“Everyone comes to the table with a common goal,” Hogan, a construction industry executive and mother of two young children, said. “There’s no room for fluff. We’re completely serious about the business of making as much money as possible for our causes.”
Celebrities, rich-listers, fellow fundraisers and corporate high-flyers fill the room at the city’s premier charity events, the Gold Dinner, Silver Party and sunSCHine gala, all of which raise funds for the Sydney Children’s Hospital Foundation.
The arts is another popular cause for the socially conscious, with many supporting both hospital charities as well as cultural organisations such as the ballet, Australian Chamber Orchestra or public galleries.
Meanwhile a younger cohort of charity queens and kings – many the offspring of well-known Sydney families – are asserting themselves, seeking to break away from what they perceive to be the “stuffiness” of black-tie dinners for which you purchase a ticket, in favour of invitation-only parties.
The current crop of champion fundraisers include Ellie Aitken, Annie Cannon-Brookes, Maree Andrews, Deborah Symond O’Neil, Monica Saunders-Weinberg and Dominque Robinson.
They may reside in the affluent east, but they are far from bored housewives, according to Susan Diver, the president of the Black & White Committee, which raises a quarter of a million dollars a year for Vision Australia’s children services. Founded in 1936, its major annual events include the Black and White Ball, Women of Achievement and the Black and White Lifestyle Lunch.
“I’ve tried to have meetings either in the evening [or] even on a Saturday morning so we can incorporate those who are working,” Diver said. “But it is hard because most of the women today have to work.”
Many juggle professional lives with parenting, and support a wide array of charities using their business connections to attract donors.
Some are billionaires (Cannon-Brookes, Saunders-Weinberg) or come from family money (Symond O’Neil, the daughter of Aussie John and the daughter-in-law of yachtie Denis O’Neil), while others are lawyers with extensive business interests (Robinson is a property lawyer and co-owner of The Basement).
The deputy chairwoman of sunSCHine, Aitken is another lawyer and businesswoman and is married to stockpicker Charlie Aitken, the founder of Aitken Investment Management. She has championed causes ranging from the Australian Ballet and Australian Chamber Orchestra to the Royal Blind Society and the Children’s Hospital. “My son was in there and I saw the incredible work these people do,” Aitken said, adding: “Each of [these causes] means something to me personally.”
Guess who’s coming to dinner?
- Gold Dinner: Sydney’s premier fundraiser, the Gold Dinner is an invitation-only party and not open to the public, which raised $3.2 million for the Sydney Children’s Hospital Foundation. A who’s who of the city’s wealthy and influential paid $1500 for a three-course dinner, entertainment and the chance to bid for a dinner date with former foreign affairs minister Julie Bishop.
- sunSCHine: The younger sister of the Gold Dinner, sunSCHine is another ritzy invitation-only event that raises money for the Sydney Children’s Hospital Foundation.
- Tour de Cure: More than 900 guests from popular celebrity supporters, Sydney’s philanthropic community and leading corporate organisations come together for a winter snowball. The gala raises vital funds to support the doctors and scientists who have dedicated their lives to uncovering a cure for cancer.
- Silver party: the swanky fundraiser brings together more than 300 of the who’s who of Sydney to raise funds for the Sydney Children’s Hospital, Randwick.
A similar sentiment is expressed by Saunders-Weinberg, the daughter of Westfield shopping centre empire co-founder John Saunders. “I try my very best to figure out what needs me, what needs my money and what needs all of me,” she said.
Saunders-Weinberg, who runs the family’s philanthropy arm, prefers to avoid the limelight. Yet her passion for the children’s hospital and ambitious fundraising goals, not to mention her deep pockets, convinced her to step into the public role of leading the organising committee for this year’s Gold Dinner. “My strength comes from I’ll put money where my mouth is,” she said.
Other charitable causes Saunders-Weinberg supports includes child grief and bereavement support service Feel the Magic, and Thread Together, which delivers clothing to people in need. “We’re all seeking to heal part of ourselves and so certain things will resonate more than others,” she said. Her support for Feel the Magic is deeply personal as she was orphaned by the time she was 22.
While the charity set often follow in the footsteps of family or close friends who have had an interest in a particular cause, Hogan, sunSCHine’s co-chairwoman, said they are also motivated by personal experience.
“It doesn’t have to be life-threatening, it could just be a child with asthma in the emergency ward at Randwick on a Friday afternoon,” Hogan said. She also noted there was a growing expectation that the wealthy have a duty to give back.
Lavish parties may be the bread and butter of Sydney’s charity scene, but event organisers say there is more to their work than dressing up and being seen on the red carpet. Hogan said some people may not understand the hard graft involved in fundraising.
“What happens is you get the doers and you get the people who think it looks good to be on the agenda,” Hogan said. “If we’re not all there for the core reason of raising the most possible money for the hospital, well, then we shouldn’t be there.”
The leading “doer” on Sydney’s charity scene has long been Skye Leckie, who Hogan described as “amazing”.
“You’d have to say she led the way for using personal networks for good,” she said.
Leckie has spent four decades tapping the generosity of Sydneysiders for causes ranging from guide dogs to cancer charities and Taronga Zoo.
“Everybody wants to give back in some way,” Leckie said. “It just depends what area they want to get involved.”
While countless worthy causes compete for attention, fundraisers insist it isn’t a competition. “It’s not competitive between people putting it on,” Leckie said. “We’re thrilled for any success. You should not be there if you’re making it a competition.”
But the winds of change have blown through charity committees as they seek to stay relevant. sunSCHine has deliberately recruited younger members to bring a different perspective to the “old stalwarts”.
“[There are] quite a few girls in their thirties who are connected and passionate about the cause because they’ve had babies,” Hogan said. “It’s great to have a bit of fresh enthusiasm that’s not political, let’s say, like the eastern suburbs is.”
Celebrities have also been brought in to lend their star power to organising and attending fundraisers, with former foreign affairs minister Julie Bishop and Channel Nine presenter Karl Stefanovic sitting on this year’s Gold Dinner committee.
Stefanovic is part of an injection of testosterone into the Gold Dinner, joining Richard Weinberg (Saunders-Weinberg’s husband and managing director of Terrace Tower Group), stockbroker Phil Schofield, event producer Mikey Filler and chef Guillaume Brahimi on the committee.
Yet women continue to outnumber men on charitable committees, in part it seems because they have better friendship networks. “Generally speaking, they have more time to seek out prizes, patrons, et cetera,” Hogan said.
Years of experience, however, has taught Hogan to stage events on a Friday night “because men come straight from work”. “The lunches, which are predominantly a room of women, you’ll never make the same money as if you get men in the room,” she said.
The Silver Ball held at Swifts mansion in Darling Point in March raised $1 million, while May’s Gold Dinner at Fox Studios brought in $3.2 million, its best result since the global financial crisis. The Tour de Cure’s Snow Ball, also held in May, raised $1.65 million.
Guests are handpicked for their deep pockets and the cachet they can lend to an event. sunSCHine’s guest list last year included the Cannon-Brookes, chicken scion Robby Ingham and mining heiress Ginia Rinehart who was a “massive donor”. Guests at this year’s Gold Dinner included celebrities such as Simon Baker, Tim Minchin and Deborah Knight.
“It’s a tight room. Everybody is there because they’re connected to someone on the committee,” Hogan said. “It’s all networks. The invitations don’t go out to the market. It’s all strategic.”
Saunders-Weinberg left the networking for the Gold Dinner to fellow committee members such as Bishop, a renowned political fundraiser who is also regarded as the consummate networker with an enviable contact list.
“My weakest ability actually was who to have in the room,” Saunders-Weinberg said. “That’s why I had a committee and especially my husband who’s way better at understanding that stuff.”
The popularity of Australian real estate among Chinese property investors also provides rich pickings for fundraisers, according to Hogan. “It’s not a hard group of donors to catch,” she said. “If they are serious about creating a footprint in Australia, they will be utilising a third party to guide them with what they’re going to align with.”
The cost of staging a gala ball for hundreds of people, with three-course meals prepared by top chefs, fine wine and headline entertainers, not to mention venue hire and auction prizes, would easily run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars if much of it was not donated.
The budget for these events are tightly held secrets but Hogan said organisers were “not allowed to do anything ostentatious”. “It’s all about raising the most possible funds for the hospital.”
The Powerhouse Museum’s failed Fashion Ball cost $388,000 to stage, with the museum contributing $215,000. Yet the event raised just $78,000 for the Australian Fashion Foundation of which a mere $1050 was raised from supporters on the night.
The catering budget for the event was $64,000, with an estimated $30,000 for entertainment, $50,000 to decorate and style the night and $15,000 for a media wall and black carpet to photograph arriving guests such as Bishop and partner David Patton.
Hogan said the number of guests is dictated by the size of venues, which tend to be limited to a maximum of 500 people. “There’s no more financial benefit to going large and you also want to keep it exclusive.”
No rubber chicken for young givers
A new breed of young fundraisers is reinvigorating the Sydney charity circuit with their annual Merry Litmas. The idea was sparked by friends Nadia Fairfax, Robert Oatley, Tim Holmes a Court, Xanthe Wetzler and Jack and Rae Bedwani.
The clique are the offspring of some of Australia’s best-known families. Fairfax is the daughter of Roosters legend Russell Fairfax, Oatley, the grandson of late yachting royalty Bob Oatley, Tim Holmes a Court, whose father once was joint owner of the Rabbitohs. Wetzler is a stylist while the Bedwanis own one of the country’s largest events agencies.
The idea was sparked by wanting to give to a new charity each year without the ‘‘stuffiness’’ of the galas they regularly frequent. Instead of inviting everyone in their phone books, these young tastemakers prefer to keep their charitable soiree for close friends only.
“We attend various charitable events in Sydney and they’re stuffy and about being ‘seen’,” one young philanthropist said. “Our event is about having a good time with friends and raising money for a new cause each year.”
Guests at the second annual Litmas held last December at the Oatley family’s waterfront Balmoral home included Grant Schaffer (AFR Young Rich lister), Jeremy and Banjo Bond (grandsons of Alan Bond), model Montana Cox, polo player Ruki Baillieu and Oatley matriarchs Ros and Val Oatley. The evening raised $100,000 for White Caravan.
The Litmas organisers hope their event continues to grow for years to come. “Nobody wants to attend these boring, stuffy rubber-chicken dinners,” the young philanthropist said, claiming the success of Litmas had “ruffled feathers” among the established charity set. “People would rather pay money not to attend the Gold Dinner but it’s all about showing your face.”
Lucy Manly is a reporter and gossip columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and Sun-Herald.
Andrew Taylor is a Senior Reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald.