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How to Survive a School Fundraiser Gala

It's the event of the year, and everyone at school is talking about who's going, who's not and where the best pre-parties and after parties are. No, it's not prom; it's the annual school fundraiser gala.

Once an event for ritzy private academies, this annual dinner and auction is now commonplace for many public schools, which need more than candy bar sales to supplement tax dollars. They can be as casual as a spaghetti feed or as formal as a black-tie ball. And for those of us who aren't part of the ladies who lunch set, the idea of going to a formal function—at which we're expected to not only shell out bucks for a pricey rubber chicken dinner, but then spend more money—is kind of terrifying.

RELATED: School Fundraisers That Broke the Mold

At least that's what I thought before I ever went to a school fundraiser. The first few years my kids were at elementary school, I avoided these functions like cult meetings. I didn't want to spend an evening sipping Chardonnay with parents who all seemed to know each other and all seemed to have more disposable income than my family did. Then, the year my older son hit third grade, I decided to get over my fears and give it a try, and guess what? It wasn't all that bad.

Here are some tips that helped me survive the school fundraiser gala:

1. Go with a group

Just like high school dances back in the day, the best way to avoid feeling awkward (and have more fun) is to go with a group of friends. And if your husband is reluctant to go, try to find another guy who doesn't know many people and introduce them ahead of time, or at least early in the evening. If your other half really doesn't want to go, consider going with a group of other moms. As a bonus, you'll only have to buy one ticket, leaving more money to donate to education!

Remember, the alcohol service is often generous to get you to be generous.

2. Find out what other people are wearing

Let's face it. One of the most nerve-racking things about a semi-formal event is not wanting to show up under-dressed or over-dressed. The point of asking what others are wearing is not to be competitive or judgmental, but to find out the lay of the land. Just like you wouldn't walk into a job interview without finding out how other people at the company dress, do a little research about this function. Then again, I once saw a couple wearing a matching ball gown and pirate shirt and seemed to enjoy themselves more than anyone else.

3. Work it

One secret for introverts attending parties is to offer to help the host. If the thought of mingling and making small talk brings back memories of not having anyone to sit with at the school cafeteria, volunteer to help. If you have a job, such as selling raffle tickets or even checking coats, you'll stay busy and meet people at the same time.

4. Give a little or a lot

Nobody likes to talk about money, even less so when you're bidding on big ticket items in public. Are you in the market to spend $3000 on a week at a Maui timeshare? Or are a handful of raffle tickets more your speed? Check with your spouse before the party and make sure you're on the same page. It's easy to get caught up in the heat of the moment, especially if there's a live auctioneer or if you've had a few drinks.

5. Speaking of drinks…

It's a school fundraiser, not a fraternity party. This seems obvious, but it's worth repeating: Your kids' teachers and principal will be there, as will the neighborhood gossipy mom. Remember, the alcohol service is often generous to get you to be generous. Sadly, I've also seen people hitting on other people's spouses, falling down drunk or brawling in the parking lot at these functions. Don't be that person.

RELATED: Surviving the School Drop-Off Zone

6. Have fun

Maybe it's just my paranoid nature, but I thought everybody would be watching how much we spent—or didn't spend—or if we showed up wearing the wrong clothes or not knowing anyone else. But guess what? Nobody's really paying attention. And while these fundraisers are often hyped up as the major revenue sources that will keep your school afloat despite declining budgets, remember that part of the reasons schools throw these galas instead of just asking for donations is that people like an excuse to dress up and go out on the town. In many ways, the school fundraiser gala is like prom for parents.

Image via Flickr, Ryan Hyde

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