LOS ANGELES -- The Beverly Hilton's International Ballroom will soon be filled with flowers, chiffon, fine china and crystal stemware for a starry black-tie ball costing couples as much as $20,000 to attend. Guests such as George Clooney, Quincy Jones, Jane Fonda and Magic Johnson will mingle with business and community leaders and maybe bid on the new Mercedes-Benz offered in the silent auction.
And it's all for charity. Or is it? Swanky, star-studded galas like Saturday's 26th Carousel of Hope in Beverly Hills and Alicia Keys' annual Black Ball next month at New York's Hammerstein Ballroom are stalwarts in the world of nonprofits. Yet for many guests, the benefits can far exceed the benevolence.
Such balls have helped raise millions of dollars for nonprofit agencies around the world. But they're much more than philanthropy for the rich and famous. Valuable business opportunities flow right along with the vintage Champagne, including networking, deal-making, image enhancement and, of course, tax deductions.
"As long as people are looking to curry favor with certain people and get on good terms with certain people, these things will still be popular," said Daniel Borochoff, president of CharityWatch, a nonprofit charity watchdog group.
But he adds, "There are also altruistic people who want to help the cause, as well."
Barbara Davis, the 82-year-old chairwoman and host of Carousel of Hope, considers herself in the latter group. She started the Children's Diabetes Foundation in 1977 when her daughter, Dana, was diagnosed with the disease.
When Davis broke the news of their daughter's condition to her husband, the late oil and entertainment tycoon Marvin Davis, "he said, `Take care of it,'" she recalled. So she started raising money and held the first Carousel of Hope event in 1978 in Denver.
The couple opened the Barbara Davis Center for Childhood Diabetes in Colorado in 1980. The following year, Marvin Davis bought 20th Century Fox, and the Carousel Ball's guest list grew to include Hollywood royalty and two U.S. presidents.
"It's very good to have a film studio: Everybody came," Mrs. Davis said. "Even though it was still in Denver that year, we must have had six or eight planes of stars."
Since then, performers at the gala have included Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Beyoncé, Elton John, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder. This year, it's Neil Diamond.
So far, the gala has raised more than $75 million for the Children's Diabetes Foundation and its treatment center in Colorado.
While the budget for Saturday's gala is private, "everything is donated that can be donated," Davis said. Superstar performers give their time, and companies like Chanel and American Airlines contribute auction prizes. The Beverly Hilton even donates the space.
This year, guests pay from $2,000 to $20,000 to attend as a couple; tables of 10 cost $10,000 to $100,000. About 1,200 people are expected at Saturday's soiree.
That's a lot of schmoozing and fundraising – and write-offs.
The fair-market value of the ticket is $500, so couples attending at the lowest price point can deduct $1,000 as a charitable donation, said David Wheeler Newman, a Los Angeles tax attorney who specializes in nonprofits.
Ads in the Carousel of Hope's souvenir tribute book range from $750 to $12,500 and are almost always a write-off for the businesses and individuals who contribute, whether as a charitable donation or a business expense, Newman said.
Who's motivated to give and why they do it can be complicated, said Newman, "especially in concentrated urban areas like LA or New York or Chicago, because of the relationship networks that people have."
"There's a big overlap between cultural and business and charitable networks," the attorney said. "You'd need to be a sociologist or archaeologist to graph out these relationships."
There could be unseen benefits for the celebrities, business leaders and companies that contribute to charity events, notes Newman. The entertainer who offers to perform at a gala could do so, in part, to gain favor with the organizer's spouse, with whom he does business. Or a Hollywood agent may support a studio head's charity, then later ask for an audition for an actor he represents.
"A lot of these charities hire celebrities to endorse them," said Borochoff. "And they can hide it."
Businesses and individuals can also boost their own images by aligning with charitable efforts. Angelina Jolie went from wild child to global do-gooder by lending her support and her famous name to humanitarian causes, notes Dorie Clark, a marketing and branding consultant. And celebrities might join forces with charities to "give the media something to talk about ... rather than gossip about their love life," she said.
Another reason celebrities like associating with nonprofit groups aiming to better the world?
"It's a way for them to prove they're smart and they're serious in an industry known for its vapidity," Clark said.
Companies that support charity galas by shelling out for expensive tables can appear to be good corporate citizens, she said, and it also allows their executives to mix and mingle with celebrities and other influential trendsetters.
"The networking benefits are great and the publicity benefits are great," she said.
The charities need the stars, too, both for publicity and brand association.
"Celebrities can grab attention like nobody else," said Tim Saunders, features editor at LooktotheStars.org, a website that chronicles celebrity charity news. "If you have a celebrity attached to your gala, you have instant publicity."
There's also the cool factor.
"Celebrity is a tremendously powerful force," Clark said. "Everybody wants to say, `Oh, I met George Clooney.' For the rest of your life, you get to tell a story that makes you look cool at cocktail parties."
But coolness aside, there's no question elite charity events do serious good. Elton John, for instance, has raised $125 million for his AIDS foundation through his various galas, including his famous Grammy and Oscar parties.
Alicia Keys has helped collect nearly $14 million for Keep A Child Alive, which provides AIDS treatment in India and Africa, with her annual gala. This year's Nov. 1 event will feature Keys and Beyoncé as performers and Oprah Winfrey and singer Angelique Kidjo as honorees. Tickets cost $5,000.
Most stars who participate in high-profile charity affairs are driven by a desire to give, but the ancillary benefits don't hurt either, says CharityWatch's Borochoff. "A lot of it does have to do with enlightened self-interest as well as the altruistic purpose."
Related on HuffPost:
No. 1: Justin Bieber
Being a "Belieber" means so much more than just fawning over the teen heartthrob's sweeping hairdo -- it also means keeping up with the pop star's constant charity giving, from <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/18/justin-bieber-donates-cus_n_1018326.html" target="_hplink">auctioning off his bike</a> to <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/06/justin-bieber-scores-1000_n_949589.html" target="_hplink">playing in a basketball fundraiser game.</a> The pop star's most recent generous endeavor was launching a charity campaign along with his holiday album</a>. It benefited seven charities, including <a href="http://www.pencilsofpromise.org/" target="_hplink">Pencils of Promise</a> and <a href="http://www.cityofhope.org/Pages/default.aspx" target="_hplink">City of Hope.</a> "I know firsthand that if you believe in your dreams, everything is possible," <a href="http://www.justinbiebermusic.com/believecharity/" target="_hplink">Bieber said on his website.</a> Find a charity you "Beliebe" in <a href="http://www.justinbiebermusic.com/believecharity/" target="_hplink">here. </a>
No. 2: Lady Gaga
For her outspoken support and advocacy for members of the LGBT community, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/20/lady-gaga-trevor-hero-award_n_1103896.html" target="_hplink">Lady Gaga was honored with the Trevor Hero Award</a> earlier this month. "Our young people are at the center of a health crisis, and vocal leaders like Lady Gaga...have stepped up to help change our culture," David McFarland, interim executive director and CEO of the Trevor Project, <a href="http://www.pressparty.com/pg/newsdesk/ladygaga/view/35896/" target="_hplink">said in a statement.</a> One of the many "You and I" singer's charity initiatives this year included <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/13/lady-gagas-nude-portrait-_n_1145661.html" target="_hplink">auctioning off nude photos and a naked portrait of herself on eBay to benefit her Born This Way Foundation. </a> Learn more about Gaga's charity, launching in 2012, <a href="http://bornthiswayfoundation.org/" target="_hplink">here. </a>
No. 3: Bono
Determined to end the famine that took the lives of nearly 30,000 children in Africa, Bono, who is a HuffPost blogger, commissioned the help of big-name celebrities to produce <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bono/famine-africa-sudan-_b_992939.html" target="_hplink">The F Word: Famine is the Real Obscenity</a>, a short film that informs of the famine's devastating effects. Sign ONE's petition <a href="http://one.org/us/actnow/fword_splash.html" target="_hplink">here</a> to call on world leaders to help.
No. 4: Scarlett Johansson
It wasn't enough for Scarlett Johansson to just a write a check for those suffering from hunger and drought in East Africa. The actress, an Oxfam ambassador, chronicled her experience through a<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/scarlett-johansson/food-crisis-in-east-africa_b_979003.html" target="_hplink"> series of exclusive HuffPost blogs</a>. She described the conditions, learned about long-term solutions and met with pastoralists and farmers who described a sense of hope amid heartache -- ultimately galvanizing others to get involved in the cause. To help Oxfam continue to save famine victims, donate <a href="https://secure.oxfamamerica.org/site/SPageNavigator/donate_East_Africa_Crisis.html?utm_source=Scarlett&utm_medium=Redirect" target="_hplink">here. </a>
No. 5: Angelina Jolie
Ten years after getting inspired to help refugees while filming "Tomb Raider" in Cambodia, Angelina Jolie is still fulfilling her mission to raise awareness for global humanitarian issues with the UNHCR. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/04/angelina-jolie-honored-fo_n_995369.html" target="_hplink">Jolie was honored for her decade of service</a> in October and was asked to take on the expanded role of "special envoy" to the nations that are struggling the most. Help give a voice to refugees by donating to UNHCR <a href="http://www.unhcr.org/pages/49c3646c368.html" target="_hplink">here. </a>
No. 6: 50 Cent
Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson made an about-face in 2011. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/curtis-50-cent-jackson/50-cent-street-king-hunger_b_1016830.html" target="_hplink">The HuffPost blogger, </a>motivated by his struggles growing up, launched a line of energy drinks that provides meals for families in Africa.<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/26/50-cent-discusses-new-boo_n_1033290.html" target="_hplink"> Jackson also wrote a book this year on bullying </a>-- acknowledging he was once part of the problem. Help 50 give back by visiting his site <a href="http://www.streetking.com/giving-back/ " target="_hplink">here</a>.
No. 7: Matt Damon
To teach kids how important it is to advocate for countries that don't have clean water, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/09/matt-damon-teaches-kids-a_n_1138760.html" target="_hplink">Matt Damon dressed up as Santa Claus for Christmas</a> and told the children perched on his lap how wishing for a Water.org bottle this season could hep bring potable drinking water to those in need. Support Water.org's holiday campaign <a href="http://water.org/gift/" target="_hplink">here. </a>
No. 8: Ben Affleck
When the historic Congo election came with ballot stuffing, intimidation and a lack of support for women and illiterate voters, Ben Affleck headed out there in December to investigate what was happening on the ground. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ben-affleck/averting-disaster-in-the-congo_b_1135572.html" target="_hplink">This HuffPost blogger returned with a three-part series, co-written with Cindy McCain</a>, about the injustices people in the region face.
No. 9: Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher
In true form, Ashton Kutcher mixed entertainment and information, aiming to reach a wide audience in April when The Demi and Ashton Foundation launched a huge campaign to spread awareness about sex slavery. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/04/11/ashton-kutcher-demi-moore-trafficking_n_847291.html" target="_hplink">The launch video for the campaign, featuring Arianna Huffington</a>, spurred conversation about the issue and brought to light the harsh facts surrounding trafficking. Take action to fight sex slavery by visiting the <a href="http://demiandashton.org/action-center" target="_hplink">DNAFoundation here. </a>
No. 10: Ellen Degeneres
Ellen DeGeneres was named the Obama administration's new secret weapon this year in the fight against AIDS. DeGeneres was deemed the new special envoy to raise global awareness, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/08/degeneres-named-aids-envo_0_n_1082000.html" target="_hplink">the <em>Associated Press</em> reported</a>. Sec. of State Hilary Rodham Clinton cited DeGeneres' "sharp wit and big heart, and her impressive TV audience and 8 million followers on Twitter." The TV host also supports animal, poverty and breast cancer organizations, among dozens of other charities. Support DeGeneres and the work of the <a href="http://www.theglobalfund.org/en/donate/" target="_hplink">Global Fund here</a>.
No. 11: Sheryl Crow
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/03/slideshow_n_991609.html#s384087&title=Betsey_Johnson" target="_hplink">To help breast cancer sufferers facing the disease that she overcame</a>, Sheryl Crow helped found <a href="http://www.pinklotusbreastcenter.com/sheryl-crow-imaging-center/" target="_hplink">the Sheryl Crow Imaging Center</a> -- in conjunction with <a href="http://www.pinklotusbreastcenter.com/" target="_hplink">L.A.'s Pink Lotus Breast Center</a> -- which offers the latest advancements in digital screening and diagnostic imaging technologies. The only one of its kind in the country, the center provides free treatment to uninsured women. Want to help a patient in need? Donate <a href="http://www.pinklotuspetals.org/" target="_hplink">here.</a>