Charity balls

    20 September 2014

    Something strange has happened in the world of charity fund-raising. It’s what Malcolm Gladwell calls a tipping point, and what TV critics know as ‘jumping the shark’, the moment at which something ordinary becomes absurd (after the episode in Happy Days when the Fonz waterskied over a shark). It’s called the Global Party, and it’s coming to a six-star hotel near you. This is a charity bash so fabulous and glitzy that few people actually know what they’re fund-raising for. It claims to be the biggest party in the world, but when you examine how much money trickles through to good causes, you begin to wonder if it’s all worth it.

    It all began four years ago, the brainchild of entrepreneur hedgie David Johnstone and Stanley (Lord) Fink, the hedge-fund king and former Tory party treasurer. After attending countless black tie bashes, Johnstone had a eureka moment when he realised people would spend thousands to wear a bow tie in aid of almost anything. So he set up the Global Party, the ultimate non-specific fund-raising event. It would be an international extravaganza, hosted simultaneously in dozens of countries around the world, for only the richest and most glamorous VIPs. Exclusivity was all, and when it launched in a flurry of hype, much was made of the fact tickets were not available to the general public, not least as they started at £25,000. There was a Phileas Fogg theme, immediately giving the venture a swashbuckling, daredevil edge, a bit like the Gumball Rally, and a round number of 80 countries in which the parties would be held. Johnston spoke of guests darting round the world, ‘partying’ in Paris, Rome and London all in one night. The venture would raise millions of pounds for charity, with Johnston quoting a figure of between £3 million and £5 million, ‘as a conservative figure’. Despite the downturn, they were going to throw the biggest party in the world, and secure an entry in the Guinness Book of Records. It would be chock full of celebrities, money, and glamour.

    The reality was a little different. They may have invited 80,000 guests, and trumpeted the 80 venues: in fact only 73 parties were held. No evidence suggests that anyone had a private jet waiting to whisk them from party to party. The Global Charity Trust, which runs the party, won’t give attendance figures: ‘As each event is different, it is hard for us to know how many people attended,’ said a spokesman. Needless to say, they were a long way off bothering the data compilers at the Guinness Book of Records.

    When Fink and Johnston started out, they had the support of Arpad Busson, the billionaire philanthropist who raises millions for children through his Ark foundation. Busson does raise substantial amounts for charity, and his support lent the Global Party an air of authority. It helped that his partner was Uma Thurman, a useful celebrity name to add to the list of party invitees, which included Bryan Ferry and Lily Cole. But for reasons that remain unclear, Busson has distanced himself from the Global Party. A spokesman for Ark said: ‘Ark is not involved in the running of the Global Party, though we are grateful for their previous support. Over the past few years we’ve shifted our approach away from gala-style events to more regular fund-raising from our supporters, helping us to support more children across the world.’

    It could be that simply not enough money ends up in the hands of charities. The Global Party didn’t happen in 2012, but when it returned last year, the centrepiece London party — a fashion show held at the Savoy — raised a mere £120,000 for the Mayor’s Fund for London. That sort of figure can be made with the sale on one lot at a City charity auction.

    The event returns this month, and has lost none of its razzle dazzle. An advance press release panted that its parties would take place throughout the month in 180 cities (it no longer attempts to be just one big party) and would attract ‘the world’s leading philanthropists, entrepreneurs and A-list stars’. Tickets are not available to the general public, though ‘360,000 philanthropists’ have been invited to buy tickets, now thought to cost between £500 and £1,000.

    The curious thing about the Global Charity Trust is that it does not publish its accounts. All British charities are supposed to register with the regulator, the Charity Commission, to whom they submit their accounts. The Global Charity Trust says it is regulated by the Charities Aid Foundation, and gives a charity number. However, the charity number actually belongs to the CAF, which is a legitimate charity that offers back-end services to smaller charities. The Global Charity Trust is in fact a trust fund, not a charity, and it is not regulated by anyone. It submits its accounts to the CAF, but the published accounts do not go into sufficient detail to reveal how much money goes in and out of TGCT’s account.

    When asked by Spectator Life why they don’t publish their accounts, a spokesman for the Global Charity Trust said: ‘Because TGCT is not a registered charity, it does not prepare formal accounts. The trust is a bank account where donated funds are held and then distributed to nominated charities that are approved by CAF and fit with their mission. As such, there is no statutory requirement to publish accounts.’ This means that donors have little idea what their money is being spent on, or how much reaches the good causes.

    But that’s not something Johnstone spends much time worrying about. He is more interested in making the parties ever more fabulous, this year holding them in memorable one-off locations that will ‘surprise and delight even the most well-travelled and worldly guest’. So there’s the chance to dine at 4,377 metres on top of an Ethiopian mountain, or be the first to set foot in a new hotel ‘while being serenaded by a platinum-disc-selling artist’. As usual, details are a little sketchy.

    There are plans to double the number of events per year next year, with a global ‘party month’ planned for March. Then there is the launch of The Movement, the vague and slightly cultish name given to an initiative to allow charitable giving through luxury goods sales. The idea is that every time you buy a handbag or watch, you can add on a couple of quid for The Movement’s charity trust fund.

    There is a moment in Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies where the hedonism goes off the scale: ‘masked parties, savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Wild West parties, Russian parties, Circus parties, parties where one had to dress as somebody else, almost naked parties in St John’s Wood, parties in flats and studios and houses and ships and hotels and night clubs, in windmills and swimming-baths…’ To read the advance publicity for the next Global Party gives one a similar feeling of vertigo. It is mad and wild and possibly even quite fun. But is it really the most efficient way to raise money for charity? Probably not.