The Halloween Ball – a tough combination to pull off every year

Newsroom 09/11/2009 | 15:15

Suffice to say that the Halloween Ball is already considered a tradition and one of the landmarks in the landscape of charity events in Bucharest. But Leslie Hawke says she was not certain Ovidiu Rom would organize any ball this year. “In part it was concern about the business recession, and feeling that it might be inappropriate to ‘fiddle while Rome burns'.” But it was also because organizing it is “very draining,” she says, adding that the combination between giving people a great time, placing the focus on the work of the organization and not spending any money while doing it is “a tough combination to pull off year after year.”Usually, the organization of the next edition of the event starts right on the Monday after the event, though at a slow pace. The team meets and discusses what worked and what needs to be improved. The process of booking the space for next Halloween also starts immediately. “All year we are thinking about the ‘theme' and seeking corporate sponsors. But we only get truly obsessive about it at the beginning of September each year. For eight weeks we work 10 hour days/seven days a week. And then everybody collapses,” Hawke says.The most difficult thing is to book a celebrity or a well-known public figure. “We got really lucky in getting US Ambassador Mark Gitenstein's agreement to speak at this year's ball. I didn't know for sure that Ethan [Hawke's son, the Hollywood actor] would be able to work it into his schedule until the middle of September,” says Hawke.One of the most time-consuming activities is to obtain sponsors and organize all the details. “You would think that after five years, it would be easy – but it never is because there are so many aspects that you don't have complete control over. My big worry this year was that Ethan might not arrive on time. He had to take two flights and only landed at 3 pm,” she says.Which brings the story to the subject of booking a celebrity, which is always the hardest task. Ovidiu Rom has always leaned on the glamour of celebrities to draw attention to its work. The first ball, in 2005, featured actor Ethan Hawke, Leslie Hawke's son. In 2006, actress Vanessa Redgrave was the key figure of the event, while the following year Romanian director Cristian Mungiu, who had just won a big trophy in Cannes, spoke about the benefits of putting poor children through school.Additionally, various celebrities such as Uma Thurman, Gwyneth Paltrow and Demi Moore have donated various personal items to be auctioned for the NGO's programs. This year, pop diva Madonna donated a pair of Christian Dior shoes with her autograph on them.The organization of the ball always costs around EUR 30,000. This year, Ovidiu Rom raised a total of EUR 357,000. “We don't know the exact net income yet, but it will probably be about EUR 325,000,” says Hawke.”Last year, we raised EUR 410,000 and netted EUR 372,000, so we are down about 16 percent.” Already a decrease in the funds that companies allocate to such projects has been noticeable this year, due to the impact of the recession.”I find it curious that only 111 people, out of 620 guests, made any donation. If you deduct the 30 people who paid for individual tickets, that's 590 guests who did not actually pay to attend (being invited by a company or given a complimentary ticket). So only 19 percent of the guests actually made a donation to help a child go to school. That makes me feel like it was kind of a failure. I would like to feel that everybody would have cared to makesome donation, however small,” she explains.Another disappointment is in the way the media often places the focus not on what is at stake, but only reports how much money the auction items went for and what celebrities were there. She mentions Ambassador Gitenstein's comment that, “Romania will not be able to realize its revolution and build the foundation for a strong, vibrant economy with one fifth of your future workers unable to function in the 21st-century workplace.” “But the media just wanted to take pictures of Ethan. That frustrates me. I enjoy the glitzy aspects too, but I wish the media would pay a little more attention to the substance,” she says.Ultimately, since the proceeds are lower, the foundation will be able to help fewer children and families, because this is the only area where savings can be made. “We have never had a big staff, we pay no rent, our cars and petrol are donated – so our overheads were pretty lean to begin with. The only place we can cut is in direct services to children and families,” she explains. Ovidiu Rom works with a team of 20 members, some full-time, some part-time. It also has three full-time and several part-time people involved in public awareness, fundraising and administration.The NGO applied for European funds but was disappointed to hear its application was rejected. The bureaucratic hitch the project stumbled upon was that it intended to incorporate a control group into a three-year project to better evaluate the impact of various methods of increasing student attendance. Ironically, the grounds on which the project was rejected, that “it was discriminatory and didn't give everyone equal treatment,” is exactly the opposite of the conviction Ovidiu Rom was founded upon: an equal chance at education for all children, no matter what their race or social and financial background. “So now we are not helping any of those children. Nor are we gaining any evidence and insight into which measures work best to keep at-risk children in school. Their reaction was very discouraging, to say the least. And we had to wait nine months to learn we didn't make the first cut,” says Hawke.For now, Hawke is hoping more companies will adopt a school for EUR 10,000 or sponsor a summer school for EUR 5,000. It remains to be seen how much of this hope comes true.

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