Beggars' banquet

Dallas' matrons of charity find that ostentation is out and value is in when it comes to raising money

On a recent Friday evening, the third-floor foyer and ballroom of the Galleria Westin Hotel was crawling with well-fed Dallas matrons. Clad in jeans and T-shirts, the 50 or so women were keenly focused on their task: transforming the standard-issue upscale-hotel-chain version of splendor (ostentatious chandeliers, ruby carpets) into a circus midway. In four hours, the unpaid army had pitched five brightly colored tents, hoisted half a dozen gargantuan animal-form topiaries, and stuffed hundreds of balloons between the glass railings along the escalator.

"There's more food," one woman called across the room to her mates as she eyed a table spread with deli fixings to sustain the crew.

"Too bad we didn't get some chocolate," Allister Webster muttered under her breath.

Webster, the executive director of the Yellow Rose Foundation, had assembled the all-female, all-volunteer work force. She wanted the chocolate not to lavish her helpers with sweets but for a caffeine jolt to inspire the women to work a little longer.

Webster planned to pack 695 benefactors into the Westin the next evening for a party and raffle to raise money to help doctors at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center research multiple sclerosis, a disabling neurological disorder. Between the women volunteering their time and others donating decorations, food, and drink, the fete (a must for people who like to see their names in The Dallas Morning News' society columns) would take place at almost no cost to the Yellow Rose Foundation.

"We like the 'F' word," Webster says. "If you don't get it for free, then you don't use it."

With the Dallas economy roaring, you might expect fund-raising to be a breeze these days. "If you can't raise money now, you have a real problem. There's so much money out there," says Terry Van Willson, the owner of Resource 3 Inc., a public relations firm that works for nonprofit organizations, including the Yellow Rose Foundation, the Cattle Baron's Ball, which raises money for cancer research, and the Crystal Charity Ball, which raises money for various charities. But getting the rich to part with their cash for a good cause is not as easy as it looks, professional fund-raisers say.

Those who organize the traditional Dallas society gathering -- the ball, the bash, the gala -- say they have witnessed a cultural shift that is pulling them several directions. Unlike in the roaring '80s, benefactors today want assurances that their money flows to the charity, not to a party. "It used to be easy, especially in Dallas," says Bob Hopkins, founder and president of Philanthropy in Texas, a bimonthly magazine. "It was the good ol' boy network all the way. But now donors are more knowledgeable. They really want to know that their money is being spent on the cause."

Donors say they want fund-raising organizers to be parsimonious, even in little ways. "I personally get turned off when I get a letter from a charity on stationery that is better than mine," says Allyson Aynesworth, a marketing executive for III Forks, a high-end steakhouse that threw a wrap-up party for Yellow Rose organizers, a gesture that represents a nearly $10,000 contribution.

Yet while skimping on the parties, charities are paying more in other ways for the cash they collect, turning more frequently to professionals to help organize fund drives rather than depending solely on unpaid volunteers. "Volunteerism has changed drastically," Hopkins says. "Sometimes people would rather spend money than overextend their time. So they hire special-events companies."

Professionals like Hopkins have in many instances taken over tasks previously performed by the so-called ladies who lunch. In the old days, the charity volunteers, typically the wives of wealthy men, worked out of one another's homes all year preparing for the fete. "We just all got together and licked envelopes," recalls volunteer Roz Campisi Beadle of some of the original committees she served on 15 years ago for the Yellow Rose Gala. Now, charities like Yellow Rose typically have year-round rented office space.

The shift in attitude has put fund-raisers in the position of trying to find creative ways to provide glitz on the cheap: Donors may want more value for their charity dollars, but they still want a good party too. "You have individuals who really enjoy a particular party," says Mary Brinegar, president of the Dallas Arboretum, who has worked for a number of other nonprofit organizations in Dallas. "In this city, if you want, you could go to a different event every weekend, so you really need something to get people out of their houses."

The organizers of the Yellow Rose Gala, a 15-year-old annual event, negotiated the new rules in philanthropy this year and earned big bucks. From the Westin bash, the Yellow Rose organizers, who sold tickets starting at $175, expected to net $250,000 for UT Southwestern doctors. The evening's haul would almost double what the foundation had given to the medical school in the previous year.

To get the money, however, the Yellow Rose executive director, her tiny staff, and her volunteers had to persuade those who wanted a party that they were attending the gala of the year while making those who sought restraint understand how much the organizers had scrimped and saved. In essence, they had to come up with new ways to make contributors feel feted and important even if their meal cost only $50. ("You cannot have a nice party for less," Hopkins says.)

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