03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Speaking of Trends

Year Two of The Great Recession is already 2 months old. As a high profile off-premises caterer and leaseholder of the Plaza Hotel's Grand Ballroom, I am constantly asked about the current trends in entertaining for non-profit clients.

The trend is simple - pay less and maximize returns. Everything is else is part of the new reality in fundraising events: Find an honoree; maintain participation levels; secure an appropriate venue; adjust the menu to reflect the new austerity; eliminate inappropriate frills. But keep it meaningful and continue to educate and communicate with new and long-term supporters. In fact, now, more than ever, not for profit organizations need to be visible to compete for limited attention and financial support.

Top tier charities are reporting success with events this season. There is restraint in the execution of these parties, though they are still both delicious and beautiful.

Most organizations do not have the resources or supporters to engineer an evening that nets 6 or 7 figures. Here is the story of the West Side Campaign Against Hunger, and how they celebrated their 30th Anniversary this past week, in the renovated basement space they occupy on 86 St and West End Avenue. (

A little history: "The Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew started WSCAH in 1979. Surveying low-income neighborhood residents, the church found that their need was for food they could cook at home. The food pantry opened to provide people with a pre-packed bag of food. In the first year of operation, the pantry provided 863 people with food for 7,767 meals. Twenty-nine years later, from July 2007 through June 2008, WSCAH provided 74,766 people with food for 672,858 meals." (2008 Annual report). Doreen Wohl, Executive Director notes: "In FY2009, ending in June, we saw 27% more households than in FY2008. In FY 2010 we project a further 12% increase. Since we started tracking this data in 1992, monthly numbers have never been as high as this past July and August. The hunger crisis in our city continues."

Events that fund anti-hunger programs contain a sort of irony for me - 'eating to end hunger.' Yet they are successful, generating significant donations for organizations like City Harvest, Food Bank, City Meals on Wheels and others. Board member, and long time friend Sarah Kovner, reached out to GP months ago to assist with the dinner, an event on a shoestring, so that every penny raised would fund programs.

This is what happened. Chef Marc D'Alessandro, who teaches WSCAH clients how to cook nutritious meals with pantry products, and leads a customer-chef training program, planned a simple 3-course harvest menu. With volunteers and workers from WSCAH, the meal was prepared in their kitchen. More volunteers joined to set up the dining room and serve the meal.

Josh Satterthwaite, Operations Manager for Great Performances, and Tim Sullivan, Venue Chef overseeing BAM and Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola for the company, volunteered their time to help organize the ad hoc staff both front and back of house. It was a crash course with magnificent results.

"The people who take his class are mostly people who have relied on the pantry before. It was touching to see how excited everyone was both front and back of the house. They felt proud to be apart of this experience. They were attentive and eager to help. There was no job to small and I wished I had staff that wanted to help wash dishes the way they did.

As far as my feelings it was a rush. It is always rewarding teaching people but even more so when they are that interested. I blushed as I was asked to take at least 10 pictures with different staff. They were proud to be dressed in the proper kitchen attire. In fact I over heard one person asking everyone where he or she got their chef coats and how much they cost. At the end of the night I offered mine that I had just worked in and you would have thought I had just given him 1000 dollars. It may sound cliché however I believe I got the most from this experience."

"I had a blast. I was terrified going into it - At 5pm it's are we ever going to do this? It was cool to see the guest experience as well... almost no one complained or had an issue that service wasn't technically perfect.

I think the volunteers were really proud of themselves...almost all were smiling at the end.

Of all the volunteers only a handful had ever waited tables or done food service before. Many just had some kind of relationship with the WCSAH, having helped out there before etc. There was a crew from the Shake Shack as well.

Despite them being 'untrained,' these volunteers were a lot more motivated than the ones I usually work with... I never had to track them down or push them to move faster. They didn't slack off the whole night.

A lot of them asked TONS of questions...they really wanted it to be nice. They actually pushed me to make it 'nicer' or higher quality than I originally planned."

It was a most unusual evening. Every detail from the menu, to the service, to centerpieces and the guests reflected the mission and passion of the WSCAH - inclusiveness, volunteerism, community, giving and sharing. Among the evenings honorees and awards was the Innovation Award to David Saltzman and the Robin Hood Foundation. David, the Executive Director of the Robin Hood, spoke of WSCAH, (one of the 200 non-profits they fund, from the city's 30,000 organizations) as one of the most effective groups.

At the end of the evening, the centerpieces, baskets of donated seasonal and local bounty, were moved to the supermarket-style pantry where they would serve the truly hungry.

To the question of trends in event planning and the struggle most organizations are facing with communicating their core values while engaging in the art of fundraising, this was a night to remember.