Robert Godwin: The Social Network

From blue jeans and barbeque to black tie and Beef Wellington, Austin’s social scene is about more than just pretty pictures.

Here in Austin, charity events range from laidback parties to black tie galas. For many people, the most visible aspects of these soirees are the photos seen in the society pages of newspapers and magazines, and from an outside perspective, it looks to be all glitter, gowns and glasses of champagne. But what’s not seen, however, are the nine months of work that preceded the gala evening and the good works that come from the money raised. As a freelance photographer, I have documented that work for the past 40 years, and have attended more than 25,000 events both behind and in front of the camera. My unique perspective has shown me that Austin’s charity scene is about much more than a photo op.

For those of you unfamiliar with the gala process, this is pretty much how it works: The first step to a successful and well-attended event is selecting the chair or co-chairs. As head honcho, event chairs are responsible for selecting the venue, theme, supporting committee members and event date, which will typically fall sometime between September and May. Dedicated committee members will be tasked with giving up a goodly portion of their free time over the next nine months, and their responsibilities include, but are not limited to: making endless phone calls, finding sponsors to underwrite event costs, begging merchants for live and silent auction items, hot gluing and crafting, setting up for the event and, finally, cleaning up after. It’s a lot of work for a lot of people, all in an effort to throw a great party and, hopefully, raise some money.

But when it’s all said and done, event guests rarely see all the behind-the-scenes work and effort, but it does figure mightily in the financial success of the evening. In the late 70s, a goal of $5,000 to $10,000 was an ambitious mark to meet for most events. Today, the printing and postage costs of the invitations alone can hit the $5,000 mark. Austin now sees several events that pull in six figures and a few that near the $1 million mark, for a yearly total between $10 and $20 million.

With so much money raised, where does it all go? At present, there are in excess of 300 non-profits operating in Central Texas, many of which are fairly well known—Meals on Wheels, Caritas, SafePlace, LifeWorks, Children’s Shelter, Center for Child Protection, Hospice Austin, Settlement Home, etc. The arts are also supported, with money being raised for museums and theaters, as well as the symphony, ballet and opera.

So, next time you see a photo montage of nicely dressed people posing, drinking wine and eating canapés, know that their attendance cost them at least $200 to $300 dollars—and that a child will be fed, sheltered, treated, clothed or educated as a result.

Robert Godwin is a freelance photographer who has photographed more than 25,000 charity events in Austin. He’s also the author of Austin: The Faces of Philanthropy 1976-2012, which you can order here.

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