UNICEF Determined to Honor Elton John and David Furnish After Coronavirus Cancellation

Angelique Jackson

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UNICEF may have postponed its annual fundraising ball in Los Angeles on March 14, but the organization says they are working with the honorees to make sure they’ll be on hand when the gala takes place at a later date.

Approximately 850 people were expected to attend the gala at the Beverly Hilton, where UNICEF was set to honor Elton John and David Furnish, Deepak Chopra and the organization’s former president and CEO Caryl M. Stern, before the organization decided to delay it.

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“It’s one of our signature events. It raises millions of dollars for us,” Brett Robinson, UNICEF USA’s chief financial and administrative officer, explained to Variety. “We have a number of events in the course of a year [and] we had the benefit of two record-breaking events earlier in the year (noting the $5.1 million raised at last year’s Snowflake Ball in New York and the Dallas event’s $1.5 million in February). But it’s challenging. It’s millions of dollars that were intended to go and help kids around the world.”

And UNICEF is not alone in this challenge, as GLAAD revealed that it’s facing a potential $2 million loss from the cancellations of its annual media awards in New York and Los Angeles.

As for the costs of rescheduling their event, Robinson praised UNICEF’s partners for accepting any down payments as a credit toward a future event. Robinson also explained that the organization consulted with its honorees to ensure that “the program isn’t lost.”

“We are working with [everyone] to make sure that, when we are able to reschedule it, that we’re working within dates that’ll work for those folks as well,” Robinson said. “I think everybody is disappointed that we weren’t able to hold the event and everybody absolutely understands the reasoning behind it and is supportive of the decision.”

Robinson added that fortunately “nobody’s talking about winding back their commitment to UNICEF.

“But it changes the trajectory of it a bit,” he said. “We’re still working very hard to make sure that our overall goals for the year are met, [but] maybe you have to change, [and find] different ways you achieve those goals. … We’re an organization of innovators. [The organization began testing delivering vaccines by drone in 2017.] We take no less of an approach to things like fundraisers and the extent we have an opportunity to innovate.”

Unlike UNICEF, the International Rescue Committee made the difficult decision to cancel its annual Rescue Dinner, set for March 31 in New York City, which nearly 600 people had committed to attend.

“This is really our one and only annual signature fundraising event that we have … sort of our big kahuna of events,” Elizabeth Lee, IRC’s director of event giving and USA philanthropy, explained. “We [at IRC] are unique in that we don’t necessarily have as many onsite fundraising opportunities within the event. A lot of our funds are raised in advance of the actual event. We kind of knew where we were standing. We were comfortable with that. Thankfully, our supporters have been very receptive to our decision and many have opted into just transferring their gift as a straight donation back to the organization.”

But Lee agrees that more creativity is needed for organizations like UNICEF and IRC to be able to move forward with their fundraising efforts.

“I used to work at a more disease specific organization where we had walks, where masses of people who are coming out to fundraise and have been fundraising for months, only to now have that canceled. So, what does that mean for them in terms of fundraising that would have been happening, that is no longer [possible] and how do they shift and pivot?” Lee said, referring to her more than decade of experience working for nonprofits. “Right now, it’s a test of how do we leverage technology to our advantage, whether it’s for event fundraising or just general fundraising, and how do we get in front of people when we physically cannot get in front of people to have those conversations about getting them to donate back to an organization.”

In the meantime, the organizations are focused on providing support to their usual beneficiaries that are now even more in need because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“If we can keep that mission front and center, I think everything kind of flows from that. With this current crisis that we’re in, we’re making sure that we’re messaging all of the educational and learning materials that we can through our social channels, through our web presence, making sure that Americans are educated on how to wash their hands,” Robinson said. “We’ve been teaching people around the world how to wash their hands for 70 years, and now I’m seeing some of that play itself out here in the U.S., which is great to see.”