Charity may begin at home, but it doesn’t have to stay there. Galas for good causes nationwide can give you an even better reason to pack your bags than wanderlust. Besides helping others, you’re likely to experience the efforts of elite entertainers, caterers and florists while rubbing elbows with local luminaries — and sometimes international celebrities. On the financial side, host hotels frequently offer attractive discounts to gala patrons, while much of a ticket’s price may be tax-deductible. Here are some of our favorite charity galas, in chronological order:
One of the most glittery events on the City by the Bay’s social calendar, the San Francisco Ballet’s Opening Night Gala makes the most of its spectacular setting in City Hall, a Beaux-Arts beauty built in 1915. Patrons enjoy a cocktail reception and dinner under its elegant dome, then cross the street to a one-night-only performance in the equally elegant War Memorial Opera House. As an encore, they return to City Hall for a vivacious after-party with live music, sweets and savories, drinks and dancing — no toe shoes necessary. The gala raises funds for a variety of the ballet company’s artistic initiatives, including new works, scholarships for San Francisco Ballet School students, and community education programs for all ages.
2020 edition: January 16
Tickets: From $1,500
Bring your best black-tie getup for the annual amfAR Gala New York, which raises money for AIDS and HIV-related research, access to prevention and treatment, and advocacy for public policy that supports international prevention and relief efforts. The unofficial kickoff to New York Fashion Week, the star-studded evening at Wall Street’s majestic Cipriani venue — featuring a 70-foot ceiling and balcony lined with huge columns — includes cocktails, a seated dinner, luxurious live auction, musical performances and a tribute to annual honorees. Milla Jovovich was one of the latter at the 2019 gala, which also attracted Heidi Klum, Alan Cummings and multiple Kardashians.
2020 edition: February 5
Tickets: From $1,750
Since its launch in 1988, the Leukemia Ball has amassed more than $65 million for the 70-year-old Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, which currently funds more than 300 research projects to cure blood cancers and ensures patients’ access to treatments it helped pioneer, such as chemotherapy and stem-cell transplants. The ball is also a really fun way to score a new Mercedes: A local dealer provides a current-year model for a special drawing at the event. The silent auction and entertainment are typically also memorable — comedian Kathleen Madigan and rock band O.A.R. performed in 2019 (the lineup for the next event, at the Marriott Marquis, is still TBA.)
2020 edition: March 21
Tickets: From $1,000
A two-day event that includes a celebrity golf tournament, a fashion show and gala concert, the Mack, Jack & McConaughey fundraiser takes its name from renowned college football coach Mack Brown, country music star Jack Ingram and Hollywood star/Austin homeboy Matthew McConaughey. Their fundraiser donates proceeds to community nonprofits involved in children’s education, health and wellness, with more than $13 million distributed since 2013. Previous headliners of the concert in Moody Theater include Chris Stapleton, the Dixie Chicks, Miranda Lambert and Toby Keith; Camila Alves McConaughey hosts the fashion show.
2020 edition: April 23-24
Tickets: TBA, but 2019 gala concert tickets started at $99.
Besides your swimsuit and sandals, be sure to stow something white in your suitcase for this Hawaiian vacation — Make-A-Wish Hawaii’s annual Wish! Gala is always an all-white-attire affair, although its elaborate décor, flowers, cuisine and live entertainment reflect a different motif each year. The 2020 theme is “A Night in Old Havana,” so maybe pack a Panama hat, too. The gala will take place at the Sheraton Waikiki, right on the water, and includes a seated dinner and live and silent auctions. The highlight, though, may be the live granting of a “wish” to a critically ill child; the nonprofit aims to fulfill a special desire for all of the approximately 100 children in Hawaii diagnosed with a serious illness every year.
2020 edition: May 2
Tickets: Only tables currently available, at $5,000; contact the organization for details.
The Big Apple merits more than one visit, especially in balmy May. Experience your own “Night at the Museum” courtesy of the Rainforest Alliance’s Annual Gala at the American Museum of Natural History. The celebrity-attended event honors people and companies working to protect the environment, and raises funds for farmers and forest communities to cope with climate change, sustain biodiversity and increase their livelihoods. There’s also a vibrant after-party that goes into the wee hours.
2020 edition: May 13
Tickets: From $750, if registered by Feb. 2; otherwise, from $1,500.
Add a charitable note to wining and dining amid California’s most iconic vineyards by attending one or more events of Auction Napa Valley. which supports 25 local nonprofits and strategic initiatives related to community. Health and children’s education. Organized by the Napa Valley Vintners, the four-day festival of philanthropy includes private vintner-hosted parties, an auction of high-end wines by the case (including barrel tastings with winemakers) and a grand celebration at Meadowood Napa Valley, an elite resort and country club. Katy Perry performed at last year’s event, which included a post-auction dinner by Ayesha Curry and raised nearly $12 million.
2020 edition: June 4-7
Tickets: TBA; 2019 auction tickets began at $2,000.
“Party animals” takes on a new meaning at the San Diego Zoo’s annual Food, Wine & Brew Celebration, an adults-only event that includes animal presentations by the likes of Joan Embery and samples of wares from more than 160 restaurants, breweries and wines. San Diego Chargers Rolf Benirschke founded the event, then known as Kicks for Critters, in 1980 as a fundraiser for the zoo’s conservation research efforts. It now includes a “Critter Casino” and live music, attracting some 3,000 patrons (adults only.) Proceeds benefit the nonprofit San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy, which seeks to end species extinction worldwide.
2020 edition: TBA; likely third Saturday in September
Tickets: TBA; 2019 tickets began at $125.
The Human Rights Campaign advocates for LGBTQ equality across the country. The HRC Chicago Gala & Auction is one of the largest LGBTQ fundraisers in the Midwest, honoring local leadership while throwing an excellent dinner party (black-tie optional) for hundreds of patrons. Hotel packages make it easy to create a weekend getaway around the event, which begins with a large silent auction and includes live entertainment; the Fairmont Chicago at Millennium Park is a previous host.
2020 edition: TBA; likely in mid-November
Tickets: TBA; 2019 tickets began at $100 ($325 with hotel stay.)
The New Orleans Jazz Museum’s inaugural Improvisations Gala was only in 2018, but the onsite benefit has won fans with its elegant VIP cocktail hour, performances by Grammy Award winners and local jazz legends, an extensive silent auction, illuminated gardens and open-bar libations to pair with French, Cajun and Creole cuisine. Proceeds support interactive exhibits that promote jazz as an innovative and “historically pivotal” musical art form, according the museum, which is planning an expansion. The gala also funds the museum’s ongoing educational and musical programs.
2020 edition: TBA; likely early December (Dec. 7 in 2019)
Tickets: TBA; 2019 tickets begin at $100.
The attire is strictly formal — long gowns for women, black tie for men, and masks for both — at the glamorous Mayor’s Masked Ball, a celebrity-attended fundraiser for the United Negro College Fund. In the last few years, UNCF has helped more than 800 students pay for their education at historically black colleges. The 2018 Atlanta gala raised a record-breaking $1.3 million, in part due to a $50,000 grant by Jermaine Dupri, an Atlanta-based songwriter and producer for Mariah Carey, Jay-Z and more; he’ll be honored at the 2019 gala on Dec. 21. The premier social event in Atlanta’s holiday season, it also includes a reception, silent and live auctions, dinner, dancing and a parade of dignitaries.
2020 edition: TBA, likely late December
Tickets: TBA: 2019 tickets begin at $750.
Jeanne Cooper, former San Francisco Chronicle Travel editor, writes frequently about the Wine Country for Marin Magazine and other publications. She is particularly fond of wines from the Alexander and Dry Creek valleys. She supports ongoing work of Ecumenical Hunger Project in East Palo Alto and the disaster response efforts of World Central Kitchen and San Francisco-Marin Food Bank.