LIKE MANY BIG cities, Los Angeles packs an event calendar that is packed with events competing for the same pool of generous givers. Helping gala sponsors get the most out of their guest list is veteran publicity wizard Jerry Digney. With a client list that has included celebrities and such high-profile charities as the Carousel of Hope Ball (benefiting the Children’s Diabetes Foundation), Starlight Children’s Foundation and the Evander Holyfield Foundation. His most high-profile client, the TCL Chinese Theatre has set the bar for getting international exposure of the venue’s red-carpet Hollywood events.
Here, Digney tells gala sponsors how to break through the clutter and promote a profitable party.
SPECIAL EVENTS MAGAZINE: How would you describe the current climate for fund-raising galas and events today — challenging?
JERRY DIGNEY: Times are tough; fund-raisers have taken a hit because of the number of events and also because there are too many of them using the same, somewhat tired formulas.
Q: Are there just too many fund-raising events for donors to pick from today?
A: There are a lot of them, which really cuts into the available pie, keeping in mind that in places like L.A., these events are not that novel, and the bulk of the money comes from corporate sponsors and a handful of wealthy donors.
Q: Does the event industry need a reset?
A: Organizers need to find new ideas for raising money and also new formats that get people excited and engaged. The idea of going to yet another black-tie gala at the same hotel with the same caterer is turning people off.
Q: Do some fund-raisers — say, the oldest, or the galas with the best celebrity guest list — do better than others in the current climate?
A: Of course, the more established events — like our client the Carousel of Hope — have a better chance at succeeding and attracting attention and support.
Q: Has the climate made your job tougher? Are you doing anything differently this year than you did three years ago?
A: The PR business never gets easier — it’s tougher than ever to get quality coverage of events, especially if you don’t have — at least in L.A. — a big celebrity participation. You really have to use your press contacts and imagination to keep the momentum going, especially if you’re working on an event months in advance. We’re putting more resources into the effort than ever before, even expanding coverage into the Hispanic sector. We’re also working more closely with organizers on including news-friendly elements into their events.
Q: What is the biggest mistake that you see sponsors of fund-raising events making today?
A: Being too optimistic and naive, expecting that the event or a celebrity headliner alone will carry the day. Mrs. Barbara Davis, founder and co-chair with Marvin Davis of the Carousel of Hope, knows better than anyone how to run an event, approaching it like a war plan and taking nothing for granted. Despite her place in life, she tirelessly works with the rest of the team, making sure that no possibility or potential donor escapes her attention.
The thing is you need organization, lead time, some good key elements that attract people’s attention and a committee that’s really willing to work hard and bring in the money.