Perfecting the Art of High-Impact Charity Events, She's Helped Raise More Than $50 Million for Causes Worldwide
Few forms of volunteer work seem more glamorous than hosting fabulous galas – wearing designer gowns, mingling with celebrities, appearing before television cameras and posing for photographers – all while collecting six- or even seven-figure donations for good causes.
Carolyn Farb, one of the most successful and enduring fundraisers in Texas, has nailed the genre, staging classy charity events that attract affluent and influential people and inspire them to pull out their checkbooks over and over, year after year.
Grateful charities adore her. Wealthy donors, who are inundated with requests for money and invitations to events, respect her. Aspiring fundraisers want to be like her.
Meanwhile, Farb is pushing aside exhaustion, completing thank-you calls and notes, following up with donors, keeping painstaking records, and tracking how donations are used. Already, she’s brainstorming how to make the next social function even more special.
For champions of worthy causes who’d love to better compete for benefactors in their own communities, Farb appears the ultimate role model.
Those who’ve worked with Farb say it’s her passion for each cause, along with her willingness to do unglamorous hard work, that wins over even the most skeptical patrons.
“I’ve watched her do these events. It takes grit, it’s not glamorous,” says John Danielson, an education advocate and executive. “She rolls her sleeves up. She’s crawling around on the floor making sure the length of the table skirts are where they need to be; she’s making sure the people who are being honored are treated fairly; she’s making sure that when money is raised, it’s actually being spent as promised. She’s a beehive of activity and most of it is never observed or acknowledged.”
“She’s not there to just bask in the spotlight,” says Houston art curator Susie Kalil. “She is working, making connections. I’ve sat with her at the computer. She will push to get funding and grants and say, ‘We’ve got to get this letter out now.’”
“I’m involved in everything from soup to nuts,” says Farb, who eschews the trend among philanthropists to hire event planners. She says she relies on her own instincts and artistic bent to choose themes, music, speakers and guests.
For example, Farb made headlines in 1996 for raising more than $1 million in one night for the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Farb hit on the idea to celebrate the birthday of Marvin Zindler, a colorful local businessman, in an equally colorful fashion, including outfitting 1,200 guests with replicas of Zindler’s signature blue sunglasses. She solicited exciting, non-traditional auction items, such as a custom mural by a renowned artist. She even persuaded musical icons Lyle Lovett and Don Henley to perform for free.
“Lyle Lovett and Don Henley both had been touched by cancer in their life,” says Farb, who is also a cancer survivor. “I went personally – Don was doing a book signing in Galveston. I just decided I would go down and introduce myself – I didn’t know him.”
By then, Farb was already a fundraising legend in Houston, helping myriad causes since the early 1980s. To date, she’s raised over $50 million for more than 100 charitable organizations.
John Tscarios, an education advocate who worked with Farb to raise money for UNICEF, says Farb isn’t afraid to take on new or unfashionable causes.
“She was the first person to ever raise funds in Texas for AIDS—no one would touch the subject,” he says. “And neurofibromatosis, that’s not a pretty cause to raise funds for – she did.” Tscarios recalls that “growing UNICEF in this part of the country wasn’t easy because you’re raising funds for children in faraway lands that might have political difficulties or war. But with the help of Farb and other volunteers, we raised over $30 million for UNICEF programs worldwide.”
Recently, Farb called on preventive medicine physician and author Dean Ornish to give a presentation in support of the Blue Cure Foundation for prostate cancer. Ornish preaches healthy living habits, so “the meal that we served, he approved it,” Farb explains.
Farb says it’s key to imagine how your keynote speakers will feel about your event, and tailor the details to have meaning for them. Help guests, who contribute generously to attend, to have a good time and to find something interesting to remember.
“I try to introduce people to other people,” she says. “There’s a scientific structure to seating people.” Farb recruits volunteers to greet and guide guests as they arrive, so they aren’t awkwardly wondering where to go for cocktails or how to participate in the auction. “Be ambassadors, don’t just stand there,” she advises. “And try to negotiate the valet parking. If you’ve bought tickets and bought something at the auction, you don’t want to be slammed with a valet parking ticket.”
Farb extends the same courtesy when seeking monetary or in-kind donations.
She says she hates “going though layers” to reach celebrities or executives, so she takes the time to call on people personally and doesn’t make others go through an assistant to reach her. When somebody donates an item to be auctioned, they’re curious if it sold, and for how much, she observes. “I always believe in following up,” she says.
Most important, Farb follows up with the charities, insisting on evidence that funds are being used well.
“People want to give,” says Danielson. “But they want to know their money is going where it’s supposed to and that it’s really helping people. When Carolyn lends her name, it ensures success. People know that and they can buy into that. They know people are going to be helped.”
Carolyn Farb will be awarded her Daily Point of Light Award by Volunteer Houston, an affiliate of Points of Light’s HandsOn Network, at the 2016 Greater Houston Service Awards on May 13.