Keeping the charity ball rolling is becoming harder.

Staying at home looks better and better these days of wars and rumors of wars, recessions and threats of depressions, prices going up and profits going down.

The March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation, National Capital Area Chapter, has tried most ways to raise money -- WalkAmerica, the Mothers March, the Gourmet Gala, Jail and Bail (that's another story!) and more, says Leanne Hamrick, its director of communications. (The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Birthday Ball, later the President's Ball, a glamorous event in the Chronicler's childhood, is no longer.)

Given the multiplicity of its efforts to raise money to promote the health of babies, and given the general surfeit of charity balls, it seems logical that the March should wonder how much it could make if it charged people for not partying. Cynthia Scott, community services director, had heard of a similar nonevent in Kentucky and suggested the idea to Joyce Depaff, the March's development director.

So out went a card requesting "the pleasure of your absence at the Inaugural Phantom Holiday Ball, December 32, at the time of your choice."

The card described "our Phantom Holiday Ball" as "a full dress affair with no one there."

The inevitable reply card offered these options -- all to "fund community and medical service programs, medical research, public and professional education programs and advocacy efforts in the 'Campaign for Healthier Babies.' ":

$25 to be entertained by my VCR in my living room instead of dancing on a 2-by-2 dance floor.

$50 to order pizza or Chinese takeout in lieu of being served a 2-year-old's portion of a well-done "mystery entree."

$100 for my silent rendition of Happy "Holidays."

Other (I hereby send a check of my own determination to stay home and do my own thing ... or attend someone else's party.)

The March mailed out 7,000 cards, sat back and waited for the money to roll in. The goal was $4,000, though obviously the March didn't plan to mail back any contributions over that number, since the number of places for the non-guests was unlimited.

As is well known, the Chronicler loves the idea of sending money instead of one's worn-out feet. And she would be delighted to report that many sent checks for the privilege of putting their feet up and breathing sighs of relief that instead of a black-tie evening they had an untied evening.

Sad to say, unsociable but generous-hearted citizens are apparently not numerous this year. Only $2,000 has been sent in so far. Obviously that's $2,000 more than the March would've had if it hadn't sent out the card (minus only the bulk mail postage of 8 cents for each letter -- the printing was donated). Hamrick, however, says money is still coming in from people who don't do their Christmas giving early.

Perhaps the low return reflects the fact that unbeknown to the March staff -- at least that is what they say -- there's been an annual phantom dinner held in Washington since 1938!

The House of Mercy has been inviting people not to come since then, said Martha Grigg, chairman of its phantom dinner. In a interesting brochure, Grigg wrote that often the invitation included a menu -- Soup: Cream of Kindness; Bread of Mercy: Intelligent Giving; Mixed Salad: Hope mixed with Renewed Ambition; and Fruit: Success of Untiring Efforts.

The House of Mercy was a haven for unwed mothers from 1882 until the 1970s when, as Grigg delicately puts it, "the stigma surrounding unwed motherhood had abated considerably and the need for maternity homes decreased."

In 1972, said Gordon Wilson, president of the House of Mercy board, "we leased -- free -- the building in Adams-Morgan to the Rosemount Day Care Center. We don't run the center, we just give them the house and the money we raise from the annual phantom dinner.

Every year, the dinner, offering only food for the soul, raises about $15,000 to $20,000. "Our expenses are only for the stamps, paper and printing, $2,608," said Grigg.

This year, however, however, the committee couldn't resist having a real Phantom fund-raiser on May 31: a night at "The Phantom of the Opera," Andrew Lloyd Webber's extravaganza at the Kennedy Center Opera House. However, the $60 per person seated dinner in the Kennedy Center atrium will be optional for those who buy the $75 to $150 benefit tickets to the musical. Not until later this month will the House of Mercy decide whether to have a phantom dinner as well as the real one.

Anyway, the Spirit of Charity always welcomes philanthropists to just send money.