Springtime is primetime in the charity world


Pitbulls, Giannicus and Aries, after the Great Mutt Race scavenger hunt in Georgetown to support Josie’s Fund, which gives financial assistance for the care of pets whose owners are unable to afford the expense. (Evy Mages)

Jeffrey Slavin has no qualms about biking to a charity gala in his tuxedo. It’s his way of beating the rush-hour traffic and getting around to all the charity events he has lined up each day.

His mode of arrival might be a little different, but taking in multiple events a night this time of year is par for the course for the region’s charity-hopping set. Slavin is so prolific he was named Philanthropist of the Year last year by the Community Foundation for Montgomery County.

“I attend 500 charity events a year … 150 are galas … I probably get over 1,000 invitations,” said Slavin, who runs his family’s foundation. “I don’t think I’m unusual in the number of invitations I get.”

Springtime in Washington is ushering in a myriad of charity events from glamorous, high-society galas to fundraising walks and endurance races. The local news personalities at WJLA-Channel 8, who often emcee such events, alone book 400 appearances each year, 175 of which are usually during the spring.

Here’s a snapshot of how Washington area nonprofits, philanthropists and venues approach the spring charity season.

Nonprofits

When Claire Wyrsch and the staff at Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School decided to organize a charity event for the Takoma Park private school, they first scanned the spring fundraising scene and decided to plan something that wouldn’t try to compete with the region’s 10,000 nonprofits and some big-name galas.

“We deliberately chose not to do a weekend or evening gala because so many people are going to those,” said Wyrsch, the school’s director of development. They decided instead to plan a fundraiser luncheon on a Thursday where Washington notables wait the tables and donate the tips they earn. Last year a similar event raised $100,000, up from $6,700 in 2007.

“We see [nonprofits] innovating on everything they do to get the attention of stakeholders,” said Chuck Bean, president of the Nonprofit Roundtable of Greater Washington.

Groups big and small try to stand out. Leadership Greater Washington recently held a Cherry Blossom-themed gala where guests had to wear pink. The Capital Area Food Bank hosts a gala where guests are charged to wear blue jeans and denim. The Heart of America Foundation’s annual fundraiser is a fashion show with outfits made of chocolate, while the Washington Humane Society features dogs on the catwalk.

Some nonprofits said that they believe that spring is more suitable for a fundraiser than fall because of the election cycles where political fundraisers might compete for attention — and wallets. Others want to hedge their bets.

Mary’s Center, which holds its annual gala in the fall, will host a golf tournament fundraiser this spring for the first time to appeal to donors.

“We’re having more events so we can hit the right hot buttons,” said Rebecca Diamond, chief development officer of Mary’s Center.

Philanthropists

Mark and Margot Bisnow have a handful of galas scheduled this spring — scaling back significantly from the days when they were just establishing their eponymous digital media company and he would chair 10 events in one year.

“It can be very overwhelming because there are so many events,” said Margot Bisnow. “And you feel so bad if you can’t attend one.”

So how do philanthropists inundated with invitations choose which event to attend?

Bisnow says they are more likely to attend if a friend is being honored or is chairing the event.

PNC Bank has a committee that determines which 15 events it will attend each spring.

“We usually look to support the events that are consistent with our giving priorities, which are early education, affordable housing, economic development and the arts,” said Sonia McCormick, director of community relations for PNC Bank in Greater Washington

Along with the difficulty of choosing which events to attend is of course the task of what to wear.

“I love charity events, but it does mean a serious fashion crisis every now and then,” said Abby Fenton, director of community relations for WJLA. “Just change the accessories.”

Amidst the busy schedules, philanthropists and corporate sponsors say there is much to be gained from the events.

“We do it for charitable reasons but there’s a business benefit,” said Craig Muckle, spokesperson for Safeway. “There’s the recognition, the exposure and building relationships.”

Venues

The Mayflower Renaissance in Northwest usually sees a spike in requests for fundraisers in the spring. With only one ballroom, which is coveted for hosting every presidential inaugural ball from Coolidge through Reagan, it turns away half of the requests it receives. It books about eight events each month this time a year, and, like most hotels, offers the space free or at a discount to nonprofits.

“We choose events that have a long history with us and sometimes just because they’re unique,” said Cliff Schamber, the hotel’s director of catering sales.

The Washington Marriott Wardman Park hotel in Northwest, which hosts about 10 fundraising events during spring, occasionally provides space for free to nonprofits through its Marriott Foundation but mostly tries to find ways to help nonprofits cut costs.

“Nonprofits are interested in having as much funds as possible go toward their cause,” said Candice Mahala, the hotel’s senior catering sales executive. “So we might help them cut labor costs like using an A/V set or menu matching from events that happened earlier that day.”

Vanessa Small covers philanthropy and nonprofits for Capital Business. She also spotlights newly appointed executives in the New at the Top column, which chronicles their journeys to the top. Small was raised in Orange County, Ca. and graduated from Howard University.
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