When charity balls were rich with giving

Resource type: News

Irish Times | [ View Original Source (opens in new window) ]

By Ronan McGreevy.

The party’s over for the charity ball scene, which has been severely curtailed by the downturn

IT WAS A gala ball that became the last waltz for the Celtic Tiger. The effects of the credit crunch, which have had devastating implications for this country, were already beginning to play out when the ISPCC and the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre held its inaugural ball on the day after the €220 million Ritz- Carlton was opened in Powerscourt, Co Wicklow, in October 2007.

The guests included the film director Neil Jordan, impresario Louis Walsh, U2 manager Paul McGuinness and Sharon Corr. The star performer was singer Tom Jones.

What set the ball apart from all the hundreds of others held during the Celtic Tiger era was that it became the first to raise €1 million in just one night. It may also be the last to achieve that for a very long time.

The recession has affected everyone in Ireland, but the rich have fallen further than anyone could have imagined. The banks, the developers and property tycoons, who were among the biggest benefactors to such occasions in the boom years, are struggling and, even ones who have money left, are reluctant to be seen to spend it.

The recession has cut a swathe through the charity-ball season. The ISPCC ball, the Tooth Fairy Ball, the Horse Show Charity Ball, the Jack and Jill Bulgari Ball and the Marbella Ball – the best known of the lot – were all cancelled last year.

The balls were looked on with cynicism by many, who will conclude that their demise, along with many other examples of conspicuous consumption during the boom years, is no bad thing.

However, Caroline Downey, the organiser of the Ritz-Carlton ball and the Tooth Fairy Ball, said such schadenfreude is misplaced. The balls raised “tens of millions” for charities in their time and the real losers will be the charities that benefited from them.

Downey, the wife of MCD promoter Denis Desmond, is one of the country’s best-known fundraisers. She has been involved with the ISPCC for 25 years and also the Christina Noble Foundation, which helps disadvantaged children in Vietnam and Mongolia. It is one of the beneficiaries of the Tooth Fairy Ball which raised €600,000 for charities in the good times.

“There are negative views that this was vulgar and ostentatious, but I would say to detractors, you go and raise €1 million for a worthy charity or go help a kid on the streets who is being abused,” she says.

She does not want to name too many names, but says that developers, banks and even Anglo Irish Bank’s disgraced former chairman and chief executive Seán FitzPatrick were keen supporters of charities.

“People, when they had money and the Celtic Tiger was roaring, were phenomenally generous, and I would not have raised even a fraction of the money but for their support and that would apply to a lot of charities. People forget that,” she says.

“A lot of the developers worked their way up, and were very mindful of where they came from and what they did not have in the 1980s. I think they were motivated by genuine philanthropy. Most of them did it quietly rather than publicly. You got more money quietly. They worked really, really hard, but they gave a huge amount of money back.”

More money could be raised in one night at a ball than in six months of conventional fundraising. It was during the auctions where the serious money flowed in. A guitar owned by Bono was auctioned for €250,000, dinner with Colin Farrell went for €50,000, €120,000 was spent on a round of golf with Padraig Harrington.

This was the public face of the ball circuit, but there was another side. “The ones who bid at auction, nine times out of 10 there was a huge donation going on behind the scenes you would not have been aware of,” she says.

Downey’s advice to charities is to go back to tried and tested ways. The pyramid of givers will now have to come from the bottom up rather than depending on those who are wealthiest.

That means going back to collection boxes, scratch cards, cake sales and raffles, and coming up with creative ways of raising money from more people.

She cites charging for the MCD guest list, which raised €100,000 for the Christina Noble Foundation, and a book by acclaimed photographer Barry McCall, which will be available for Christmas and will raise €150,000 for the ISPCC, as examples of how creative thinking can be brought to bear on the charity sector.

“Most businesses developed new services because of donations from the corporate sector. Now that is gone they are going to have to try and find the money to continue those services. It is going to have to get back to basics,” she says.

“I started fundraising in the 1980s before the ball circuit started. Anybody who was around in the 1980s kept their head down, tightened their belt and went forward. There is light at the end of the tunnel.”

Michael O’Doherty, the publisher of VIP magazine, says the number of balls which have survived the recession are a lot less than those that didn’t.

“At its peak we counted 18 balls between now and Christmas. I’d say no more than three were held last year.”

The state of the charities sector was revealed at the Fundraising Ireland conference in Croke Park last month.

Unsurprisingly, a survey by nfpSynergy found that the number of people giving to charity dropped from 83 per cent in March 2008 to 75 per cent in 2009. A fifth of all those donating to charity gave less, and there were declines in purchases from charity shops and charity merchandising. However, people were giving more time to charities and the overall number of people giving remains high by international standards.

Philantrophy Ireland chairman John Healy, the former chairman of Chuck Feeney’s Atlantic Philantrophies, says the impact from the declining fortunes of Ireland’s elite is real, but has not been measured because of the poor data coming from the sector, which is worth €8 billion to the economy.

“There is strong anecdotal evidence that these high-profile events have declined. There are very few events taking place. In these difficult times, people don’t want to flaunt their wealth even if they had any wealth to flaunt,” he says.

“Undoubtedly some developers were generous. It is difficult to know the extent to which the demise of the developers and those super-wealthy people, whose wealth we know is something of a mirage, had on charities.

“We know the public face of charities are often balls and charity auctions, but they may not represent the most important stream of income for fundraising charities which are usually standing orders or street collections.”

Healy says it is “certain” now that charities will have to be more creative in engaging the public in the work of non-profit organisations and to secure significantly increased giving from that. “That means more fundraising, carried out by more fundraisers and carried out more effectively,” he says.

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