Levy, Pazanti has expert advice for fund-raisers

Mounting successful Hollywood fund-raisers has always been a fine art that requires a combination of connections, charm, knowledge of the business and the ability to persuade people to open their wallets for a good cause.

And today more than ever, it means knowing how to maintain a savvy savoir-faire and an optimistic attitude in a down economy.

The execs at Levy, Pazanti & Associates, now celebrating its 30th year, are seasoned experts at asking Hollywood to give back and getting industryites to comply. For 30 years, the L.A.-based firm has organized events for showbiz-affiliated nonprofits and helped raise millions of dollars for numerous orgs and causes such as the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, the Fulfillment Fund and the Motion Picture & Television Fund.

Principals Judy Levy and Ellen Pazanti are sisters as well as partners who specialize in everything “in front of the curtain” at high-profile fund-raisers that often involve top talent and studio participation. “We like to empower people and organizations,” she says, noting that clients frequently utilize the firm as a strategic partner and sounding board.

Ben Donenberg, exec artistic director, Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles, concurs. “Levy, Pazanti does more than raise money; they really help us create a ton of value with events we put on,” he says. With so many nonprofits reaching out to people for funds, Donenberg explains that the firm helped “position us as unique, focused our message and elevated the organization.”

Chaired by Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson, the arts education group’s annual fund-raiser presents a reading of a Shakespearean comedy. The popular event does more than sell out, contends Donenberg: It has created a devoted cadre of supporters for the org. (The 2008 event raised $570,000).

One reason orgs seek out Levy, Pazanti’s services is that the firm makes it easier for clients to coordinate complex affairs, sparing them the task of producing such time-consuming events inhouse. “We have a structure built, access, relationships, but we don’t browbeat people (for donations),” says Levy. “We get organizations in front of people.”

Levy believes a well-thought-out special event should serve two purposes: The first is fund-raising, the second is PR — or improving awareness and visibility.

Donenberg says people are inspired to contribute because Levy, Pazante has been able to “define, articulate and communicate the value of our work — and that drives the funds and contributions.”

Like other businesses, the nonprofit world has been hit hard by the recession. Because income has diminished, event expenses must be cut. “Everyone is cognizant of watching the bottom line,” Levy says. The firm increasingly helps clients create events for less; however, it’s key not to lose an event’s place in the calendar, as corporate donors budget gift-giving on an annual basis.

A nonprofit will consider hiring a professional firm for several reasons. One is that they need to make strategic use of their busy boards and volunteers. When a nonprofit is planning a fund-raiser, “You can’t ask people to do too much,” says Debbie Levin, prexy of the Environmental Media Assn.

In decades past, volunteers (typically nonworking women) would handle all the details of an event; these days, that’s a rarity. “There are so many moving pieces,” explains Levin of her org’s annual awards ceremony, which welcomes 1,000 guests for a seated dinner and an elaborate, multimedia presentation. “Levy, Pazanti is the closest thing to turnkey for an event that I have,” she says.

Levy, Pazanti is involved with about two to 12 events monthly, including dinners, concerts, premieres and sometimes, just meetings. Its services include creating an event, establishing a committee structure, organizing a solicitation list and then producing invites and other materials.

Pricing the event is an art in itself, Levy notes. Once the invite goes out, there are follow-up phone calls, ad books (often in CD/DVD format) and whatever it takes to aid an org.

“Both Ellen and I believe there is nothing better than being able to help someone else,” Levy says.

WHO’S WHO

Judy Levy

Former deputy finance director for California politician par-excellence Jerry Brown, who got her start in politics as a scheduler for the late Democratic U.S. senator, VP and presidential contender Hubert Humphrey. She’s the firm’s “outside” person. Counts Lew and Edie Wasserman, David Mixner, Irma Colen and her parents among her mentors.

Ellen Pazanti

The vet insider in the firm who negotiates with vendors, establishes fees and closes deals. Began her career in the private sector managing medical offices.

Lauran Huff

Ten years as senior associate: the lead person who oversees staff and the go-to person for day-to-day activities. She keeps clients on task and focused.

Margot Gersh

Personal assistant.

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