Thank you for the perfect summary of everything that is wrong with charity galas and nonprofit fundraising. This article should be required reading for all charity board members and those studying for a certficate in nonprofit management.
By Albert Samaha
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Charity begins at home, and having been to a few hundred fundraiser events around town, I sometimes wonder if it should stay there. Charity bashes drip with good intentions, which is a surefire way to pave the road to a gigantic, tax-deductible yawn. A sit-down leukemia dinner at the Waldorf, for example, tends to be a must-avoid for the uninitiated because it will be filled with self-congratulations, thank-yous, and dull speeches filled with shocking revelations like "Leukemia is bad, and we must fight it." Just send a check instead.
Everyone is so well behaved at these things because it's a charity event, after all, so they're wearing their best breast-cancer gown or finest lymphoma suit and oozing soul-crushing amounts of caring and politeness. You want to slap them, especially because they have no militancy about how things can really be changed—they just dress up, wear a ribbon, and buy a table, and are convinced that that's the cure.
Mixed in with these goody-goodies are the hard-sell showbizzy types who filter in, anxious to get publicity out of a situation that's so deadly earnest it cries out for some glitz and actually welcomes them, hoping they'll help sell tickets and garner some after-press. These relentless B listers swarm the red carpet—which is backed by a giant curtain dotted with sponsor logos aiming to get noticed—and offer unusable soundbites about the need to stomp out cleft palates in Iran in between promoting their latest Internet miniseries about South Florida hookers who moonlight as undercover neurosurgeons. It makes for such a confusing mixture of good intentions and performance art that you don't know whether to applaud or spew. At least at a movie premiere, you're aware that it's strictly about whoring, with no other agendas clouding the evening's mission. But here, you're never quite sure what people are selling or buying, and that's what makes things even more uncomfortable than some of the illnesses you're there to fight.
And even the showbiz people are afraid to have fun at these events. It would be bad press, so they act all broom up the ass, radiating a Mother Teresa–like concern as their breasts flop around while the eyes stay camera focused. Besides, there is no fun to be had. First there's a silent auction where you bid on dozens of baskets filled with old Sex and the City DVDs and a one-way trip to Virginia Beach. Then you're treated to a celeb lecturing you on how your salad didn't harm the rain forest, followed by a down-on-his-luck singer collecting a paycheck for reprising his whimsical 1992 easy-listening hit about alien-mating rituals. And then there's more preaching, speechifying, and testimonials, all designed to sell you on the charity, even though I already paid! Well, other people already paid!
At least charity events tend to bring out some amusing contradictions: rich people who regularly starve themselves sitting around commiserating about world hunger. Gays who bareback all day gathering to tirelessly fight AIDS. Once-promising actors who sold out for a reality show rallying to support the arts. The contradictions are so hilarious, they probably should have titled the event, "Oxymoron, the Musical."
The resulting fundraisers are like one-night Kickstarter campaigns with dinner, but you're trapped there all night, mwahing everyone for miles until you need your own benefit for facial paralysis.
And where does the money go? To stage such a gala, they have to spend a fortune on room rental, entertainment, food, promotion, and often their own expense account enhancement. You wonder if they ended up making even a dime for the needy. When someone official-looking gets up and announces, "Tonight's benefit has raised $25,000," everyone cheers while I silently wonder if that's net or (very) gross. Fortunately, the gift bag—skin cream, a T-shirt, a self-produced CD, and a $25-off coupon if you spend $45,000 or more at a jewelry store—was totally donated.
Yes, I am being sardonic and a bit hyperbolic here. I know that many charity events do some good in addressing societal problems, just as they set out to do. I've been to some fine events for homeless LGBT youth, for young artists, and for all sorts of causes that cry out for our support. And I know that there are a lot of people who work their tits off on charity galas because they really care.
But the self-importance and misguided energy can kill the party for me. As my good friend Joan Rivers wrote in her latest book, I Hate Everyone . . . Starting With Me: "I am so bored going to a 25-million dollar house to hear a mogul say, 'Good news, everyone. Tonight we've raised almost $12,000.' You paid your gay hustler more than that, you cheap thing. Why not spare all of us the canapés, small talk, and crème brulee, and just write a damn check?"
Feel free to buy a table, mind you, if you can afford it. It'll be a good write-off, and you might go to sleep easier about having given back to the world that has crushed so many unfortunate people. But it might be more advisable to go out in the streets and protest the corporate corruption that can get in the way of charitable intentions. That could really make a difference, and it's totally free. Ah, what the hell. I'm getting my genital herpes outfit together as we speak, and it's a wow.