Setting aside the fisticuffs that upstaged the main event, the “Funniest Celebrity in Washington” fundraiser last week convened all the usual elements of its nearly two decades: Beltway VIPs competing at standup comedy before a shmoozy audience of media and political folks.
That’s not all that has stayed the same. Four years after The Washington Post exposed a pattern of sky-high expenses for the nonprofit organization, it is still delivering little or no funds to its charity beneficiaries, according to tax records and interviews.
We caught up with organizer Richard Siegel after Wednesday’s show at D.C.’s Improv — where anti-tax activist Grover Norquist triumphed with a comic riff on his French vacation (but headlines were stolen by pro comedian Dan Nainan’s arrest for punching a journalist who dissed his act on Twitter).
As he did in 2009, Siegel said the events’ beneficiaries have fallen short in promoting “Funniest Celebrity’s” sale of tickets (which cost $200 this year) or tables ($2,500).
“We’re really a pass-through charity,” he said. “We create the event, we sell a little bit more and we give a vehicle for the charity to make some money.”
Yet under tax law, “Funniest Celebrity” is no mere event planner: It’s an official tax-exempt 501(c)3 nonprofit. But to the eye of charity experts, its ratio of expenses vs. donations is out of whack.
In 2009, when White House economist Austan Goolsbee was crowned the Funniest, the show netted more than $14,000, after some $12,000 in event costs, according to the group’s tax filings for that year — which cite $0 in charitable donations. (Reps for the event’s beneficiary, Stand Up for Kids, did not respond to a request for comment.)
In 2010, when President Obama’s speechwriter Jon Lovett bested ABC reporter John Hendren, the show also cost about $12,000 but netted nearly $19,000. Tax records indicate that Fisher House, which provides lodging for wounded vets and their families, saw $1,710 of that. (The charity’s reps confirmed that they received a donation but would not disclose the amount.)
And in 2011, when then-Sen. Scott Brown and then-Rep. Allen West did standup, “Funniest Celebrity” netted $17,530 (after grossing a remarkable $53,000), and the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation got a check for $1,020. However: That check bounced, a Komen rep told us — and they have no record of receiving a replacement. Siegel maintains that Komen received $1,400 from Funniest Celebrity.
Where did the rest of the money go? Besides event costs, tax forms cite expenses such as rent, phone, travel, Web site and Siegel’s fee. Unlike previous years, he drew no salary in 2009. In 2010, he was paid $4,225; in 2011, it was $21,559. (Tax forms for 2012, when there was no Funniest Celebrity event, were not available.)
Doug White, a scholar of philanthropic practices, said that well-run charities aim for a 75-25 ratio, where the larger number goes to the charitable mission and the smaller sum to operating costs and expenses. For big galas and seated dinners, costs shouldn’t exceed 40 percent. (At “Funniest Celebrity,” patrons get sandwiches and one free cocktail; there’s usually a B-list comic paid a few hundred dollars to perform.)
The larger problem, White said, is the perception among ticket buyers — and “celebrities” who lend their name and time — that most of the money goes to charity. But White also faulted beneficiaries for not doing more research before signing on. “Charities are taught to say thank you and nothing more. It’s unfortunate.”
One “Funniest Celebrity”-branded show was a winner for charity: a 2010 Baltimore event benefiting the University of Maryland Children’s Hospital that grossed $50,000. But in that case, Siegel’s 501(c)3 was not involved; he was simply contracted to round up talent — and the charity “controlled all the money,” organizer Phyllis Rabinowitz said.
Siegel said that recent tax records reflect a couple of bad seasons, “not indicative of the 19 years. . . [but] of a few charities that really sold no tables and no tickets.”
He added in an e-mail that his events reap substantial free publicity and “connections” for the charities, which he said received some extra donations from the event directly from patrons and thus were not reflected in tax records. But, “I offer that show to a charity to use in their fundraising,” he wrote. “I am not the fundraiser for the charity.”
Karen Friedman, executive vice president of this year’s beneficiary, the Pension Rights Center, said that Ralph Nader — a first-time contestant — recommended her organization. Members of her staff raised $12,500 (donors wrote checks to “Funniest Celebrity”), and she hopes to get $10,000 to $12,000.
As for the “celebrities” involved with the show? Norquist had performed several times before and recruited others to do standup. But he said he’s not involved on the money end. “I’m the talent-search guy for guys on the right.” Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson said Siegel asked him to join his board in 2007, and “I didn’t mind lending my name to a fun event for charity,” but he said he hasn’t attended meetings for four or five years. Matt Cooper of National Journal, this year’s emcee and a previous winner, did not respond to a request for comment.
Clarence Page, the Chicago Tribune columnist who competed again last week, said that Siegel reassured him in 2009 that “the giving pattern had improved.” Page said that he was disappointed to hear “it has not improved more” and that he would carefully mull future involvement. Otherwise, “I have been proud to participate with so many other Washington notables in this popular annual event.”
Earlier: “Funniest Celebrity” charities get little aid, 9/29/09
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