for Washington-style giving. Last Saturday, the Smithsonian's Young Benefactors held their annual black-tie gala at The National Museum of Natural History. Tickets were $85 to $125, with the higher price – the "Diamond Level" – granting access to a tarantula-feeding demonstration, among other perks.

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