Complaints aside, charities plan to stick with Trump’s Mar-a-Lago


Charities faced backlash from some donors over Trump’s policies. But most still will host events at Mar-a-Lago.

In a high-profile clash between philanthropy and politics on Palm Beach, money looks to be winning. And consequently, so are Mar-a-Lago and its owner, President Donald Trump.

Mar-a-Lago long has been an oasis for charities and their patrons during Palm Beach’s winter charity season. Ticketed guests sipped champagne by the pool, strolled garden paths and reveled in the pageantry of the estate’s grand ballrooms and Old World charm.

But this past season, Mar-a-Lago’s tropical pathways turned from soothing to slippery, as charities learned that politics and philanthropy are poor bedfellows.

Earlier this year, some donors unhappy with the policies of Mar-a-Lago owner-turned-president, Trump, demanded charities hold their events at non-Trump properties next season. A few charities, hoping to minimize backlash, agreed to look for “neutral” venues.

But in interviews with numerous charities, donors, event planners and venues, it now seems that most, if not all, charities will stay put at Trump properties for the 2017-18 winter season. This is the case even if Trump’s policies appear to contradict the very causes for which the charities seek to raise money.

Fundraiser organizers say event venues during winter are in such demand that galas must be booked a year in advance. At this point, most charities already have secured their sites for next year’s season.

Moreover, there is not a wide menu of alternative sites. There are only two Palm Beach venues that can hold 500 or more guests comfortably: Mar-a-Lago and The Breakers Resort.

“When you’re in the Palm Beach area, you are limited with the number of facilities that can have a sit-down dinner for 600 or 700 or 800. And all the charities want their functions to be on Palm Beach because that’s where the money is at,” said Al Adelson, a member of the local Cleveland Clinic council.

Cleveland Clinic held its annual gala at Mar-a-Lago on Feb. 25, despite one of its doctors being snared in Trump’s immigration ban just prior to the event. The clinic is one of several groups staying mum for now about its venue choice next year.

Even if galas wanted to move to The Breakers, it’s not easy finding a date during “season,” which runs from November through April.

Few other options

The hotel and resort books enormous corporate events business. Charity organizers say The Breakers is focused on corporate events because it can also sell hotel rooms for hundreds of dollars a night. Daytime events aren’t sought-after by The Breakers, either, because of parking limitations, sources said.

Some charity organizers say they prefer Mar-a-Lago because of the mansion’s unique, castle-like ambiance. They also like the ability to stage in different locations. Events often start with cocktails by the pool, spill into the intimate White and Gold Ballroom and then move for dinner into the Donald J. Trump Grand Ballroom, which Trump built in 2005.

This year, however, the fairy tale-like setting of Mar-a-Lago got a sober dose of reality when Trump spent seven weekends at his Palm Beach home.

It’s a trek he’s made for years when he was known simply as a New York real estate developer and reality TV star.

Now that he’s president, however, traffic, security checks and metal detectors, plus the daily political drama emanating from his administration, created headaches for event organizers and attendees this winter season — and an ethical quandary for many donors.

“When I receive an invitation to anything at Mar-a-Lago, I only attend the things I really feel I have to because of the relationship of the person who invited me,” said one donor, who described himself as “socially conscious” and offended by the administration’s tone and policies.

But several charities and donors said holding an event at the part-time home of the president is nothing but a plus, even with the security and traffic issues.

“I’m loyal to Donald Trump and I wouldn’t think of going anywhere else. It’s a beautiful venue,” said Lois Pope, a major philanthropist in animal welfare and veterans causes.

Money over politics

In fact, the allure of the “winter White House,” which also is the world’s most famous private club, caused a jump in ticket sales for charities hosting their big fundraisers this past season.

“People will pay huge amounts of money to have access to the president. If you can donate to a charity and have access, that’s a win in my book,” one major donor said.

“With him coming here every weekend, it’s making Mar-a-Lago the place to go,” agreed Harvey Oyer, a West Palm Beach attorney and frequent charity attendee. “You may have the sitting president walk in on your event.”

Case in point: This year’s International Red Cross Ball, where Trump not only stopped by, “he stayed three hours,” said Oyer, who attended the Feb. 4 gala.

The buzz is prompting organizers to expand the size of their events next season so they can raise even more money for their causes.

One group planning a larger event is Loxahatchee-based Big Dog Ranch Rescue, the largest no-kill dog rescue in the southeast United States. Big Dog President Lauree Simmons said she received “three or four” complaints from people upset about having the rescue’s Wine, Women & Shoes fundraiser at Mar-a-Lago on March 11.

The complaints were overshadowed by the success of the event, she said,which sold out all 600 tickets.

“Mar-a-Lago does a fantastic job and we have no intentions of moving the venue,” Simmons said. In fact, the event was so outstanding, “next year we’re going to expand it to 650.”

Simmons said a venue choice should have “nothing to do with politics or who your choice was for president. It’s about supporting the charity that you’re coming to.”

Those aspirations clash with the larger political panorama. Animal advocates said Trump’s administration has not shown itself to be animal-friendly. On Feb. 3, one of the administration’s first acts was to take down the United States Department of Agriculture’s online database that allowed the public to see inspections of commercial dog breeders (many of which are considered puppy mills by animal-rights advocates) and animal research labs.

Without the online database, the public cannot see how animals are treated, “which benefits the lobbyists for puppy mills and other organizations that hurt animals,” said John Goodwin, senior director of the Stop Puppy Mills campaign for the Humane Society of the United States in Gaithersburg, Md.

Others also returning next season

Charity organizers and donors privately recognize the disconnect between their missions and the impact of Trump’s policies. But it’s not stopping them from coming back to Mar-a-Lago.

Take Susan G. Koman, the world’s largest nonprofit in the fight against breast cancer.

Trump’s proposed budget would slash funding to the National Instititutes of Health, which finances research into diseases.

Nevertheless, Susan G. Komen is in final contracts negotiations to once again hold its January ball at Mar-a-Lago, sources said.

This is despite statements made this past October by Komen spokeswoman Andrea Rader that the organization planned to discuss its presence at places with “controversies.” Rader did not respond to requests for comment.

Also re-upping at Mar-a-Lago: The Bethesda Health Foundation’s Women of Grace luncheon.

Money raised at the upcoming Nov. 9 event, which honors community volunteers, goes directly to the Boynton Beach hospital’s Center for Women and Children.

“We are really there to raise money. It’s our only goal. We’re not a political organization,” said Paula Henderson, foundation director of special events and communications.

And anyway, with more than 500 attendees expected this November, up from 400-something this past year, Bethesda’s venue choices are limited. “Where else would we go?” Henderson asked.

The Palm Beach Zoo will be back at Mar-a-Lago, too, according to Andrew Aiken, the zoo’s chief executive.

This is despite the fact that some well-heeled donors privately demanded the zoo find a different venue next year, sources said. Many were upset about Trump’s immigration ban. And of course, Trump’s sons, Donald Jr. and Eric, have hunted big game for sport, the very wildlife the zoo’s conservation efforts seek to protect and promote.

Nevertheless, the show will go on next year at Mar-a-Lago on Feb. 8, just as it did during the Jan. 22 “Tropical Safari” gala, where guests mingled not only with other donors but also with cuddly wild animals the zoo brought to Palm Beach.

Aiken said only The Breakers and Mar-a-Lago can hold the zoo’s large event, limiting choice.

“We try not to let politics get involved in decision-making process,” Aiken said. “Our job is to try to raise funds as best we can to promote species conservation.”

In fact, roughly 500 people attended the zoo’s January gala, which raised nearly $1.7 million, a record.

One charity that publicly declared it would not return to Mar-a-Lago is the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, the Harvard-affiliated hospital in Boston.

The Dana Farber event held Feb. 18 at Mar-a-Lago had 500 attendees and featured a drop-in visit by President Trump. The event raised $2.2 million for cancer research.

But in the days leading up to the gala, hospital chief executive Laurie Glimcher said the institute in the future would avoid “controversial venues that may distract from our focus on cancer care and research.” Her remarks came after staff doctors and students at Harvard Medical School protested Trump’s executive order banning immigrants from selected Muslim countries.

A Dana Farber spokeswoman said she could not yet disclose next year’s event venue. “We are continuing to plan for a 2018 event in Palm Beach and have not finalized our arrangements,” Molly McHale said.

Mar-a-Lago general manager Bernd Lembcke declined to comment about whether more or fewer charities are booking events at Mar-a-Lago for next year’s winter season.

But hoteliers say there’s been an increase in inquiries about hosting charity events next season. Among them are The Four Seasons on Palm Beach and Eau Palm Beach in Manalapan.

“Our events team has seen an uptick in requests,” said Nick Gold, Eau Palm Beach’s public relations director. He said the hotel can accommodate up to 500 people, but 450 is considered a comfortable size.

Over at the Four Seasons, there’s also been an increase in event inquiries, said Colin Clark, general manager. But the hotel can only accommodate events up to 300 people.

As for The Breakers, a hotel spokeswoman said she could not confirm an uptick in business, although she said the hotel did receive inquiries. The hotel also maintained it’s eager to do business with charitable galas, as well as corporate events and destination weddings.

Event organizers say it’s hard to expect guests to pay hundreds of dollars per ticket if the experience is not special, even extraordinary, which is what an event at Mar-a-Lago delivers without fail.

The Mar-a-Lago decor, gardens, food and service are unmatched, charities and patrons agreed.

With all the focus on Mar-a-Lago, it’s no surprise that new groups are seeking to make Mar-a-Lago their go-to location for events.

One of them is the Palm Beach Hedge Fund Association, which represents more than 1,500 hedge fund members from Jupiter to Miami.

Event organizers realized the president’s frequent trips to Mar-a-Lago were drawing attention to the area as a finance destination, so they decided to capitalize on it. The group held its first event there on March 16.

The evening was a smash hit, said David Goodboy, the association’s founder. More than 150 wanted to attend, but the event’s size was capped at 60.

An open bar poolside, plus heavy hors d’oeuvres in the White and Gold ballroom, wowed guests already used to the good life. “Oh, it was beautiful,” Goodboy said. “We received rave reviews from members.”

So it’s no surprise the hedge fund association will be one more group clamoring for a spot on Mar-a-Lago’s dance card next season: “Absolutely,” Goodboy said.

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