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Fifty years ago, a group of high-profile, civic-minded Seattleites raided their wine cellars and art collections and staged an auction to bail out the Seattle Symphony.

It was not long after the 1962 World’s Fair, and a production of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera “Aida” had landed the symphony $35,000 in the hole.

The concept of gala charity actions was unheard of back then. The money the group raised not only put the symphony in the black, it helped seed establishment of the Seattle Opera.

The concept of fundraising through charity auctions endured, emulated by nonprofits across the country, and Poncho, the arts benefactor the effort spawned, would go on to fund Seattle’s arts scene for the next 50 years.

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This week, Poncho, formally known as Patrons of Northwest Civic, Cultural and Charitable Organizations, announced it would cease operations on April 30 and establish a legacy fund at the The Seattle Foundation.

The move represents the end of an era. Poncho said it would allow it to eliminate infrastructure and staffing costs in an evolving philanthropic environment, while continuing to fund the arts community.

In its five decades, the group awarded more than $35 million to 218 established and emerging arts organizations — from core cultural groups such as the Seattle Art Museum and Cornish College of the Arts to lesser-known efforts like Seniors Making Art.

“Poncho is a community treasure, and we believe that through this new fund it will live on and continue to be a great supporter of the arts,” said Steve Kutz, Poncho’s board president.

An advisory board will partner with The Seattle Foundation to direct where the funds go, he said.

Costly galas of the past

Poncho’s transition reflects a debate that has been raging in the world of nonprofits for some time, about whether fancy fundraisers and galas are an effective way of meeting funding goals.

For 45 years, Poncho’s glittery annual charity galas were the talk of the town — where the well-heeled went to see and be seen. “Everybody wanted to go,” Kutz said.

Tickets for the elaborate, often sold-out, affairs cost hundreds of dollars. Black ties and evening gowns were de rigueur, and a glass of Champagne could cost more than a meal at a fine restaurant.

Over the years, Poncho added two other, separate fundraising events — a wine auction and an arts auction. It later dropped the arts fundraiser, and five years ago discontinued the bigger gala, too, retaining only the wine auction.

That change was part of a 2008 overhaul that saw the resignation of Poncho’s then-executive director, Gordon Hamilton, who was criticized for relying too heavily on donor events to raise money.

Seed funds from wine

Kutz said details of the transition are being ironed out. It’s unclear how much money will be available to seed the new Seattle Foundation fund once Poncho pays off current obligations. Much of the money, he said, will likely come from liquidating a vast wine collection.

“It will be a significant part of the seed money,” he said.

In a statement, Norman Rice, president and CEO of The Seattle Foundation, said, “We hope the work that Poncho started 50 years ago will continue to build and thrive at The Seattle Foundation.”

Kelly Tweeddale, executive director of Seattle Opera, said Poncho has been a sustaining funder of the opera throughout its history, giving more than $3.4 million over time.

“We will miss Poncho’s leadership … but are incredibly grateful that a fund that carries on the Poncho legacy will be directed and managed through The Seattle Foundation,” Tweeddale said.

Poncho has supported not only productions but also capital projects, including the construction of McCaw Hall, home of Seattle Opera and Pacific Northwest Ballet.

Itsname fronts some prominent venues in the region, including Poncho Theatre at the Woodland Park Zoo and the Poncho ticket office at McCaw Hall.

For its 50 years, Kutz said, Poncho’s mission was to create and sustain a great arts community while raising money to help pay for it.

But people’s giving has evolved, he said. Individuals and businesses want to feel they are giving directly to an arts institution.

“The model of raising money through an event, particularly a charity auction, is not efficient,” Kutz said. “It is too competitive, and frankly too expensive. We’ve been seeing the trend over the last few years.”

Material from The Seattle Times archives was included

in this report.

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or

On Twitter @turnbullL.

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