Will “If Only” Take Money from Charity and Give it to Celebrities?

Will “If Only” Take Money from Charity and Give it to Celebrities?

Pay $25,000 for golf with Joe Montana and you'll know that at least 10% of the proceeds go to charity.

San Francisco entrepreneur Trevor Traina recently launched If Only, a for-profit luxury lifestyle firm that sells access to high-end experiences with celebrities for ultra-premium prices. Traina, a veteran of many a fundraising gala, “…noticed that people seem more intrigued by experiences than things” and set out to build a service that cuts out the middleman (or in this case, the “middle-gala”). Utilizing Traina’s extensive network of relationships, If Only offers experiences such as a round of golf with Joe Montana, a VIP meet and greet with Shakira, the chance to accompany Barry Sanders to this year’s Heisman Trophy ceremony, or Chris Cornell’s custom-built Harley Davidson (which I have to point out is a thing).

If Only takes a 20% commission of the sale, and then the celebrity and the charity split the proceeds, “with at least 10% going to the charity.” Ten percent is a pretty low bar to clear, and would fail any litmus test in the fundraising world, but If Only is not a charitable company – it is a company capitalizing upon an existing charitable economy. And If Only‘s proposition is a dangerous one, because under the surface it has the potential to do far more harm than good.

To his credit, Traina does insist that “the luminaries often donate their entire take.” But that is problem number one: If Only flips the donation model upside down, giving the person who buys the experience no tax breaks and making the celebrity who offers the experience for sale the “donor” in this equation. The experiences people buy through If Only are not tax deductible, they are taxable purchases. If a celebrity chooses to donate their earnings from a sale, they then get to write off everything they donate above the agreed-upon 10% that automatically goes to the charity.  This reduces the incentive for celebrities to participate in more traditional fundraising models, where all they are allowed to write-off is the value of the time they donate.

This model also negatively impacts the buyer’s perception of such transactions. Fundraising auctions have created this marketplace for Traina and his company by establishing a value for these experiences. Asking $15,000 to meet Shakira would be insane without the established perception of value created through fundraising auctions. But at each of those auctions, every dime spent on the auction lot went directly to the charity (I am presuming that well-run galas open their doors in the black, and that everything raised in the auction goes directly to the charity). The charity invests the volunteer hours, acquires the sponsors and creates the event in order to create that moment and acquire supporters.

If Only allows buyers to simply click and buy, giving them access to fantastic experiences without, as Traina puts it, “having to wear a tuxedo.” It offers all of the access without any of the commitment. Nevermind that a paltry 10% of the money is all that is guaranteed to make it to the charity, this new business model means that the wealthy can simply log-on to acquire those experiences that they used to have to seek out at fundraising events. If Only places all of the emphasis on the experience, not on the charity. Buyers are not donors, and there is no apparent model for converting them into supporters of the charity they inadvertently support when they acquire an experience.

This shifts the perceived value away from the social change being accomplished by the charity and places all of the value directly on the experience; a complete reversal of perception from the existing fundraising auction framework. The worst-case scenario results from this could be staggering. In a worst case scenario, this will completely marginalize charities by rewarding buyers for doing “the least amount possible” in support of charities, and celebrities will become more frugal with their experiential donations.

I am trying to temper my reactions to If Only with the lessons I learned from AIDS Ride founder Dan Pallotta. I was one of those easily swayed by the public opinion against Pallotta when the numbers first started coming out from the AIDS Ride and Dan was crucified in public. But the initial numbers from If Only do not look good. So far they have signed up 8,000 members world wide, and sold around 800 experience packages. Those packages have helped raise more than $500,000 for charity, meaning that on average a package that If Only sells will raise $625 for charity. That number seems paltry as well, given that the majority of their experiences are in the $10,000 – $100,00o range. But If Only also has a lot of low-end packages, ranging from $1 to $125 for things ranging from a digital badge to a Twitter follow from a celeb.

And because If Only is a for-profit company, we’ll never know the reality of how much good, or damage, they are doing.

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