Invitations to Fund-Raisers, Vol. 14, Issue 33

Dear Etiquetteer: I understand that replying to invitations is Perfectly Proper. But I receive a number of invitations to fund-raising events, some from organizations I strongly support and some from organizations I rarely or never support. Do I need to RSVP when I'm not going to an event?

Dear Invited:

There's a difference between a strictly social invitation and an invitation to a fund-raiser. One is invited to the first solely for the pleasure of one's company, but to the latter for the potential of one's largesse. Other etiquette writers have suggested that one need not respond to invitations for gallery openings or for Home Retail Opportunities - to buy, for instance, jewelry or kitchen supplies - from a friend who facilitates buying parties in private homes. No matter how sociable the event, its real purpose is for one to spend money. Etiquetteer would suggest that this, too, applies to fund-raising events, though their sociability becomes more and more impacted with the accretion of speeches and live auctions.

But as with everything else, there are exceptions. If you are invited personally by a friend to buy tickets to fill a table at some big affair, a Gentle Decline after the first appeal will save you from second, third, and fourth appeals.

You may wish to use the reply card to send a request to be dropped from their invitation lists (as opposed to their mailing lists altogether), writing "I prefer to support your organization in absentia."


Thoughts on Fund-Raising Events, Vol. 14, Issue 18

Earlier this winter the Boston Globe published a piece on "gala fatigue," the weariness faced by members of the business community at having to attend night after night of fund-raising dinners that blur into similarity. Etiquetteer, who has both planned and attended his share of fund-raisers, read it with interest, and considered what might be done to Put the Fun Back in Fund-Raising. Most fund-raising organizations planning events operate on the mistaken notion that people attend them because they want to support and learn more about their cause. Etiquetteer, perhaps cynically, would suggest that people attend them because they want to get a tax deduction for having a good time with their friends and, incidentally, support something worthy. All the speeches - the endless, endless speeches - get in the way of that good time. The growing number of "set-piece" remarks has seen the podium colonize every aspect of a dinner, from dessert (where they belong) through every course of the meal, starting with the salad. This effectively eliminates any opportunity to converse with fellow diners, and more often than not leads guests to leave the table to seek refuge among the silent auction items. Not only does this make table talk difficult for those who remain, it also creates difficulties for the waiters, whose already difficult task of nimbly weaving among tables with heavy trays becomes more complicated when having to dodge oblivious guests standing in the way and chairs that have been left out as obstacles.

Another aspect is the "rubber chicken" problem, the assumptions that chicken is the most universally accepted entrée protein, and that hotel kitchens routinely produce bland, uninspired menus. Both are untrue. Etiquetteer will never forget attending a black-tie dinner for 1,000 people several years ago at which brisket was served as the main course. Brisket. Brisket! Savory in presentation and delightful in its novelty, Etiquetteer thinks more gala committees should look beyond chicken to the unexpected. And while hotel kitchens have a bland reputation for a reason, that's mostly history. Great strides are made at every event to get guests to realize they're facing something delicious.

Of course these days too many people are too fussy about their food. While Etiquetteer certainly appreciates modern medicine - even the late Diana Vreeland acknowledged the benefits of penicillin, as other writers have pointed out - it's allowed too many people to disguise mere preferences as "allergies." Etiquetteer wants to serve them all a heaping helping of Shut Up and Eat.

It's interesting to note how, in the moment, some sort of souvenir of the evening becomes meaningful. It's not always what it is, but how it's presented that makes it stand out. At one black-tie evening, Etiquetteer noticed a run on thematic charms that had been used to tie the napkins as part of the table setting. One lady commandeered those of her dinner companions to make a necklace. One another occasion, guests were each offered a small black velvet bag with a surprise inside on leaving the dining room. Etiquetteer will confess to not being a fan of the "swag bag" at formal events - especially when they turn out to be almost all promotional literature - but admits that that's a case of Personal Preference, not Perfect Propriety.

So, what does Etiquetteer recommend?

  • In addition to a dollar goal, make creating positive memories for your guests a priority.
  • Preserve time in the evening for guests to talk to each other.
  • Halve the spoken program. Halve it. Create other ways to communicate your story. Be ruthless.
  • Reconsider the menu and serve something other than chicken.
  • Inject the unexpected. Whether it's a surprise guest, an unusual trinket, a special performance, or a big announcement for your organization, let Astonishment take a role in your evening.

Have fun, and best wishes for a successful event!


Etiquetteer's Spring Madness of Pet Peeves is still on! Voting for Round III ends this weekend, and the champion pet peeves in each division have yet to be named. Join the fun and vote here!

More on Entertaining, Vol. 4, Issue 45

Etiquetteer has not failed to notice a disconnect between organizers of huge black-tie fund-raisers and those to attend them. Organizers are intent on raising money for the their organizations in as many different ways as possible (no kidding), communicating their message effectively, and adding little touches to make the evening special. Almost invariably attendees merely want to get a tax deduction for the chance to put on a tuxedo or a fabulous dinner gown (since almost no one they know can afford to throw that sort of party privately) and have a good time with their friends.This brings us to the recent Human Rights Campaign Dinner. May the Deity of Your Choice bless keynote speaker Rev. Peter Gomes, who really nailed it on the head when he said something like "You’ve all paid a lot of money for a mediocre dinner which will include speeches you proceed to talk through." Sorry to say, that’s almost exactly what happened since the gabble of the glitterati could not be escaped without refugeeing to the silent auction. Etiquetteer was particularly disappointed with the disrespect shown to the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus, whose serenades during the salad course were loudly ignored by about 80% of the room. But Etiquetteer cannot lay the blame solely on the dinner guests. The organizers must be faulted for scheduling anything to which anyone has to pay attention during the first course. Everyone is still getting settled at their tables, meeting their tablemates, flagging waiters to request more wine, salad dressing, rolls, etc. They emphatically do not want to sit silently through a speech or a performance until at least halfway through the entrée, and that’s just all there is to it. At the public dinners of yore all the speeches came at the end with the dessert course; perhaps Etiquetteer is just naïve, but it seemed like a sound system then and would bear repeating now. Until that happy day is restored to us, however, for the Deity of Your Choice’s sake above, shut up during the singing!

Dear Etiquetteer:What an interesting answer you gave a week or so ago about the ticket bar and tipping. Down here we have those same problems, so here goes: If you are the guest of honor at an affair given at the home of the host, does one offer a tip to be shared by the temp help? Secondly, as hosts, we must often use valets for parking. As guests, do we tip?Dear Tippi:Egad, Etiquetteer’ favorite issue: tipping. So un-American, and yet so part of American life. The only time a houseguest tips one’s host’s staff is when one is staying overnight. Tipping staff at a dinner party in a private home is Absolutely Improper, and Etiquetteer includes valets in that as well. A gratuity, frequently disguised as a "service charge," will already be in the contract negotiated by the hosts and the caterers and the parking company. Aside from that, hosts should not be passing to their guests the opportunity to pay for the entertainment which they’ve been invited to enjoy.

Dear Etiquetteer:OK, Etiquetteer, what about this: polemical, provocative bumper stickers: rude or a citizen's right and obligation to speak out?Dear In Your Face:Etiquetteer would say both. Etiquetteer adores free speech and deplores attempts to stifle it (for instance, branding anyone who speaks out against the war in Iraq as traitors). On the other hand, Etiquetteer frequently wishes that those exercising free speech a) had something to say and b) could say it with more wit and much less anger.

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