Role Models for Charity

The Astros have finally offered some insight into why they nixed the gala benefiting HAWC, and the whole Astros’ Wives organization, and it doesn’t sound very nice. From the Houston Chronicle:

But as public opinion on social media was turning against the Astros, the team released statements that questioned the integrity of the wives organization.

“While we were in the process of deciding on our new strategic focus, the Astros Foundation also reviewed details of the wives gala and its budgeting, culled from recent publicly available tax returns,” said Vaillancourt, the team’s senior VP of community relations. “We learned that in recent years, in our opinion, it appeared far too much of the funds raised by the gala seemed to go towards expenses, rather than to the charity.

“As a best charitable practice, it is common to expect some 70 percent — or more whenever possible — of funds raised should go towards the charitable purpose people intended in supporting the event. In the case of the gala, in recent years, it appears that a little more than half — and at least in one recent year, less than half — of the funds raised actually went to the Women’s Center.”

In the last available IRS filings, the Astros Wives Organization had $432,000 in contributions in 2011 and distributed $220,000 to the Houston Area Women’s Center. That’s 50.9 percent to charity. Most of the other money was used to fund the banquet and silent auction, which were held at Minute Maid Park and included fees paid to the Astros.

The Houston Chronicle then provided an interesting comparison:

Vaillancourt came to the Astros this year from the Red Sox Foundation. By comparison, the Red Sox Foundation had $9.2 million in contributions in 2011 and distributed $4.4 million in grants. That’s 47.9 percent to charity.

Again, not only did I work for the Women’s Center, I’ve spent almost my entire career fundraising for nonprofits, so I feel comfortable offering some insight.

I’m something of an extremist when it comes to events. If you work with me on an event, you’ll have to fight for every expenditure you want to make. I’d serve crackers and ice water if I could get away with it. But there are reasons to be nice to your guests. While events are an inefficient way to raise money, compared to activities like one-to-one requests for a major gift (e.g. I sit down with you and ask for $50,000, which you give me, and all I do is pay for your lunch), they offer benefits that cannot be measured in dollars:

  • They foster a sense of community among supporters. There’s great value in bringing people who believe in the same thing together, in a room, to reinforce the value of what they give and the appreciation others have for them.
  • They create an opportunity to educate your supporters about things you do. You can have staff, and, in some instances where it is appropriate, clients of your program on hand to answer questions and talk about the impact your nonprofit is having with the people who support it.
  • They give people different ways to support you. Those who can’t afford a ticket might donate time to help with decorations, set-up, and break-down. Those who are gifted videographers or photographers can donate those services. Money is a great thing to give, but it isn’t the only thing that nonprofits need.
  • They help get your charity’s name and cause in the public eye. Not everyone knows or cares about the event photos in CultureMap, Paper City, or the Chronicle, but for a segment of our community, that kind of recognition is important, valued, and helps reinforce the impulse to do good on a grand scale.

Let’s talk about that last one. When you hear gala, do you picture jeans, sneakers, and hot dogs at the ball park? Or do you picture the lavish gowns, towering flower arrangements, and special touches like peacock feathers sewn into the linens or dancing girls on columns dressed in shimmering white?

There are ten or fifteen galas in this town that rake in mega-bucks, way into the six figures, and we hear all about them. Other organizations have to balance the pressure of creating a fun evening with the fact that their galas aren’t drawing that kind of scratch. Normally, professionals are involved who can help volunteer gala chairs find the responsible junction of budget and vision, but if you are looking to criticize, you’ll always be able to find an expense on an event budget that could have been lower.

Could there have been better fiscal oversight? Maybe. But who was training the wives in how to evaluate expenses versus returns for a gala?

What sort of pressures were they feeling, especially as the new, young partners of the new, young players (because that’s generally who put in the most time on the galas when I was involved, the newer, younger players and wives), to produce an event that looked like everything else they saw going on in the community? Did they feel pressure to make the team look good? Their husbands? Certainly, they were dealing with all kinds of expectations while starting families, learning how to cope with fame and fortune, and doing it in a new city far from families and friends. 

There may be some fair criticism of how money was spent, and I’m quite sure I could’ve cut the budget, but the way to handle that is not through defensive statements to the media after the fact.

Now, in addition to alienating the community, the team has alienated the incredible women who devoted hours and dollars helping to put together an event that they were proud of, and one that raised a very significant amount of money for a very worthy charity. Most years, in fact, if not every year, the Astros’ Wives is the largest single contribution the Women’s Center gets. That’s an accomplishment to be proud of and something to keep striving for, not something to earn them the side eye from new management.

If the concern is effective, efficient charity, I hope that the new management will work with the team—players, partners, spouses—to teach them what that looks like. Give them the skills, introduce them to mentors, show them a new way to do it.

Again, the Women’s Center can still be an excellent partner. That is an agency that lives closer to the bone than just about any agency in our city. Why not use the Race Against Violence 5K as a learning lab for the players and Astros family? That would be a great teaching tool for examining the ways you can spend or save money producing an event, and everybody wins.

This just seems to be one of those times when a simple wow, we’re sorry, we didn’t handle this well might be better than pointing to people who are gone and can’t defend themselves to say how they’re the ones that ruined it for everyone.

A Note on Who Knew What When
The Astros are also saying that they told the Women’s Center in February that they were not doing the event this year.

HAWC’s fiscal year is the calendar year. That means they had to submit a 2013 budget for board approval before the end of 2012. Realistically, this would mean that the budget, with a line item from the Wives donation (always a conservative estimate) would have been set in late October or early November of 2012. So, telling HAWC in February that there wouldn’t be an event in July or August or September still leaves them hanging.

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3 Responses to Role Models for Charity

  1. ” Most of the other money was used to fund the banquet and silent auction, which were held at Minute Maid Park and included fees paid to the Astros.”

    You left that hanging. The Astros are complaining about overhead, while accepting payment from them instead of donating what ever product or service this non-profit was giving them money for.

  2. Pingback: Eye on Williamson » TPA Blog Round Up (May 20, 2013)

  3. Pingback: Texas blog roundup for the week of May 20 – Off the Kuff

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