The Social Detective

By staff July 1, 2007

We’ve been Palm Beached. After a season so packed the social columnists had to clone themselves, I think it’s official. You’d think the nonprofit donors’ market would start bottoming out. But people keep showing up, and the money keeps rolling in.

There were two or three A-list fund raisers every day for months: auctions, galas, dances, luncheons—as well as pre-event ramping-up sponsor dinners at Flemings and Michael’s for all of the above, and post-event thank-you dinners at important donor mansions for ramping down. We now all actually need huge personal collections of ball gowns and cocktail dresses and party suits, as well as jewelry and shoes, for all these occasions.

By May Day the new gala chairs were already sending out donor packages for next year’s events. When you see Chris Pfahler, don’t make eye contact or you’ll be in trouble. “I’m doing about eight,” she told me. And in early May, we still had the biggest auction of all—the YMCA Foundation’s “Going For the Gold”—ahead of us. Luckily, this is the place where savvy donors can shed some of the jewelry and other items they may have purchased at other auctions throughout the year.

Going For the Gold is a black-tie event in the gym of the Berlin Branch of the YMCA that starts off with four or five hundred BFFs walking around and examining each other’s castoffs before fighting—almost to the death in some cases—to purchase them. And then a live auction with even more spectacular swag follows that. I’d never attended and didn’t know much about the Y, but my editor told me I had to go.

I do love being brought to my knees. Y Foundation president Karin Gustafson does that. Once you meet her and absorb the fact sheet on what the Y accomplishes in Sarasota, you’ll never be the same.

The day I visited the Y Foundation office, pandas, lions, vases, paintings and prints were stacked against the walls. I wanted to take a ride on the $3,000 Segway Transporter, but Karin wouldn’t let me. Karin says, “Going For the Gold is the best pawn shop in town,” and it may well be. This year Janet Kane (whose diamond necklace sold to Kim Githler last year) chose a gold-and-onyx necklace to donate. Dale Berkowitz, who is what Karin calls one of the “Y heroes,” gave a major sapphire and diamond bracelet. Josh McCoy of Optional Art offered a gorgeous, $20,000 Tahitian pearl necklace. Stanley Kane and Janet also donated a yacht for three days. They are truly a gift that just keeps giving. Chris and Ken Pfahler, who got the yacht last year, were thinking of bidding on it again.

Janey and Jon Swift waxed euphoric about the year they bought the use of the Kanes’ house on Martha’s Vineyard for a week. “It was so worth it,” Janey says. “They invited us back as non-paying guests for three years after that.” Also on the block were a cruise to India, box seats at the U.S. Open, lots and lots of wine, pages of jewelry (including a wedding ring from one of the many celebrity break-ups this year), Phil Mancini cooking for 25, and more.

“Everybody says they hate auctions, but they come for the bargains, and they have a good time,” Karin says. David Band had to get there early to make sure he knew the location of everything he wanted to bid on in the silent auction.

Mary Ann Robinson told me having an auction for the Y was her idea. “I knew there was going to be money in it and donated the first dinner. Only 120 people came. But just look at what Karin has made of it.” In 16 years, Going for the Gold has netted more than $4.5 million, and it may have hit the $5 million mark this year.

But let’s be totally honest—the funds don’t come from the auction alone. Many heavy-hitting supporters like this year’s co-chairs, Dale Berkowitz, Paul and Carina Bowman, Donna Simmons and Rick McDaniel, and last year’s co-chairs, Debbie Dannheisser and Wanda Rayle, along with all the Kanes, Norman and Betty Menell and a whole host of major donors, sponsor the event. They also lift items from their collections and buy other people’s offerings. It’s a particular recycling of resources that provides the inspiration that sets this Y apart from all others.

The Y’s budget of about $90 million a year ranks it as the fifth-largest YMCA in the country, right up there with New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Nashville. Not even Margaret Wise, who always bids things up—and this year went home with a rooster painting Betty Menell really wanted—knew that.

“It’s not all gym and fitness,” Karin told me. Although the Y does have 29,000-plus members, it has expanded far beyond traditional Y programs to become the area’s leader, often working in partnerships with other agencies and providing family management services that include youth shelters, home instruction for parents of preschool children, foster care, alternative schools, achievement incentives, literacy programs—even lobbyists for legislation to enable communities to take responsibility for the safety and well-being of their children.

This year it was flapper night in the gym. Karin dazzled in a thousand yards of fringe and The Great Gatsby played silently all through dinner, distracting Bob Peterson and Bob Tate. I, on the other hand, concentrated almost exclusively on Lee Peterson’s serious diamond necklace and earrings. I told her I’d bid them up if she’d donate them next year. The look she gave me said some things are just not for sale.

Wendy Resnick looked adorable in a dress she’d bought in the junior department of Burdines several years ago. Who else can say that? Ann and Rick Cameron got the ring with colored stones she wanted. Flori Roberts was animal-printed and attending with neighbors Tom Perkins and Robert Stuffings, who designed the Asolo lobby renovation. I told Bob I love the red carpet. Joan Brand knocked me out with a dress whose color couldn’t be described. She said it was lime, but it was really chartreuse, though a close friend kept teasing it was bilious. Gloria Moss bid on 20 different things. Gillian Eagan and Erik Hanson had their eye on the life-size baby rhino in white porcelain, but Deb Knowles swore she was going to buy it for Sharon Weiner’s house-warming present. Deb was lurking at the bar throughout the live auction, on the phone with Sharon, who kept saying, “No, no, no!”

Celebrity auctioneer Michael Klauber exhorted the entire room to stand up and pledge a thousand dollars a couple for a haute dinner with Kim and Charles Githler at their Villa Solstice in October to support children in foster care, and it was nice to hear licensed auctioneer Neal Van De Ree move things along so fast you had no idea what he was saying. Karin told me that, for some people, getting through the live auction can be painful, but on this night everybody was in a great mood. After all, it was the last big one of the season. Whew.

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