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Rolling in dough

Houston enjoys its biggest charity season ever: The year of the $1 million gala makes a big difference

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They  raised the bar by bringing in $32 million for Texas Children's Cancer Center. Lester Smith, Sue Smith Photo by © Michelle Watson/CatchLightGroup.com
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The lively disco theme made for colorful decor at the George R. Brown Convention Center where 1,100 partygoers frolicked. Photo by © Michelle Watson/CatchLightGroup.com
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CEO's have contributed their share to the city's fundraising arena such as the Discovery Green gala chaired by the Tudors. Bobby Tudor, Phoebe Tudor Photo by © Michelle Watson/CatchLightGroup.com
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This trio was responsible for the Houston Ballet Ball crossing the million dollar mark for the first time. Greggory Burk, Shelby Hodge, Becca Cason Thrash Photo by Gary Fountain
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The Houston Grand Opera white-tie-and-tails gala raised $2 million. Patrick Summers, Cynthia Petrello, Perryn Leech Photo by Gary Fountain
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The Cattle Barons Ball raked in more than $3 million at the George Ranch where western wear was the look. Ashley Irwin, Thomas Irwin, Mark Theissen, Kendar Theissen Photo by © Michelle Watson/CatchLightGroup.com
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News_007_Gala on the Green_February 2012_Bobby Tudor_Phoebe Tudor.jpg
News_Houston Ballet Ball_February 2012_Greggory Burk_Shelby Hodge_Becca Cason Thrash
News_Houston Grand Opera Ball_April 2012_Patrick Summers_Cynthia Petrello_Perryn Leech.jpg
News_008_Cattle Barons Ball_April 2012_Ashley Irwin_Thomas Irwin_Mark Theissen_Kendar Theissen

When Becca Cason Thrash agreed to chair last April's Houston Ballet Ball with Greggory Burk, she set a new goal for the performing arts group — raise $1 million at the black-tie evening. It would be a financial first for Houston Ballet. With determination, creativity and a resilient Houston economy, the duo surpassed that goal. By night's end, the event had brought in $1.4 million. 

The Aubergine-themed Ballet Ball was just one in a long line of charity fundraisers that crossed the $1 million mark this past season. Never before has Houston seen such an outpouring of charitable dollars associated with society-driven fundraisers. In the wake of a struggling national economy, the city's philanthropic spirit, rather than shrinking, seems to be growing.

CultureMap counted 21 charitable fundraisers from January through May that raised $1 million or more.

 "While we have been affected by the downturn in the economy, I believe that has almost given our philanthropists the incentive to give more . . . "  

Carrie Eickenroht of Empower Events, a seasoned fundraising/special event management firm, noted, "While we have been affected by the downturn in the economy, I believe that has almost given our philanthropists the incentive to give more . . . While some major donors have 'pulled back' and may not be giving to every event in town, they are giving larger, more focused support to specific organizations."

Case in point is oil man/philanthropist Lester Smith and his wife, Sue. This ever-generous duo transformed gala fundraising with last January's Disco Legends bash benefiting Texas Children's Cancer Center. Not only did they chair the disco-themed costume party attended by 1,100 but they also matched dollar-for-dollar monies raised. At night's end, they presented the cancer center with a check for an astounding $32 million. The event was the largest single-evening fundraiser in the city's history. 

 "CEO's know that philanthropy makes for a better community to live in and therefore better for recruitment and retention of good employees. That is becoming more important."

Another example of that personal philanthropy at work was the Chinquapin Preparatory School dinner in February. Honorees Jen and Dan Pickering, co-president of Tudor, Pickering, Holt & Co., announced that they would match every dollar raised during the call for pledges. By the time the final paddles were counted in the Hotel ZaZa ballroom, the Pickerings were committed to an $800,000 match. Thanks to that bold challenge, the benefit brought in more than $2 million.

American Cancer Society coffers were enriched by $3.1 million in May when Victory pulled off a stunning success with its annual Cattle Baron's Ball, the western-themed hoedown at the George Ranch, where, this year, Lyle Lovett was the  headliner. 

The big totals just kept coming throughout the spring with the Memorial Hermann Foundation scoring $2.7 million with its "C'est La Vie" gala honoring Walter Johnson, Amegy Bank founder and chairman. The Houston Grand Opera Ball garnered $2 million under guidance of chairs Cynthia and Tony Petrello. The Barbara Bush Celebration of Reading came in just shy of $2 million.

Much of the success of these events has been due to corporate support. As Eickenroht noted, "CEO's know that philanthropy makes for a better community to live in and therefore better for recruitment and retention of good employees. That is becoming more important."

Consider the corporate leadership that held lead positions with a number of fundraising galas. Phoebe and Bobby Tudor, chairman and CEO of Tudor, Pickering, Holt & Co., captained the biennial Discovery Green gala which saw proceeds of $1.4 million. Likewise, the American Heart Association Heart Ball, chaired by Bobbie and John Nau, Silver Eagle Distributors CEO, rang up $1.2 million in support.

Additional fundraising events bringing in more than $1 million included the Catholic Charities Spirit of Charity gala with $1.4 million, the Asia Society Texas Center black-tie opening soirée with $1.4 million, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo Rodeo Uncorked! event with $1.4 million and the Holocaust Museum Houston Moral Courage Award Dinner with $1.2 million.

Among those hitting the seven-figure mark, some going slightly over, were Casa Esperanza's 30th anniversary dinner, the Covenant House Texas gala, Yellowstone Academy dinner, Interfaith Ministries of Greater Houston gala, the Houston Museum of Natural Science Viva la Vida black-tie evening, the Houston Symphony Ball, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation gala and the University of St. Thomas Mardi Gras bash.

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