Private schools on Long Island traditionally hold annual gala fundraisers to help keep their institutions afloat and their community connected.
But when COVID-19 hit, those major in-person events came to a halt. Many schools chose to do their fundraisers online instead.
Now, some say it's a formula they may keep. They don’t have to rent out a big catering hall and feed hundreds of people — it’s all done in a one-hour online event, and sometimes is just as successful financially.
The Harbor Country Day School in St. James broke its fundraising record in 2021 with a 45-minute online event that featured a master of ceremonies who has hosted events for Rhianna and major nonprofits, including UNICEF and the American Heart Association.
"It was our first year and we were blown away by" how successful it was, said Cynthia Lippe, a parent leader at the pre-K through eighth-grade school. "We had very few expenses. Taking away the venue really made a big difference."
The 160-student school raised about $148,000 at the virtual event, compared to about $105,000 at its last in-person gala in 2019, she said.
But Lippe and leaders of other schools acknowledge something is lost with the online events — the human connection. As successful as the 2021 event was — and they'll have another March 11 — she is torn about continuing with it into the future.
"I’m really conflicted," she said. In some ways, it "made sense to stay virtual. But the way fundraising works, it’s really all about the community, it’s about relationship, and people have to feel good about the school, have to feel good about each other to want to open up their wallets and donate."
Nearby, the Stony Brook School, a seventh- to 12th-grade prep school, tried an online gala last year as well, but it just couldn’t compare to an in-person event, said Joshua Crane, head of the school.
"It’s not even close in terms of a community feel, being together," Crane said. "You can’t replace that magic that happens, and those galas should be community-building events."
The Stony Brook School is returning to an in-person gala on April 29, when it will host an event at the Garden City Hotel to celebrate the school’s 100th anniversary. Supporters of the school, which includes some boarders from overseas, are flying in from as far as South Korea and Venezuela, Crane said.
Other schools also are returning to in-person galas, but retaining some of the lessons they learned from the pandemic and online fundraising.
St. Anthony’s High School in South Huntington canceled its annual gala in 2020 — the event can attract up to 800 people — but launched an online appeal to raise funds for tuition assistance for families hard-hit by the pandemic, said Don Corrao, the school’s head of development.
St. Anthony’s sent out emails and letters, and launched a social media campaign for the Padre Pio Fund. It has raised nearly $1 million over the last two years for the school, which plans to keep it going, he said.
The 2,300-student school did an in-person gala in October 2021, with lower attendance than normal, though its May 2021 golf outing — held outdoors — attracted a record crowd, he said. Corrao expects a major crowd for the October 2022 gala at the Crest Hollow Country Club in Woodbury.
Part of the reason for the Harbor Country Day School’s online success was the charismatic master of ceremonies, Harry Santa-Olalla, a native of Britain who has served as an auctioneer at major charity-ball events.
"He’s just on fire," Lippe said.
Santa-Olalla said he quickly transitioned his Brooklyn-based business into an online version after the pandemic hit, and it’s been successful.
"Harbor Country Day School is a good example of being able to utilize the virtual campaign really cost-effectively because it’s maybe a fifth of the cost of putting on a real event," he said.
Harbor did other things to make the event attractive, such as taping almost every student singing a song from "High School Musical," and editing it into an all-school performance. They recruited a parent who also is a major opera star to perform a fun skit with the headmaster. They home-delivered meals to donors too, and gave out swag bags to ticket holders.
Another private school on Long Island, the Acton Academy Eastern Long Island in Riverhead, is bringing in Santa-Olalla for its virtual gala on March 23. The three-year-old school, which is a Waldorf School-type institution focused on experiential learning, hopes to raise enough funds to move into a permanent location in a former convent in Center Moriches, said its director, Andrea Libutti.
"There’s so much uncertainty about people gathering and there’s still a lot of fear around people doing live events," Libutti said. "We just thought it would be a good way to kick off our first fundraiser."
But Santa-Olalla himself believes the days of the virtual gala may be numbered. Most groups and schools are already transitioning back to in-person galas, he said.
"I personally don’t think longer term it’s got a huge amount of longevity," he said of the virtual events. "People like to connect. We should be gathering together. That human connection is really important."