School Night, the six-year-old annual gala started by developer Joseph E. Robert Jr. that has raised more than $20 million mostly for school and college scholarships, has been canceled, the event's organizers said yesterday, citing declining attendance and the current focus of key sponsors on fundraising related to Hurricane Katrina.
Organizers say they still plan to use the School Night name in future efforts, but hope to reach beyond the once-a-year-gala approach to charitable fundraising, said Kaleem Caire, executive director of Fight for Children, the organization Robert founded in 1990 to support children's issues in the District.
The event had become one of the Washington business community's premier fundraising events -- and a prime networking opportunity as well, with hundreds gathered at a black-tie event that featured entertainment by the likes of Stevie Wonder.
But attendance at School Night had been slipping for the past three years, and prospects dimmed for this year's event when previous backers such as the J.W. and Alice S. Marriott Foundation decided not to participate -- in Marriott's case in order to target resources on hurricane recovery efforts in the Gulf Coast, according to a foundation spokesman.
Organizers had set this year's event for Oct. 7, planned to give it a 1920s atmosphere, and scheduled rapper-cum-crooner Queen Latifah and swing music revival act Big Bad Voodoo Daddy as headliners.
Yesterday, Robert and Caire sent a letter to sponsors informing them the event would not happen.
"We have received word from several of our sponsors that they are redirecting their efforts this year in response to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, and its impact on their employees and organization structure," the letter read.
Despite the cancellation of the event, Fight for Children asked sponsors to continue to donate to support scholarships that help D.C. children attend private schools and college.
Robert was in Iraq yesterday on a philanthropic mission and was not available to comment.
Caire said Fight for Children will continue to host Fight Night, another education benefit that Robert began about 15 years ago that gathered business leaders for a steak dinner and a night of boxing.
But Caire said that the group wants to move away from once-a-year galas, cut its costs, and raise money year-round not only for scholarships but also to support charter schools and, in the future, selected D.C. public schools.
"We want to see the number of good schools in D.C. increase and we want to align businesses with schools to drive as many financial and non-financial resources to these schools as possible," Caire said.
Fight for Children is in the process of identifying which schools it will support and hopes to present its revised plan to donors in the next 45 days. The organization does not accept applications from schools or groups and will wait for direction from Superintendent Clifford B. Janey before raising money for D.C. public schools, Caire said.
The cancellation of School Night this year "forced us to enact some new strategies sooner than later," Caire said.
In its heyday, School Night drew more than 1,000 guests and raised an average of more than $3 million annually. Roughly two-thirds of the money funded scholarships and supported innovative programs such as a health clinic at Brightwood Elementary School in Northwest Washington, and the rest went to pay for the event.
But after wowing guests with acts that included Patti LaBelle and John Mellencamp, Caire admitted that the event had lost some of its buzz. Guests have told them as much in post-event evaluations. For years it was "known for something different," but lately, guests told organizers, School Night increasingly had become just another "chicken dinner," Caire said.
He said by contrast that a June 5, 2005, event the group organized to raise money for the National Children's Museum featuring American Idol winner Kelly Clarkson drew a standing-room-only crowd.
Fight for Children considered canceling School Night on one other occasion: after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But the group chose not to and raised $3.5 million.
Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, left, Rep. James Moran, AOL co-founder James Kimsey and School Night founder Joseph Robert gather at the gala in 2001, when sponsors had considered canceling but did not.