Raising Money In Spite of Iffy Entertainment
December 9, 2010
As someone who started a non-profit a year ago and recently mounted her first fundraiser, it's always fascinating to me to see how the big guns go about their fundraising event efforts.
Last night, the University of California at San Francisco mounted something approaching the mother of all benefits at the Masonic Temple on Nob Hill. The evening's proceedings included solo performances by Neil Young and Joanna Newsom, an introductory address by Colin Powell and copious amounts of truly delicious food and wine. Even the statutory silent auction was a cut above with prizes like an electric guitar autographed by Neil Young.
In short, the event, which raised several million dollars just in ticket sales to help fund a new children's hospital at UCSF, was a far cry from my little soiree for VoiceBox the other day.
Although the UCSF event was successful from a fundraising and culinary perspective Powell did a rousing job with his heartfelt speech, I was slightly disappointed with the high-powered arts offerings of the benefit.
Joanna Newsom's songs were unbelievably long considering most of them only use two chords. Her voice has a raspy, tremulous and babyish quality so it was impossible to make out a single word she was singing while she plucked and slapped away at her harp. I dunno. Newsom's hipster-mistrel-pixie shtick gets old very quickly.
Neil Young's set wasn't all that inspiring either. The rock legend mainly rambled about the stage playing a series of guitars, each one more dirty-sounding than the previous one. He played a few standards (e.g. "Helpless") and some soapbox-standing newer tracks about the ills of war and so on. Towards the end, Young sat at two different pianos to perform two different tracks. I couldn't understand why he needed so many instruments about him -- surely one guitar and one piano would have done just as well? For my part, I couldn't really detect a great difference in timbre between the shabby-looking upright and the magenta-colored baby grand (which the artist said his daughter had painted.) And as for the guitars, I would have preferred a classic acoustic set from the great man. At one point, Young even went up to a small pipe organ on stage which he had brought in for the show. But instead of playing it, he told a story about how the instrument got damaged in a fire rescue operation and was now unplayable. I wonder, was this supposed to be a bit of performance art? Maybe the damaged organ was supposed to represent one of the sick children at the UCSF hospital? Still, one thing that can be said about Young is that he has brilliant diction. Even from way up in the balcony where I was sitting, I could every word the artist sang came across crystal clear. Joanna Newsom could learn a thing or two from her elder.
No one seemed to mind the iffy quality of the entertainment though. I guess Young could sneeze and he'd get a round of applause and shouts of "We Love You Neil!!!" from the back of the 2,000-seat auditorium. And it also amazes me that Newsom can hold so many people in thrall with her (pretty mediocre) harp playing and singing.
I suppose there's a always a feel-good element to a fundraiser: People want the project they're sponsoring to succeed so they're overwhelmingly positive even in the face of mediocrity. This is a good thing if it means that children's hospitals get built as a result.