Death of the Rubber Chicken Dinner: How Hollywood Is Reinventing Charity Galas

Illustrations by Lars Leetaru

Who needs a boring event to deliver dollars? "There are a lot of better ways," says Mark Cuban as A-list planners now look to smaller, targeted gatherings and digital influencers to drive charitable giving.

The traditional fundraiser has long involved industry or celebrity attendees, gang-pressed into duty by a studio or agent, with a schlep to the Beverly Hilton or Beverly Wilshire to consume a chicken dinner and shell out the expected donation.

Surely, there must be a better way to raise money for charity.

"There are a lot of better ways," billionaire philanthropist and Shark Tank star Mark Cuban tells THR. "We spend so much time and money on the show and glitz of it, as opposed to the actual results. But you have to do those glitzy dinners, because it's so competitive and you want to get all of the donors to come to you."

Change may be in the wind. "You still have to get people in the room to raise the money, but the way that they express themselves is evolving," says Maggie Neilson, CEO of Global Philanthropy Group, who points out that routine features like favor-haggling silent auctions are falling out of favor. "What we've seen in recent years is that it's a lot more customized to the organization and audience," adds Neilson, whose company provides guidance and oversight to Hollywood charities and stars. Instead of appearances by A-listers "who don't have a connection to the cause [and] just walk the red carpet," she says, charities "are seeing bigger outcomes from 'lower-tier' influencers who have an authentic connection to the issue, and who have a following when it comes to attendance and dollars raised."

Lately, with high operational costs, many charities aren't reaping huge financial benefits from the basic charity gala. Notes Neilson, "I've heard countless stories of charities saying, 'Wow, we didn't make any money.' " Adds Marc Pollick, founder of philanthropic adviser The Giving Back Fund, "Your net is not going to be as high as you want it to be unless you have a really strong honoree or really powerful committee."

Some organizations embrace a controversial solution to draw crowds: "There are charities who will pay celebrities to attend, and I am vehemently opposed to that," says Pollick. "To charge a charity $75,000 to $150,000 to show up when the public doesn't realize it reflects poorly on the celebrity. The charity is literally taking that money right off the top."

Nevertheless, Richard Ayoub, executive director of Project Angel Food, the 30-year-old nonprofit that prepares and delivers hot meals to sick and homebound individuals, says that the L.A.-based charity's annual star-studded Angel Awards, which will honor Jamie Lee Curtis in September, remains an effective fundraiser. "It continues to bring in $650,000," says Ayoub, who notes that its unique draw is the fact that the intimate, 480-seat event takes place on the organization's glammed-up parking lot, so guests can view the volunteer kitchen, as well as stars who are liberally sprinkled throughout the seating. "It happens actually where the mission takes place," he says. "The food is cooked in the same kitchen where we cook our food for 1,400 people every day, so it's hard not to feel that energy." Luring influencers with highly targeted followers is the priority, however, because "we also need to bring in the new generation of donors," says Ayoub.

That demographic is boosting online philanthropic outlets like Charitybuzz, which bypasses the gala dinner and goes straight to star-supported auction items like backstage concert access, Hollywood premieres and walk-on appearances in film and TV projects. "Digital platforms provide a virtual stadium of people from around the world to bid on your item, allowing you to reach lots of people who aren't in the room," says Charitybuzz owner and Cuban's longtime business partner Todd Wagner, who adds, "The beauty in the digital space is that even those celebrities who aren't the biggest needle movers have a niche and an audience that loves them. We can reach their fan base internationally, and you cannot replicate that in a venue."

None of the celebrities "want to be at a gala any more than most of the audience wants to be there — people are burned out," explains Wagner. "The celebrity does a couple of posts on social media channels and all of a sudden they don't have to ask their friends for a favor," he says. "It's a much lighter load for them."

For instance, Lin-Manuel Miranda, who has a relationship with Charitybuzz sibling Prizeo, also owned by Wagner, "raised $2 million for the Hispanic Federation," with access to VIP Hamilton tickets, he says. "The time spent [was] not even remotely what he would've spent on a gala. He's done it seven, eight times since, and we've raised $15 million for Lin and charities like Planned Parenthood that he cares about."

Despite new innovations, insiders agree that gala dinners aren't expected to vanish completely, especially since they create a social circuit for the monied class. "They're not going away," asserts Wagner, who underlines the notion that events will shift toward more intimate experiences for more targeted, high-dollar donors. "There's a new millennial generation that is not as interested in sitting down for four hours, so there's got to be something new engaging them," he adds. "But when you want to get the bigger money, the dinner is still the way to do it. The gala should be a part of a strategy, not the total strategy." Neilson agrees the glitzy fetes aren't fading: "I have been doing this for 20 years," she adds. "I've heard everyone say, 'I'll pay to not go.' And then they go anyway."

This story first appeared in the July 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.