THEY ARE THE LETTERS YOU LEAST WANT TO OPEN. “Save this date,” one will say. “You’ve been invited to join the dinner committee…” another will announce. “Our humanitarian of the year award this year will go to…” still another will proclaim.

There’s no hidden message in these solicitations. They want your money. Worse yet, they may even want you to help raise money. Still worse, they want your tuxedo-clad body to sit through a numbing evening, listen to brain-dead speeches and get jostled by waiters who spill gravy down your neck.

Surely there’s got to be a better way to raise money for charitable causes. Study the faces of people filing into a charity banquet and they look about as happy as the chow line at Folsom. And who are the honorees? As one fundraiser acknowledged: “So maybe they’re ‘semi-humanitarians.’ “

I remember one award ceremony a few years ago when the cops were actually waiting backstage to arrest the alleged humanitarian of the evening as soon as the event ended.

Then there was the famous Friar’s Club Roast when one of the speakers, after heaping praise on the honoree, returned to his seat on the dais, slumped over and promptly died. “Was his conscience that guilty?” quipped a nearby comic.

DREADFUL AS THESE OCCASIONS MAY be, I’ve always harbored admiration for those formidable soldiers who make the calls, dun the celebrities and, despite all the hangups and curt dismissals, raise the millions to keep the charities afloat.

Of all of these soldiers, Tom Sherak remains my role model. Tom is a noisy man. He is a salesman. He is relentless. But you can’t say no to him for a lot of reasons, the most important of which is that he’s one of nature’s noblemen. He just happens to be such a decent, public-spirited, kind-hearted individual that even the most venal, what’s-in-it-for-me types surrender to his entreaties.

Tom Sherak will stop at nothing to raise money for a favored charity. I was present one evening when he even dunned his boss, Rupert Murdoch, a man who doesn’t like to be pressured. Murdoch ended up paying $30,000 for a $300 pen at an auction presided over by Sherak. Being Murdoch, he sent it back the next morning because it malfunctioned. A true survivor, Sherak personally scurried down to a nearby stationery store to buy a replacement.

Sherak can’t remember when he first fixated on charity work. He’s such a soft touch that, even as a kid, he sent off a few bucks every year to the Jerry Lewis Telethon. His fealties have since extended to the Variety Clubs, Will Rogers Hospitals, the Fulfillment Fund and the Multiple Sclerosis Society, among others. When his daughter, Melissa, contracted MS at the age of 15, his commitment to MS understandably intensified. Melissa, now 27, is pregnant with her first child.

At present, Sherak is ulcerating over preparations for the next MS banquet on Sept. 9. He had some sleepless nights last week over a closing act for the evening.

Everything has become much more difficult on the charity front, Sherak concedes. The cost-conscious studios are apportioning their funds more closely. The TV networks, never as generous as the studios, also are spending warily. And there are many more charities competing for every dollar, a fact that worries Sherak. “I hate saying ‘no’ to anyone, anytime,” he says, and he rarely does. Happily, a remarkable number of people return his favors.

Sherak’s favorite role in the process is that of the raucous auctioneer. He is both funny and superbly rambunctious at his craft, whether auctioning expensive cars or baskets of rotting fruit, as he recently found himself doing in Dallas. “At Tom’s auctions, people who hate golf always seem to end up getting stuck with golf vacations, golf bags, golf balls, whatever,” says one Sherak fan.

THOUGH SPENDING HIS LIFE AMONG flashy filmmakers, Sherak himself, who now holds the title of chairman Domestic Film Group at Twentieth Century Fox, is an unpretentious man. He tools to work every day from Calabasas, where his wife, Madeleine, chairs the high school math department. Besides Melissa, they have two other kids, Barbra and William, and they’re a close-knit family. As the distribution chief of a rival company puts it, “for a man who keeps throwing dinners to honor others, the man we should really be honoring is Tom Sherak.”

He has a point.

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