Philanthropy Issue: Sony Classics' Tom Bernard on the Burdens of Being a Benefit Honoree

Illustration by: Kirsten Ulve

Sure it's nice to be named a philanthropist of the year, but the whole rigmarole can be an exec's "worst nightmare."

This story first appeared in the Aug. 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

The not-so-secret key to fundraising in Hollywood is: Skip the celebrity honorees and go for the studio and network chiefs with whom everyone else wants to do business. "Celebs can bring you awareness," says one event planner in town. "But they can't bring the heavy-lifting resources. You might want George Clooney to present, but the fundraising comes first." After all, tables at charity events run from $5,000 to at least $25,000 -- not counting congratulatory ads for the honoree.

The initial glow of being selected as an honoree doesn't last long. "I get asked a lot, and it's my worst nightmare," says Sony Pictures Classics co-president Tom Bernard. "I say no all the time. But if I have to do one, I'll say, 'Let's honor the people we're helping.' Once it was the film industry in New Jersey. Then it's an event that's not about someone but about something."

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Industry names -- along with their staffs -- are expected to go straight into all-out fundraising mode. "One reason studio execs are popular is they bring additional resources, and they are definitely expected to open their Rolodexes," says event planner Allison Jackson. "They can assist with bringing in talent; their PR department can help, and sometimes they can even provide a location for the event." Adds Judy Levy of event and charity planning firm Levy Pazanti: "A lot depends on who is asking someone to whip out their checkbook. There are not a lot of nos to Jeffrey Katzenberg."

Some of the most in-demand candidates as honorees -- such execs as Amy Pascal, Stacey Snider and Dana Walden, who are genuine philanthropists -- can get as many as a dozen requests a month. But one insider insists most are unlikely to indulge in an obvious ego-fest: "They know it looks bad to do more than two a year. If they do one in September, they can't do the other one till spring. And if isn't relevant at all, it can look pretty silly."

About 50 percent of people in a particular ballroom might be staunch supporters of the charity, and 50 percent will, as one insider cynic says, "be there to suck up. It's all about business. It might be the only moment you have to engage with them."

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According to Chip Sullivan, head of corporate communications at DreamWorks, when an honoree has multiple events in a year, it's all about inviting the right contacts to the right night -- parents with school-age kids to galas for education, those whose families have had diseases for things such as ALS and women's cancer charity events. "If someone gets two honors in one year, that's how you deal with it," says Sullivan. "But I would avoid double-dipping as much as you can." And, of course, for every dinner where an exec is honored, they probably need to attend (i.e. buy a table) at least three or four a year to maintain goodwill.

It's easy to be cynical about it all -- a lot of it's about the price of doing business in Hollywood. "But in the end," says one source, "it's not cynical if lots of people in need are benefiting from it."