The Washington Post

George and Trish Vradenburg’s new take on Alzheimer’s fight: More speed, fewer galas

Trish and George Vradenburg at the National Alzheimer's Gala. (Courtesy Trish and George Vradenburg)

Confused about this year’s National Alzheimer’s Dinner? So were a lot of other people, which is why George Vradenburg sent out this e-mail last week:

“A number of you have called or written to us asking about whether the National Alzheimer’s Dinner scheduled for April 24th is the ‘Vradenburg Alzheimer event’ or not.” The answer, he wrote, is no: He and wife Trish have launched their own organization — US Against Alzheimer’s Network — with its own events this spring and are not involved with the dinner.

For the past eight years, the Washington philanthropists (he made his fortune at AOL, she’s a writer and playwright) co-chaired what they called the National Alzheimer’s Gala, a splashy black-tie event they created to raise money and awareness for the disease. They pulled in VIP friends (Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush, David Hyde Pierce) and raised more than $10 million for the Alzheimer’s Association.

But now they’ve left to start their own organization. “We wanted to do more than just do a gala,” said George. “That’s not enough. . .we really had a sense of urgency about what we wanted to see happen. [The Alzheimer’s Association] wanted a world without Alzheimer’s, which of course is the right goal. We want it in 10 years.”

Another factor: gala fatigue. These events are great as pep rallys, but not as fundraisers. “It takes so much effort to get to that one night,” said George. “It’s probably the least productive way to raise money.”

Their new group, they said, is a way to weave together all the small Alzheimer’s advocacy groups around the country and raise their effectiveness. Unlike the national organization, they said, they have the ability to move quickly and even be politically incorrect when necessary. Trish, whose mother died 20 years ago from Alzheimer’s, has confronted politicians in ways a traditional non-profit head cannot. “I have no shame,” she said. “My head can’t really ‘roll.’ ”

And no more glitzy dinners; The Vradenburgs are planning “no-gala” galas, intimate dinners for high-dollar donors ($5,000 to $10,000 per person) with researchers and scientists. The first in D.C. is scheduled for May.

Both the Vradenburgs and the Alzheimer’s Association have put the best face on the split, but there’s inevitably going to be competition for dollars, donors and attention. “It would be an easier world for them to live in if they were the only voice,” said George. “But having said that, we work well together.” He describes it this way: “The Alzheimer’s Association is the battleship; we’re the destroyers. We’re all going in the same direction, but we can do things they can’t do.”

What does Alzheimer’s Association say? Not an issue, spokeswoman Kate Meyers told us: “We feel really strongly that we’re a force in Washington. We worked with George and Trish for many years. I think we all have the same goal of ending Alzheimer’s.”

The association is hosting a scaled-down dinner this month in D.C. The evening will be folded into its advocacy week and will include elected officials, awards, the 600 people in town to lobby for the cause, and Meredith Vieira as emcee.



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