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In the age of the Great Recession, when we’re buying generic-brand cereal and putting off vacations, when we’re cutting back and scrimping and trying to save cash, what better way to bring out the animal-loving glitterati than an event that harkens back to the days when excess was still chic, a heady champagne bubble unpopped by the knowledge of the colossal economic hangover to follow?
We’re referring, of course, to the Roaring Twenties, the era of jazz and flapper skirts and speakeasies, of gangsters and Busby Berkeley dance numbers. And, of course, the era of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel of towering class-climbing aspirations, The Great Gatsby.
With the creative brainstorming and marketing help of the Philipson Group, Lollypop Farm (also known as the Humane Society of Greater Rochester) put an animal twist on the glitz and glamour of the legendary parties at Gatsby’s West Egg estate, figuring the theme would make for a gala that would stand out as unique in a region which, says Jenny Hatch, the shelter’s associate director of development, is often cluttered with fundraising events competing for donors’ interest and financial support.
And so The Great Catsby came to pass. Branded with the image of an art-deco style kitty wearing long, flapper-style pearls, it was an evening that included live music, a juggler, hand-rolled cigars, a live and silent auction, silent movies playing on a loop in a mansion sitting room, and donors clad in period attire as they quaffed themed cocktails and danced the night away.
The evening in May was a lot of fun, says Hatch, but it almost didn’t happen. “We had done a gala event for several years called Bark and Wine, and it had turned into just a wine-tasting event where wineries would come in and people could taste and have little things to eat. And we weren’t really raising a lot of money with it. There is large competition for gala-type events in Rochester, with lots of nonprofits. And at that point we kind of decided we were either going to stop doing it altogether, because it wasn’t worth the time and investment for what we were getting, or we were going to really commit and be one of the best galas in town.”
In other words, they decided to go Gatsby or go home.
The shelter paid a fee for the Philipson Group to take on the bulk of the preparation work, securing an appropriately beautiful location—the Sonnenberg Gardens & Mansion Historic Park in nearby Canandaigua, N.Y.—and the alcohol, food, and décor for the evening. Lollypop staff invested the bulk of their time soliciting donations for one of the gala’s traditional big moneymakers, a live and silent auction that took place on the night of the party.It was an expensive fundraiser, costing around $60,000 to create, but it netted the shelter around $40,000. “It’s tough to invest this kind of money initially, but the good will it has created is already going a long way—bringing on new sponsors and increasing attendance,” says Karen Stolt, the shelter’s special events manager.
Among the more intoxicating items at the auction were bottles from a collection of wine provided by a generous donor—the whole of which was appraised at more than $10,000, says Hatch. On the more serious side, one item reminded attendees of the great cause they were there to support: Bidders vied for the opportunity to shadow one of the shelter’s veterinarians for a day in the clinic.
Along with the issue of ever-increasing competition from other nonprofits—and from all the people attending college and high school graduations at around the same time of year, creating potential conflicts—the mansion itself proved to be a challenge. While perfect for the Gatsby theme, it’s still an old house, and there were times when it was a bit tight for the number of guests and parts of the evening’s program. “At about 300 people, we’re not quite large enough for a convention center, but we’re kind of too big for some smaller venues,” says Stolt. “It’s hard to find that unique place that will fit with what you’re doing and not feel cavernous with a smaller group of people.”
Those who came, though, didn’t let the occasional crowded hallway in the mansion cast a pall. Stolt notes that there aren’t a lot of events in Rochester where there’s a theme and people get dressed up in costume.
“It was great that our clientele were so into that,” she says. “Of course, you know animal lovers—we’re all fun people anyway.”