Hollywood Vets on How to Throw a Better Fundraiser: Entertainers "Should Be the Only Ones Who Speak"

Illustration By Rafa Alvarez

As part of THR's annual Philanthropy Issue, Sharon Stone and other insiders reimagine the all-too-tried and not-so-true charity dinner: "Nobody ever complains when these things are too short."

For 21 Years, the Fulfillment Fund — which helps Los Angeles high school students get to college — has hosted its Stars Benefit Gala in a Hollywood-approved hotel ballroom like the one at The Beverly Hilton, where some of the biggest names in the business, from Rupert Murdoch to Bob Iger, have taken the stage.

But this year's Nov. 2 gala — where Universal Filmed Entertainment Group chairman Jeff Shell will receive the event's top honor, the Tom Sherak Award — will diverge from the time-honored norm thanks to a transformative wave of Harry Potter's magic wand: The Fulfillment Fund and Shell's home team, Universal, have partnered for a program inside the Globe Theatre, followed by a buffet dinner executed from the recently opened Wizarding World of Harry Potter, all at Universal Studios. "Pardon the pun, but we want the experience of supporting the Fulfillment Fund to be fulfilling," says Kenny Rogers, the organization's CEO. "When we heard that this could be a possibility — the first nonprofit to have an event at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter — the excitement around the idea was palpable. By all accounts fundraising seems to be going very well this year."

A win-win for Universal and the Fulfillment Fund, the refreshed Stars event also shines a spotlight on the town's fatigue with the charity-dinner format as Hollywood insiders practically are begging for a break from the three- to five-hour event structure. "It's always the same thing," says actor Jason Priestley of the usual "rubber-chicken dinner" that includes a cocktail hour, a silent auction, a marathon of speeches, a live auction, entertainment, dessert and an afterparty, all in familiar ballrooms. Notes Race to Erase MS founder Nancy Davis, "People do let format override function."

But ask nearly any professional in the entertainment industry — THR polled about two dozen — and you'll find no shortage of ideas, from the feasible to the fanciful, for spicing up the circuit. Josh Wood, founder of Josh Wood Productions, which produces many of amfAR's galas, imagines a magic boat to transport guests to a secret beach where they find a picnic, wine and a DJ for a sandy dance party. Actor Jake McDorman proposes "a food fight for charity," and Downton Abbey star Allen Leech offers a milder variation: "Cabaret — I always say go cabaret if you can."

On a more practical level, notes Barry Adelman, executive vp television at Dick Clark Productions, "Nobody ever complains when these things are too short." The Carousel of Hope chairman Barbara Davis agrees it's key to get people home in time for the 11 p.m. local news — and to book Sharon Stone as your live auctioneer. "She is a terrific personality: She's beautiful, engaging, and people like her," says the doyenne.

Approached by THR, Stone, who has raised millions on behalf of amfAR and other organizations through the years, seemed flattered by the kudos and was inspired to share her hard-nosed, heart-softening plan to beat the charity-dinner doldrums — and, more importantly, pry open checkbooks — when Hogwarts isn't available:

1. Pour it on "You have to have music — significant music. If you have an orchestra, you make more money. You can't have a dead room. And you have to have booze."

2. Stars only onstage "Entertainers should entertain, and organizers should organize. People who are entertaining should be the only ones who speak — no presidents of any of these organizations should ever be allowed to take the microphone because that's not what they do. They are terrible at it, and everyone just endures it. Have celebrities auctioning things, or comedians. Not a straight auctioneer with a gavel — you'll want to kill yourself."

3. Play for laughs "It has to be funny. I learned this because AIDS isn't funny, but we made the amfAR events funny. The event doesn't have to be sad or disheartening because the thing you're talking about is sad and disheartening. If you are talking about child abuse, you don't need to bring in the molested kid to testify — nobody wants to go through that. An adult needs to speak thoughtfully. You don't need to bring people through disheartening, anguished experiences while they have dinner — everybody knows that there is disease and rape and trauma and crisis. You will raise more money not making people endure more heartache, more anguish, more trauma. Yes, tell people why they are there, and thank them for changing the course of those terrible events, but don't make them sit through them. Their heart is already moved, or they wouldn't be there."

Fun is the three-letter word used most often by those interviewed by THR. Here's a sampling of how they would have a good time while building a better charity benefit: 

Actress Betsy Brandt: "I had a teacher who told me that if you hang a sandwich out of the window, people will come. I think if you throw a good party, good people gravitate toward other good people."

Actor Jason Priestley: "So many of us are foodies now and are interested in tasting new things, so doing a food-centric event is a good way to get more people involved in spending their money."

Actor Steve Howey: "Having a fundraiser at a brand-new restaurant that has never been opened before so you can try the menu and see what they have to offer. Also make it interactive or creative — like a carnival or a circus."

Veteran philanthropist, Carousel of Hope chairman Barbara Davis: "When you get to your table, there must be water and bread and a lovely salad waiting for you at the table and you must start immediately. You don't want it to be an agonizing, long event. People have to enjoy themselves and relax. People come for people, but they don't want long speeches. The doctors don't speak. Keep it moving and keep it short. They didn't come for the weekend — they came for a fun time. And give them a fun gift. Everybody likes a present so you've got to put fun things in the gift bag."

Event Eleven's Tony Schubert, who produces events for Audi, Entertainment Weekly and People magazine's post-SAG Awards party, suggests looking outside of the typical ballroom venue: "People who clock their events in a hotel of their choice in town don't realize that there are amazing raw venues out there that are very different and very unique," he says. "The negotiation process can go better when you have full control over it, and that's what raw venues offer over a hotel — some of which don't offer their own sound or lighting or staging options. So it can help the budget and give charity events a really fresh look. There are a lot of diamonds in the rough in this city."

Barry Adelman, executive vp television at Dick Clark Prods., says that anyone producing a charity event should take the same approach as if it were a live event, like one of the events he works on including the Golden Globes or the American Music Awards: "Don't do anything you wouldn't do at a major TV event — that goes for booking, length and script. Use the same talent bar that you've set for yourself, and if you can apply that to these evenings, they can't help but be successful." And one more thing: "Nobody ever complains when these things are too short," he laughs.

Celebrity DJ Michelle Pesce imagines a basement house party to benefit her passion — saving elephants: "It doesn't have to be stuffy and it doesn't have to be boring," she details. "I really want to do a basement hip-hop party. There would be educational spaces, or activations, where you could learn more about elephants, but it would be informal. People want to learn and support but they also want to have fun and the music injects energy into any event. And make sure to keep the bar by the DJ booth."

Josh Wood, events producer and founder of Josh Wood Prods.: "All guests who purchase a ticket get an invitation to show up at a secret location. A magic bus or boat takes all guests to a secret beach — and this can work on either coast. The magic bus/boat of course has flowing champagne and trays of amazing food. Guests arrive to the secret beach with a huge long picnic set up for 200 people on one long blanket setting with rich fabrics. The most amazing local food is laid out like a crazy gourmet spread — meat, vegetables, wine, candles, pasta, delicious food everywhere — and guests have to take off their shoes, sit in the sand and drink wine and relax while a fantastic jazz band plays while the sun sets. After dinner, a DJ emerges from the sea and guests dance on beach until dawn. No speeches. No auction. Guests are forced to relax and speak to each other. All guests are given donation cards on the magic bus or boat ride home and all make their own donations. That’s if I could do anything!"

Maria Menounos: "The Best Buddies Tom Brady Football Challenge in Boston is the most fun weekend you will ever be a part of. Why? No need to get dressed up. It's casual attire and you're catching footballs from Tom Brady, taking a bike race down in Cape Cod, and having a clam bake. They've made it into a fun weekend where it's all about the charity and fun and not about what you have to wear in a stuffy environment. They really did it right. If anybody wanted to model their charitable event after anything it would be that."

A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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