Beggars' banquet

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.)

"We wanted to have tents all over the place," says Webster, looking around at the Westin's third-floor lobby. But the Yellow Rose, like others planning galas these days, had to settle for less -- five tents -- and make it look like more.

Among the several approaches to raising charitable donations -- direct-mail pleading, annual giving programs, and capital campaigns in which large donors are approached for a specific project -- charity galas are a high-risk venture. X X X X"Special events are so frightening," the Arboretum's Brinegar says. "If you don't have the right chairman or you have any kind of blip in the economy, you could have disasters. It is a trick to figure out how you could cover the real cost of a hotel and have enough for the trimmings to take it to the next level."

How much fund-raisers spend on a bash vs. how much they raise varies greatly. "Sometimes they don't even raise money," says Hopkins. But in those cases they garner publicity for their cause -- a write-up in Robert Miller's column in the business section of the Morning News, for instance -- that could eventually lead to donations. "There is no right or wrong way here...There is really no formula," Hopkins says.

When Tanya Foster, the chairman of the Yellow Rose Gala this year, scheduled her party, she intended to raise money -- a lot of it -- but that meant spending less. Dressed in black, with a shirt tied around her waist and her frosted hair pulled back, Foster marched around the Galleria Westin's lobby like a field marshal the evening before the February 26 gala. She had already made it clear to the gathered volunteers: No slackers need apply. "They had to buy a ticket to attend the gala or otherwise work at it in order to attend," she says. She expected everyone to help set up the night before and clean up the day afterward.

Foster and her husband, Peter Foster, a corporate executive in Richardson, contributed more than $10,000 to the cause -- a precursor to her role as chairman. Even though professionals now handle much of the mechanics of setting up a party, a gala's success still hinges on who lands the unpaid job as chairman. "You have to have a really strong chairman," says Brinegar. "People have to feel like if she is doing it, it will be the best one around."

Foster, a mother of four, has the right résumé. A past president of the Hyer Pre-School Association and the fund-development chairwoman-elect for the Dallas Junior League, Foster is nothing if not active. Her name has appeared five times since last May in Alan Peppard's society column in the Morning News. The tall, lanky 36-year-old told a reporter for the Park Cities edition of the Morning News her epitaph should read: "Committed and organized; she did it all." (In contrast, another participant in the gala told the Dallas Observer his epitaph should read, "I tried to get a drink and get out.")

Like many associated with Yellow Rose, Foster has personal experience with MS. Her aunt and two close friends have been diagnosed with the disease. "She's actually pretty cool," says Van Willson. "She didn't use [the chairwoman position] to get ahead. She did it because she really cares about the cause. She had to put her family on hold. It's hard to ask people for money."

Unlike in the old days, Foster relies on help from the foundation's full-time paid director, Allister Webster, and her assistant, Bettye Gordon. (Fund-raisers like Webster can earn anywhere from $50 to $150 an hour for work on a gala.)

Webster supervised children's educational programming at the Science Place before she moved into fund-raising. Before joining Yellow Rose, she helped raise the money to build the Fair Park museum's now bustling IMAX theatre.

For the Yellow Rose Foundation, Webster acts as year-round guardian, a bulldog for its wealthy patrons. For instance, she barred the Observer from attending the gala out of concerns that other executive board members termed "a kind of paranoia." She didn't want her high-profile contributors or board members -- the likes of Caroline Rose Hunt, daughter of the late oilman H.L. Hunt -- to be pestered by a reporter for a weekly alternative newspaper. "I can be meaner than you," Webster said at one point.  

In these good economic times, professionals like Webster, as well as other specialists, are commonplace at fund-raisers. Publicist Van Willson, for instance, now counts on charity work to keep his company in business.

"Ten years ago," he says, "there wasn't a charity in the world that had a full-time public relations consultant on retainer." Now both the Cattle Baron's Ball and Crystal Charity Ball have put his company on retainer year-round. For the Yellow Rose gala, Van Willson worked only part-time, handling the publicity while Webster managed the other administrative concerns.

Bonnie Bazley, the owner of Monster Events, a party-planning company, has seen her business grow as a result of the trend toward more professionals in the charity business. Bazley works year-round as a party consultant for the Buckaroo Ball, a benefit organized in part by women who have homes in both Dallas and Santa Fe that raises money for children's causes in New Mexico. When the Buckaroo Ball first began in 1994, Bazley says, the women insisted she keep her expenses down. She used to stay in volunteers' homes when she flew from Dallas to Santa Fe during the year to plan for the party. The volunteers would chauffeur Bazley. Now that the gala raises more than $600,000 annually, Bazley and her staff, which numbers 12 on the day of the party, rent cars and stay in hotels. The organization rents office space year-round.

The move to professionals reflects the declining numbers of non-working women with time to spare. But it also shows something about the maturity of the charities. In the early years of a foundation, gala volunteers are honored to have opportunities to sweat for a cause, Bazley says. But as the years pass by, the novelty wears off and organizers find it's necessary to pay people for less-than-glamorous jobs.

While relying more on professionals, the Buckaroo Ball organizers have cut back on the gala's trappings. They no longer hold a cocktail party for the underwriters as they had in previous years. "People felt it wasn't necessary," says ball chairman Barbara Gudwin.

At the Yellow Rose Foundation, the professionals have played a larger role each year. Executive director Webster and her assistant operate out of a downtown office, maintain the foundation records, raise a small amount of money throughout the year from sales of medical identification bracelets, and help keep annual gala chairmen like Foster and her volunteers on track.

Every year, however, a gala chairman handles the lion's share of the party planning. Seated in a Highland Park Starbucks less than a week after the party, Foster relaxed with her coffee. She was enjoying, she said, just staying in bed late with her 3-year-old. For eight months, her work on the gala had her going 40 hours a week. "It's like planning a wedding for 695 people and they're all brides," she says.

In March 1999, Foster started hatching plans with Elizabeth Buchanan, chairman of her arrangement and decorations committee. With long blond tresses and the gait of a teenager, Buchanan (the mother of two small children and the wife of a lawyer) has made a name for herself among the fund-raising volunteer crowd for being able to pull together parties from nothing. She has worked for the Dallas Garden Society, the Junior League, and Ronald McDonald's Wonderland. "It's a creative challenge," Buchanan says of the task of getting a big party on a budget.

Initially, Foster and Buchanan envisioned a grand event. She wanted the theme to center around the millennium and circuses. "We approached the Cirque du Soleil," Foster says, "but we got turned down." In other words, the Canadian performers were asking for too much money and declined any invitation on the part of the women to discount their performance or donate it to the cause.

Before the two women could get too far along in the party arrangements, Foster had to make sure she would have any money at all to pay for it, which meant taking a begging bowl to underwriters. She first went to previous sponsors such as Nortel Networks and asked them to give again. The Richardson-based division of the Canadian telephone company agreed to serve as the presenting sponsor of the event, chipping in about $35,000.

Even if ostentatious is no longer the fashion at philanthropic galas, organizers still must unroll some red carpet, particularly for big donors such as Nortel. Party planner Bazley compares the treatment afforded large benefactors to traveling first class on an airline -- the destination's the same, but the accoutrements are much nicer. Big donors' first-class treatment typically includes priority seating, higher billing on invitations, larger print in any advertising, and some swank-sounding title (like "presenting sponsor," in the case of Nortel Networks and the Yellow Rose Gala).  

And part of it, Bazley admits, is a subtle form of bragging rights.

"When you are flying first class," she says, "it's not just about the seats and the drinks. It's that everyone knows you are flying first class. It's the same way with these galas." At the Yellow Rose's circus-themed party, benefactors who contributed $2,000 were "Ring Masters," $1,750 were "Lion Tamers," $200 were "Flame Throwers," and $175 were "Trapeze Artists."

To give those titles meaning, the party planners know they must keep the glamour quotient of their event high enough to make it worthy of first-class seekers. What's the point, Bazley asks, of getting the best seat at a worn-out bar?

But Foster, when trying to persuade contributors, did not always focus on the party. Often, she underscored the cause, and having UT Southwestern as the gala's beneficiary helped. One fund-raising consultant jokingly told Foster that the school sucks wallets from people's pockets as they drive by it.

UT Southwestern certainly has achieved a phenomenal level of success in fund-raising. Drive by the institution on the otherwise generally forlorn Harry Hines Boulevard, and you can almost smell the money. On the academic hospital's campus, bluebonnets, daffodils, tulips, irises, and pansies dot the well-manicured lawns. A black stretch limousine sits in the parking lot. Inside, the 50-year-old medical school has four Nobel laureates on its faculty and now ranks 11th in national rosters of medical schools. "It takes money to achieve that," says Dr. Michael Racke, who recently left Washington University in St. Louis to join the Dallas team working on MS.

Last year, the school received $64 million in private donations. The value of its endowments now totals $448.6 million. Total funding for the institution last year was $550.8 million.

Along with Racke, Dr. Elliot Frohman, an assistant professor of neurology who came to Dallas in 1995 from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, oversees some 24 medical professionals and researchers at the MS Center.

For Frohman, moving to Dallas meant the opportunity to create something from scratch. He estimates that around 8,000 MS sufferers live in North Texas, but before he arrived, no facility offered comprehensive treatment that provided MS patients the most advanced relief for their myriad of often otherwise ignored symptoms. At UT Southwestern, the administrators promised Frohman that he would get help raising money to build a clinic that provided full service to MS patients as well as research.

The Yellow Rose money represents a fraction of the funds that Frohman and his other MS researchers require. Last year his center was awarded $1.055 million in competitive grants, mostly from the National Institutes of Health. It also has some $68,000 in income from endowments. "Yellow Rose is a very small piece of that pie," Frohman says. But Frohman says the money from the Dallas foundation is cherished because it has no strings attached. The doctors, who compete for it internally, can use it to fund research that is not far enough along -- or too cutting-edge -- to get the NIH to foot the bill.

Racke, for instance, will use the Yellow Rose money to pay for the clinical testing of one of the new drugs -- Copaxon -- that has shown some efficacy in treating MS patients. Racke wants to find out what Copaxon does to the antibodies of patients who have a form of MS that sometimes enters remissions for years.

Even with UT Southwestern as the drawing card, Foster still faced the unpleasant task of asking people for money. "It takes the same amount of work to get $1,000 as it does to get $35,000," she says. X X X X X X XUsing contacts from other charities, Foster made long lists of who might contribute. She didn't bother to approach friends who she knew committed all their time and resources to other causes. But those who were uncommitted elsewhere or who had any inkling of the trauma of MS were likely targets. III Forks founder Dale Wamstad, for instance, had decided to concentrate his philanthropy in several areas -- children's issues and cystic fibrosis -- but he made an exception for Yellow Rose, his marketing executive Aynesworth says, because he has a cousin who died from MS.

The confluence of personal experience with MS and philanthropy led to the creation of the Yellow Rose Gala in 1985. When Dee Wynne, founder of the gala, was diagnosed with the illness 15 years ago, few people knew much about MS, Foster says. Wynne and her husband, Jim, represent the fifth generation in their oil-rich family to own and operate the 8,000-acre Star Brand Ranch in Kaufman County, the site of the first Cattle Baron's Ball in 1974.  

For nearly a decade, the Wynnes helped collect money through the Yellow Rose Gala and turned it over to the national Multiple Sclerosis Society, which provides services to MS patients. But in 1995, the same year that UT Southwestern administrators recruited Frohman from Johns Hopkins, the Yellow Rose Gala reorganized and earmarked all of its funds for the Dallas medical school for research. UT Southwestern administrators, at the same time, found an anonymous donor who agreed to match Yellow Rose contributions.

To market the Yellow Rose Foundation, Foster leaned as heavily on the notion of UT Southwestern's anonymous matching donor as on the cause of MS. "I can take your money and then double it," she tells potential donors.

The switch from the MS Society to UT Southwestern reflected the Wynnes' concerns. They wanted their money to stay local, and they wanted a cure. (The Wynnes did not return telephone calls for this story. Foster says Dee Wynne, who now uses a wheelchair, has grown tried of talking about the illness.)

This year, however, many others have wanted to talk about their own MS -- including celebrities. Montel Williams, the 43-year-old television talk-show host, disclosed in August that he has the disease. Once little known, MS has begun to creep into other parts of the pop-culture lexicon. In the NBC prime-time drama The West Wing, the character played by Martin Sheen recently suffered a relapse of MS on a segment.

The trend has helped Yellow Rose's fund-raising efforts. "It is the 'it' disease," Foster says.

In real life, an estimated 350,000 Americans have MS. The disease attacks the brain and central nervous system, damaging the outer coating of nerve fibers that is essential to transmitting messages to and from the brain. About one in every three MS patients eventually requires a wheelchair.

The majority of MS sufferers are women in their 20s or 30s, often so disabled that they can no longer work or care for children. The stories of husbands walking out on wives with MS are depressingly commonplace. "You go to these big galas," says Frohman, "but nobody's talking to these people. [For the MS sufferer] nobody is talking about your problem. Do you know what it is like to see these people every day suffering, and you're not given the resources to help?"

There is always the risk that if Foster didn't throw a big enough party, the funding would drop off not only for this year but in future years. "You have to keep up a profile with a gala," Philanthropy in Texas' Bob Hopkins says. "It's a way of getting yourself noticed." X XHaving failed to get the Cirque du Soleil, Foster says, "We went to Plan B." That meant trying to create the same exotic circus feeling on a budget with local and less expensive entertainers.

The organizers of the Buckaroo Ball have also downsized their ambitions for entertainers as prices for talent have risen. The event has hired Willie Nelson several times, but this year, having considered LeAnn Rimes but not being able to afford her $100,000 price tag, the organizers chose Asleep at the Wheel, a well-known country band. One of the organizers worries that the musical group will strike some as just a bar band and not offer enough glitz to keep up the gala's stature. Buckaroo Ball chairwoman Barbara Gudwin notes somewhat longingly that "the Cattle Baron's Ball had flown in Clint Black."

If her entertainment was not overwhelming, Foster wanted to be sure that she achieved a critical mass of excitement in other ways. She needed, for starters, a packed hall. "Tanya was very wise," says Van Willson. "She picked a place she could sell out." Other society-ball organizers, he says, sometimes shoot for a large venue and then face the embarrassment of not having enough people.

In the '80s, many Dallas fund-raisers used to choose the Anatole Hotel for their bashes because the management had a reputation for reducing prices for charities. Now, no local hotel offers any special rates to fund-raisers, Hopkins says.

For Foster, the hotel costs ordered the economics of her party. She had to spend almost all the money collected from her ticket sales and underwriters -- more than $120,000 -- on the bill for the hotel's ballroom and the meal served by the Westin's in-house caterers. She had little left for decorations. She was going to make money for the foundation only from an auction held the night of the gala. That meant the atmosphere had to be festive enough that the party attendees loosened up and reached for their wallets, outbidding one another for the donated auction items.  

In the beginning, Foster had talked to professional decorators. But when they made it clear they intended to charge $15,000 for their services, Foster and Buchanan devised other plans. Buchanan used balloons and crepe paper for decorations. The centerpieces had only one or two flowers per table; the rest were cheap paper. "I had to look at this and realize these were going to be thrown out," Foster says. "If they see you are spending $500 for flower pieces, they are not happy."

By far the fanciest decorations that evening were the large topiaries. Buchanan had persuaded a theatrical prop company owned by Michael Jenkins to donate those. (At the last minute, however, Buchanan had to forsake one of the grass-like statues. The elephant wouldn't fit in the Westin's service elevator.)

The organizers also managed to get other freebies. Foster says she persuaded the hotel to provide valet parking. She talked Glazer's Distributors into providing wine and beer not only for the gala but also for the underwriters' before- and after-parties. Kinko's Copies agreed to produce the invitations gratis.

The food was another question. She had to pay $50 per person. There was no wiggle room in the budget on that issue. Foster fretted about the skimpiness of it. "I didn't want the food to be yucky," she says.

Party planner Bazley has worked on several galas where food choices have stirred up problems. She said people often complain that too much of the food is one color.

Eddie Deen, a Dallas caterer who serves at the Cattle Baron's Ball in Dallas and Lubbock, has made a science out of charity food service. He manages to serve the Cattle Baron's crowd -- by far one of the most prestigious galas in Dallas -- at prices that keep him in business but with a flair that keeps everyone happy. How? "We bring in tremendous props," says Deen. This year, for instance, he built five 5-foot-wide skillets in which he cooked the meat as onlookers watched at the Cattle Baron's Ball. "They worked like giant woks," says Deen. "Then the guests could serve themselves from it."

At the Yellow Rose Gala, Foster ended up with mango salad, salmon, and steak. She was particularly happy about the dessert selections, an elephant-shaped chocolate concoction and cream cake.

For the entertainment, Foster decided she wanted to go low-key (once Cirque du Soleil was out) so the activity didn't upstage the auction, where she wanted to keep the attention focused. She hired a local band and performers from Preston Center Dance Studio. They borrowed gymnasts and models from another charity, the Dallas chapter of DIFFA, the Design Industry Foundation's Fight Against AIDS, which raises money for medical research.

Foster and her volunteers believe they pulled it off. They created a fancy ball without overspending.

"Everyone left happy," Van Willson says.

An eye doctor left with a $39,000 Porsche 2000 Boxster donated by a car dealership. It was raffled at $100 a ticket.

Even though Foster was happy, the entertainment at the Yellow Rose gala must have paled in comparison to the old years. In 1985, for instance, the event brought in singer Tony Bennett. "The reason we got away from the big entertainment," says Robin Birnbaum, a foundation executive board member and former gala chairwoman, "[is that] the sponsors want to see you spend money frugally now. It has evolved into a business."

Sponsor Content


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >