Make no mistake: Money talks. Oh, the second-annual School Night was glitzy, what with a laser show and Grammy-winning performer John Mellencamp onstage at MCI Center last night. And it was warm and fuzzy, with short but heartfelt speeches about helping kids. But it was really about the power of big, big bucks.

We are talking about serious money: The evening raised $3 million, mostly from Northern Virginia's finance and high-tech firms. No politicians, no lobbyists, no soft money arm-twisting. Just a loud and clear message to Washington about the increasing savvy and muscle of businessmen who made huge fortunes and are ready to play in fund-raising's biggest leagues.

"I think it's a fallacy that the high-tech industry is not interested in philanthropic activities," said investment banker Russ Ramsey, who personally gave $100,000 for the event.

"Most of the new business and new fortunes are being made in the suburbs," said fund-raising veteran Fred Malek. "That means if you want to raise money, you have to reach out and involve a broader range of people. It's a new ballgame in town, and it's a better ballgame."

The numbers are stunning: Dinner chairman Al Lord, CEO of Sallie Mae, raised $1 million himself. A group of rich young Turks was recruited to raise or contribute $100,000 each: America Online founder Jim Kimsey, AOL head Steve Case, real estate investor Joe Robert, Arthur Andersen head John Schwieters, investment bankers Emanuel Friedman and Eric Billings, MCI WorldCom's Jeffrey Grossman, Micro Strategy CEO Michael Saylor, Carlyle Group managing director Bill Conway, Teligent's Alex Mandl, Danaher Corp. chair Mitch Rales and Sapient Corp. vice president Paul DiGammaro, to name just a few.

Lord tapped into the fiercely competitive streak of these young entrepreneurs and the money rolled in. "We ask for more," he said. "There's an element of macho involved. If you say, 'Your friends are doing 50, 100,' they say okay." (That's $50,000 or $100,000, by the way.)

It helps, of course, that the money goes to kids. School Night is the latest brainchild of Joe Robert, the head of Fight for Children, the charitable umbrella that distributes scholarships to Washington area organizations. Robert hosts both Fight Night and School Night, two events that reflect the changing image and influence of big-money businesses outside Washington's traditional political lobbying circuit.

Robert's Fight Night, now in its 10th year, is a raucous male-only event where boxers and ring girls dominate the action. School Night is much more sophisticated, both in presentation and fund-raising. Last year's debut was hosted by comedian Sinbad, featured performances by James Brown and Jim Belushi, and raised an impressive $2.2 million. The trick this year was to top it.

"When people walk out of here tonight, we want them to come back next year for two reasons: because it's a hot ticket, and because it's a great cause," Robert said last night. "It's not just a matter of having a one-time fun affair. This is a $20 million commitment to keep these kids in school. We're committed to having this for the next 15 years."

Ten organizations will benefit from last night's gala: the AppleTree Institute for Education Innovation, the Archdiocese of Washington Tuition Assistance Program, the Black Student Fund, the Capital Partners for Education, the "I Have a Dream" Foundation, the Latino Student Fund, Pathways to Success Boarding School, the Paul Berry Academic Scholarship Foundation, the Shepard Foundation and the Washington Scholarship Fund.

The party itself was the icing on this very rich cake. The Archbishop Carroll High School Gospel Choir gave a short, lively performance before dinner. Financier Peter Lynch, vice president of Fidelity Management & Research Co., received the organization's Academic Leadership Award and was clever enough to give a very short, charming acceptance speech.

Dinner was served on the MCI floor, which was transformed into an elegant concert stage for the night. There were cute little book-shaped cakes for dessert, and coffee was served in mini thermoses--just the thing to tuck in your lunchbox.

Mellencamp gave a long, loud, bouncy performance, followed by the Mavericks, a Grammy-winning country-western band. Everyone was encouraged to rock-and-roll.

"This is a party," Robert told the audience. "If we catch anyone not dancing, there will be repercussions."

Repercussions? Oh, we know . . . non-dancers will have to pay $200,000 next year.

CAPTION: The Rev. John Enzler with Fight for Children's Joe Robert and his wife, Jill.