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This Is Why It Is Always Gala Season in Dallas

The city’s charitable social calendar, and the millions of dollars it raises, is not for the faint of heart. Let us help you keep track of the soirees, luncheons, and balls and all the causes they benefit.
Scenes from the 2019 Nasher Prize Award Gala. Bret Redman

There are nonstop charity affairs across Dallas each year, weekly spring luncheons and fall fashion shows, countless summer soirees and wintry debutante balls. There’s the Dallas Museum of Art’s Art Ball, Côtes du Coeur, Fashion Group International of Dallas’ “Night of Stars” gala, and Zoo to Do. Some events stay fresh with unusual twists, like Mad Hatter’s ornate DIY hat competition and Cattle Baron’s Ball’s jeans and boots dress code. 

This alphabet soup of charitable society events can be dizzying. These parties aren’t just a “social who’s who,” though, Women’s Council president Sarah Jo Hardin says. It’s all done in the name of fundraising. Many social organizations or charities benefit from a fancy formal in a hotel or country club ballroom. 

“There’s so many great and worthy causes that you can support, basically, any day of the week,” says Isabell Novakov Higginbotham, Cattle Baron’s Ball co-chair. 

Adds Hardin, “I think Dallas people really care what they raise money for.”

And while members of these organizations will of course tout the generosity of their patrons, they aren’t wrong. Between ticket sales and auction items, many of Dallas’ luncheons and galas bring in thousands, if not millions, of dollars in a single evening. 

Crystal Charity Ball chairman Angie Kadesky, who has been involved in a number of Dallas charities, agrees. “In my experience, Dallas is a very, very generous city.”

Some use those funds to bankroll other organizations. Others dispense the money themselves. 

We reached out to five different organizations in town, all of which have well-known luncheons or galas that range from traditional black-tie balls to offbeat sprees. We asked the organizers of each about their charity’s mission and how their events fund those goals. It’s gala season, after all. In Dallas, it kind of always is.

Mad Hatter’s Tea

Many daytime Dallas luncheons are drab affairs compared to the spectacle of the Mad Hatter’s Tea. Instead of crowded, chilly hotel ballrooms, the annual Women’s Council fundraiser is in the sunshine at the Dallas Arboretum. Instead of muted business attire, the guests sport fantastical and oft-outrageous hats. Women have been known to build fountains atop their heads, decorate their noggins in film tape, and even release butterflies from their sun hats. 

In its 35th year, the annual tea party is the sole fundraiser for the arboretum’s A Woman’s Garden. The spot features a fountain, infinity pool, archways, statues, and views of White Rock Lake. The Women’s Council maintains the garden separately from the arboretum. “We’re not trying to cure cancer,” Women’s Council president Sarah Jo Hardin says. Instead, they “contribute to joy and beauty for the Dallas community.”

The Women’s Council has been around since 1982, and the Mad Hatter’s Tea came a few years later as an out-of-the-box way to raise money. Amateur milliners—ahem, guests—construct elaborate, sometimes gimmicky, caps and fascinators that match each year’s themes. Each theme also has multiple categories, like best use of botanicals and best group hat. 

“The hats have gotten increasingly more elaborate and decadent over the years,” Hardin says. For last year’s “Dallas” theme, one woman came as the State Fair, complete with the Ferris Wheel, Big Tex, and corndogs atop her head. 

Along with the hat contest and luncheon, Mad Hatter’s also includes a silent auction and fashion show (although Hardin says this year designer Michael Faircloth will give a talk instead of a style show). 

Along with the size of the hats, the event has grown over the years. Hardin says they’re planning to seat 700 guests for the “A Celebration of English Elegance” event this April. She attributes the popularity to the garden-like setting, the creativity of the hats, and the joyful competition. 

“I can write a check and go to some every-day luncheon with a style show or whatever,” she says. “But not every luncheon forces you or makes you come up with a special hat.” 

April 20. Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Garden, 8525 Garland Rd., Dallas. Learn more here.

Preservation Park Cities

Preservation Park Cities is an unusual Dallas nonprofit. It’s not so much about giving money to a cause, president Burton Rhodes says. “It’s really about, ‘hey, we want to help save our neighborhood and we want you guys to help us do that.’”

Part preservationist, part historical society, Preservation Park Cities has been fighting to preserve historic homes in University Park and Highland Park for more than 40 years. It’s difficult, Rhodes says, because Park Cities governments have no conservation protections for old homes. “It’s like going to a boxing match with both hands tied behind your back,” he says. 

So, the organization’s events are more about raising awareness of the issue, Rhodes says. In addition to a lecture series, Preservation Park Cities puts on a free vintage car show and home tour in the spring and a fall luncheon at the Dallas Country Club each year. 

Held in April, the car show typically loses money every year, Rhodes says. But it’s “a great event to get the community involved.” A large chunk of the organization’s money comes from the May home tour, which has been virtual-only since the pandemic. But, Rhodes says, that’s come with benefits. It allows them to get into “some of the best homes” because homeowners don’t have to worry about hundreds of people walking around inside. And, “it allows us to [get] video archives of these houses.” 

The fall luncheon is also a fundraising event. The organization brings in guest speakers who “typically have some sort of bent on preservation.” The goal here is to raise money to fund their events and causes—they also give out scholarships to Highland Park High School seniors and pay for the school’s historical chair. And, as always, to raise awareness. 

Car Show: April 29. Burleson Park, 3000 University Blvd., Dallas. Learn more here

Luncheon: October. Dallas Country Club, 4155 Mockingbird Ln., Dallas. Learn more here.

House of DIFFA

Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS (DIFFA) is known for its flashy fashions and ritzy party, but “at the end of the day, we’re a health organization,” says House of DIFFA co-chair Richard Rivas. 

DIFFA was founded in New York City during the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s. Sick of seeing their friends and colleagues suffer without any support, a group of creatives came together to raise money through art and fashion, Rivas says. 

The Dallas chapter formed in 1984. Since then, it’s raised $50 million for local AIDS service organizations. Local nonprofits apply for grants, and DIFFA does research, interviews, and site visits to “to understand their needs, how we can help the community, and how we can help them grow,” Rivas says. 

Each year, DIFFA helps 20 to 24 groups raise non-earmarked money—anything the government won’t cover, like transportation and counseling—for local AIDS patients and their loved ones. Helping raise money for these organizations—like Prism Health North Texas, which recently had to lay off 15 percent of its staff—is key. 

Dallas County last provided data in 2017, which found that there were 18,000 local residents living with H.I.V. Riva says DIFFA is worried about marginalized communities who may struggle to find resources to help navigate the system, be that to find treatment, testing, or transportation. Those fears are warranted. In 2019, there were more than 700 new HIV diagnoses in Dallas County, according to the state’s health department, almost 28 of which had progressed into AIDS due to a lack of medical intervention. 

DIFFA Dallas has several signature annual events, like its fall food and wine fest Burgers and Burgundy party and its November Wreath Collection auction. The biggest soiree, though, is its spring House of DIFFA gala. 

The seven-hour shindig includes a seated dinner, VIP cocktail hour, and live and silent auctions. “The main event,” Rivas says, is a huge fashion show. And the star of the fashion show are the jackets. Each year, local and international fashion designers—Andre Yabin, Marc Jacobs, Calvin Klein—design signature jackets that are auctioned off at the event. There are jean jackets, cashmere capes, beaded men’s tuxedos, and upcycled blazers. “We do feel like we have something for everyone in the auction,” Rivas says. 

The party typically draws around 1,400 guests dressed in “creative black-tie.” The guest list isn’t exclusive, Rivas says. Anyone who wants to come can. “We want new faces there.” 

May 13. Hilton Anatole, 2201 N. Stemmons Fwy. Dallas. Learn more here.

Cattle Baron’s Ball

Fifty years ago, a group of 10 women got together with the American Cancer Society. They wanted to plan a big fundraising event, but they didn’t want the uber-formal black-tie gala everyone was used to. 

“They wanted the blue jeans and boots,” Cattle Baron’s Ball co-chair Andrea Cheek says, “and the ranch in the middle of a field because they thought it was something different and that people would want to attend, specifically their husbands.” 

Cattle Baron’s Ball is more festival than fete, Cheek says. There are buffet tents, silent and live auctions, live concerts (Shania Twain will perform this year), a casino, a mechanical bull, and “sometimes a Ferris Wheel.” The venue varies year-to-year, sometimes Cattle Baron’s is thrown at a ranch, sometimes at Gilleys. For the 50th, the organizers wanted to return to the party’s country roots—this year the event will take over Southfork Ranch, where Dallas was filmed. 

No matter the setting, the party is always on the casual side—many wear jeans and boots—but you will see some embrace the neon cowgirl aesthetic in stilettos and sequins, “which we don’t recommend,” says Isabell Novakov Higginbotham, Cattle Baron’s other co-chair.

The goal of the eight-hour event—the VIP kicks off at 6 p.m. and dancing ends at 2 a.m.—is to raise money for cancer research and patient services. While the organization has several events, including a May golf tournament, the fall ball is the largest single-night fundraiser for the American Cancer Society, says Cheek. The ball has raised $93 million to date, Higginbotham says, and almost all the money stays in North Texas.

All that dough comes through the auctions, raffles, and table and ticket sales. You don’t have to be an organization member to attend, Higginbotham says. They want everyone to come. 

“Cancer probably has touched everyone in some way,” she says. “So, we really want this to be an event where everyone can participate, and everyone feels welcome.” 

Oct. 14. Southfork Ranch, 3700 Hogge Dr., Parker. Learn more here.

Crystal Charity Ball

Because “children” is not in its name, “sometimes people lose sight of what we do and why we’re doing it,” Crystal Charity Ball chairman Angie Kadesky says. 

One of Dallas’ more well-known galas, Crystal Charity Ball started in 1952 to raise money for local children’s charities. It has helped 150-plus local nonprofits, from schools to hospitals to social service agencies, Kadesky says, selecting a handful of agencies each year. 

Picking the organizations is “a very lengthy process,” she says. In September, the organizations apply for specific project grants, like building a playground. The nonprofits must benefit children in Dallas County, have operated here for at least three years, and be “financially sound” (Crystal Charity Ball checks the 990s). Additionally, a Crystal Charity Ball member must sit on the nonprofit’s board while they are spending the money. “It’s very important to us that our donors’ funds are spent the way our donors intended those funds to be spent,” Kadesky says.

After the initial set of apps “gets weeded down,” there are several more review rounds, site visits in January, and finally, three rounds of voting from Crystal Charity members. It had around 30 applications this past year, Kadesky says, which were whittled down to seven.  

Once the charities are selected, fundraising is “an all-out effort until they reach their goal, Kadesky says. In 2023, Crystal Charity Ball plans to raise $6 million. The organization will host events, like its “Ten Best Dressed Women of Dallas” fall luncheon, as well as solicit underwriters, individuals, foundations, and corporations for donations. 

Taking place in December, the actual ball is meant to thank the donors and people who “have very generously agreed to support these agencies.” It’s a large affair, she says. Over 1,600 people partied at last year’s event. 

And early in the following year, Crystal Charity Ball gives out the money in a check presentation, and then the three-year cycle begins again.

Dec. 9. Hilton Anatole, 2201 N. Stemmons Fwy., Dallas. Learn more here.

There are endless charitable parties in Dallas. Here are a few more. 




Catherine Wendlandt

Catherine Wendlandt

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Catherine Wendlandt is the online associate editor for D Magazine’s Living and Home and Garden blogs, where she covers all…