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That’s one heckuva wrap!

Of course, there was fashion, food and fun, but the amount of money donated this year tops the charts as a season standout.

  • Longboat Key
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When co-proprietor of Michael’s On East Michael Klauber took the stage as the auctioneer of his final paddle raise of the 2023-2024 social season Sunday at the Sarasota Ballet’s 2024 Gala at the Circus Arts Conservatory, he started the bids at $50,000. 

One paddle shot up.

Calculating the math in our heads as Klauber asked for bids of $50,000, $25,000, $15,000, $10,000, down to $1,000, the total raised in support of the Sarasota Ballet’s performance, education and community programs was more than $550,000. 

It appears that the generosity of Sarasota’s philanthropists and arts enthusiasts is at an all-time high. 

And the Ballet Gala isn’t the only example. In early January, Sarasota Memorial Healthcare Foundation flashed names on a large LED screen when Hospital Gala-goers made their pledges during its paddle raise at The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota. Total: $1.2 million. The entire evening brought in $1,445,000. 

One of the greatest examples of generosity this season didn’t even happen at a gala. Sarasota Community Foundation’s 2024 Giving Challenge, augmented by a Patterson Foundation match, raised $17,244,298 — $1 million more than the Giving Challenge in 2022. 

And Sarasota’s season of giving is not quite over yet. The last fundraising gala of the season, the 19th annual Dick Vitale Gala, benefiting the V Foundation, will be May 3 at The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota. Last year, that gala raised a record $12.4 million. 

Jessica Rogers, vice president of philanthropy at Children First, said the past two seasons were the most successful to date in the organization’s history. 

“We started to see the shift last year, with people really coming back in full force post-COVID,” Rogers said. “They were feeling more comfortable and philanthropic at events.” 

This year, at its annual Fairytale Ball in early April at Michael’s On East Children First generated record-breaking revenue — $575,000 from the event. 

Klauber also served as auctioneer of Children First’s live auction. Rogers attributes the success to working with partners like Klauber and Phil Mancini of Michael’s On East and the Pachota family of Venice Pier Group, which hosts Children First’s fall fundraisers — Flip Flops & Fashion and Rockin’ Lobster. 

Michael Klauber served as auctioneer of Children First’s most successful live auction at its Fairytale Ball in April.
Photo by Harry Sayer

“Michael was willing to help amplify the great selection items that we had in the auction and highlight the challenge match,” said Rogers.

Challenge matches were also a trend this year. Safe Place and Rape Crisis Center used a $20,000 challenge match — $10,000 from -NextArrow and $10,000 from the Doris Carter Family Foundation — at its “SPARCCLE on the Runway” Fashion Show in March. At Neuro Challenge Foundation for Parkinson’s “Cause 4 Hope: Kaleidoscope,” an anonymous match came in at the last minute of the paddle raise, matching every $100 bid. Almost every paddle in the room went up. 

Renee Phinney of Palm Printing said that every organization tried to stay consistent in its marketing and brand and elevate the design of its invite to be theme based. Some were even interactive, like Neuro Challenge Foundation’s spinning wheel for “Cause 4 Hope: Kaleidoscope.”

With nearly 1,000 people moving to Florida every day, getting invitations in front of new people in the community was a goal for Renee Phinney, vice president of sales at Palm Printing. Phinney saw print quantities increase and acquiring new mailing lists as top trends this season. To help organizations target potential new clients, Phinney can create mailing lists based on ZIP codes, home values, new home purchases and other specific demographics. 

Attracting new people was top of mind for Children First as well. All of its events were sellouts. So Rogers asked sponsors to donate back tickets or seats if they weren’t using them to be able to invite new people not familiar with the organization. 

“A lot of people in the community really heeded the call when we asked them,” Rogers said.

Fundraisers weren’t the only events sold out this year.

“We had a great season,” said Michelle Bente, marketing director of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. “‘Hamilton’ was sold out all two weeks, and we still have shows to go.” 

She said that the Van Wezel’s entire Broadway series had a strong season because of the combination of programming and its appeal to a wider audience. She also shared that the Van Wezel saw much bigger audiences than last year and that they are skewing younger. 

Ringling College Library Association had similar success with its Town Hall Lecture Series, selling out two of its five lectures, which is the first time it had sold-out audiences since 2016. 

Executive Director Lauren Kurnov said an influx of a younger audience radiated energy and enthusiasm. “Overall, the sales were up 30% over last year. That’s a really big jump,” said Kurnov.

One Longboat Key resident recently told me that after this year’s busy season, “I need to go home to rest from Florida.” However, there is no rest for others. According to Molly Maginn, corporate partnership associate at the Asolo Repertory Theatre, this is the first time the Asolo is producing a show this late in the season with “Twelve Angry Men: A New Musical,” that will premiere May 8 and run through June 9.

Phinney, who is co-chairing Forty Carrots Family Center’s Wine, Women & Shoes for the second consecutive year, said no one is resting on her laurels. “We’re thinking about what we are going to do next,” she said, “We’re going to continue creating experiences that are mission driven and fun.”

In fact, the Black Tie social calendar for next season is already filling up. Klauber’s wife, Terri, reached out earlier this week to make sure that Make-A-Wish Foundation’s 15th annual “Cooking for Wishes” event was on the calendar for Feb. 21, 2025. (See box on how to save your fundraiser’s date on the calendar.)

While the monies reported in this column total nearly $20 million, that’s just a small portion of the total dollars raised from the hundreds of fundraisers hosted in the 2023-2024 season. All of it calls for celebration. Sarasota’s philanthropists are truly the gift that keeps on giving.



Emily Walsh

Emily Walsh is the president of Observer Media Group and has served as publisher of the OMG’s Sarasota-based publications since 2016. She joined the company in 2001 as Black Tie photographer, later serving as editor of Black Tie and Arts + Entertainment, an advertising sales executive and chief digital officer.

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