As the spring social season continues full steam ahead in May with major events such as the annual Opera Ball and Washington Performing Arts Society (WPAS) Gala, one segment of the local community has not only become a regular face on the scene, but an indispensable player on the fundraising circuit.
That’s because in the nation’s capital, foreign embassies are more closely linked to cultural and charitable organizations than they are in any other city in the world.
Even before some ambassadors and their spouses actually step foot in Washington, they are receiving dozens of requests to contribute to silent auctions, host dinner parties, or serve as honorary diplomatic chairs for galas and benefits. In some cases, their predecessors have already committed them to one of the major balls of the social season. This expectation of helping local, national and international nonprofits make money is a new phenomenon for some top diplomats, but as many quickly learn, lending their support to these organizations can be a “key” to the city — contributing to a worthwhile cause while spreading goodwill for their country and, perhaps, even sparking business opportunities.
Ambassador Gilles Noghès of Monaco and his American-born wife Ellen think that America’s tradition of charitable giving, volunteerism and public service is a perfect match for today’s public diplomacy. “Washington has a unique way of including the diplomatic corps in the community at large and extending this philosophy of giving,” the ambassador said. “It is a win-win situation, providing us with a multitude of opportunities for community outreach, meaningful and mutually beneficial partnerships, and, importantly, enduring friendships for our nations and ourselves.”
Japanese Ambassador Ichiro Fujisaki agrees that helping Washington’s cultural and charitable groups can definitely benefit all partners. “A great part of being an ambassador in Washington, D.C., is that you and your spouse can involve yourselves in philanthropy,” he told The Washington Diplomat. “It’s a great learning experience for us about the American spirit — to work for others when you can. I hope this spirit will spread throughout the world…. We have enjoyed meeting people, including youngsters, who carry torches for future generations.”
Mexican Ambassador Arturo Sarukhan, who like Fujisaki previously served in Washington earlier in his career, echoed that sentiment: “Diplomats need to give back to the community that hosts us. We need to underscore that we share a common sense of purpose and be co-responsible and co-stakeholders with the causes, issues and challenges Washingtonians face.”
And a major challenge recently has been the depressed economic climate, which has made it all the more difficult for charities and nonprofits — not to mention cash-strapped embassies — to raise much-needed funds.
“The problem is the economy and that embassies today have less money yet more demands on them,” said Esther Coopersmith, a former U.S. representative to the United Nations and longtime Washington insider. “We don’t have corporations [to sponsor events] like New York. Charities are dependent on the embassies, but the charities are a way for ambassadors to make more friends.”
“America is big,” added this pre-eminent hostess. “At the U.N., you only need to know your 192 ambassadors. In Washington, you need to make friends with 300 million people and all branches of the government. Working with cultural groups and charities puts you in touch with some of the most active Washingtonians and helps you learn about Americans and their generosity.”
Indeed, helping with local fundraising efforts is a facet of diplomatic life that’s largely unique to the area.
“We had nothing like this in Thailand,” said Eva Hafström, wife of the Swedish ambassador, speaking of a previous posting. “You have so many charities here and we try to open the house as much as we can. With our big backyard, everyone thinks of us, but we have to always say, ‘What’s in it for the Swedish taxpayer?’
“The first year you’re here you want to say ‘yes’ to everything; the second year, you choose and the third year, you pick even more carefully,” she added. “Before we even arrived, our social secretary told us that we were already signed up to host a dinner for the Meridian Ball and the Arts for the Aging Tennis Tournament. You sort of inherit certain organizations.”
The Spanish Embassy’s well-known social secretary, Diane Flamini, agrees that certain groups become favorites for certain embassies. “Mainly for us, it’s WPAS because they bring over a lot of Spanish musicians and we host them, Meridian because of their international center, and the opera because of Plácido,” she said, referring to Washington National Opera General Director Plácido Domingo.
Interestingly though, after working with six different ambassadors over the last 20 years, Flamini reported a decline in fundraising requests — unlike many other embassies.
“Perhaps they know our status and that I will have to say no,” she told The Diplomat candidly. “Twenty years ago we said yes to all sorts of things because we wanted to be recognized. Now, our current policy is only to host what directly benefits Spain. Like many others, our embassy has been told to tighten our belts so we only host what is directly related to our country.”
This means that even if an organization asks “to borrow” or rent Spain’s official residence, “we say no because it is the private home of the ambassador and his family,” Flamini explained. “What we do now is cultural or commercial. We would have a wine promotion or do something for the Spanish ballet.”
Indeed, behind the scenes, charity has its limits — as good intentions sometimes collide with economic feasibility. In fact, many contacted for this story said the entire subject was “too touchy” to comment on. One diplomatic wife who did not want to be identified revealed, “The real chatter among the embassies is that the charitable demand is enormous — there are so many competing interests out there — it can be overwhelming.”
Diplomats and staffers alike fear that openly discussing their embassies’ budgetary constraints might create a negative economic impression of their countries. “What people don’t understand is that, except for a few, embassies don’t have huge entertainment budgets. It may be the ambassador and his or her spouse who will be paying for your dinner,” one diplomatic wife flatly said. “Of course it is easier for embassies that have their own chef and a bigger staff, but there are always more requests than you can ever accept.”
Unfortunately as a result, it is often the smaller embassy with a meager budget that gets left out of participating in the social swirl of Washington charities — which can often generate important contacts for their homeland.
For many, it’s simply a matter of choosing the right partners for your embassy and your country.
“Yes, we get a lot of solicitation and it’s hard to say no, that is why we have to choose carefully,” admits Veronica Valencia-Sarukhan, wife of the Mexican ambassador. “We do it because we believe it’s the right thing to do … and because we know that in the process we are helping disadvantaged people,” she said, referring to groups she assists such as the Latino Student Fund, the anti-trafficking organization Innocents at Risk, and Refugees International.
“I personally can say that my ‘job’ in Washington has been extremely rewarding precisely because of the causes I’m able to help and the friends I’ve been able to make,” she added. “I work as hard as I can to show the world that Mexico cares … and in the end, I get more out of it than anyone else.”
Four of Washington’s biggest social galas that especially depend on diplomatic support and cachet include the annual Ambassadors Ball and Meridian Ball, both in the fall, and the Washington Performing Arts Gala and Auction as well as the Opera Ball in the spring. The stakes are always high in “securing” a high-profile, well-liked diplomatic couple to act as the event’s “honorary diplomatic chairs,” and sometimes an unusual or hard-to-get embassy will help to sell more tickets and tables.
That’s no doubt what the Washington National Opera (WNO) is hoping for this year by holding its annual Opera Ball for the first time at the Russian Embassy, where more than 500 guests are expected to converge for the prestigious black-tie affair for a starting ticket price of 0 per person.
For another 0, guests can attend one of many “pre-ball” dinners held at various embassies throughout the city, another critical component of diplomatic participation in the Opera Ball.
Conversely, the event will also highlight Russian culture in Washington. “I’m excited,” said Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. “I love opera. And this is a natural extension of the Bolshoi [Theatre] and the Mariinsky [Ballet performing] at the Kennedy Center. It all goes together.”
Ball chair and philanthropist Susan Lehrman said she hopes the event will also “bring together and promote strong relationships among top business leaders who conduct business in both countries.”
Creating a situation whereby businesses and associations will want to underwrite or, at least, help defray the costs of such a massive undertaking is one reason why many of Washington’s premier cultural and charitable groups turn to outside firms for help in not only organizing these complicated evenings, but also capitalizing on their inherent funding potential.
According to Lizette Corro — chief executive officer of Linder & Associates, a firm that prides itself on being “event architects” — many of today’s sophisticated ambassadors and spouses are willing to go way beyond just attaching their names and attending an event.
“Often this top diplomatic couple work with the cultural or charitable organization to help raise funds through the embassy’s business network,” Corro explained. “This process may also create lists of new prospects that may be interested in attending the event.”
Beyond the obvious business benefits, collaborating with charities often comes down to a personal connection with a particular mission, whether it be humanitarian or cultural, along with a genuine interest in helping an admirable cause.
Refugees International (RI), for instance, finds natural diplomatic partners in both “focus countries” where the group operates, such as Afghanistan, as well as nations that have a vested interest in refugee issues, such as Canada and Finland. Ahead of the group’s 31st anniversary dinner this month, Eileen Shields-West, chair of the Refugees International Development Committee, cited the support of this year’s honorary diplomatic chairs, Finnish Ambassador Pekka Lintu and his wife Laurel Colless, who share RI’s concerns about climate displacement and will again, for the fourth year, host the RI luncheon prior to the gala.
For Stuart Holliday, president of Meridian International Center, embassies and the diplomatic corps have been an integral part in fulfilling Meridian’s mission of promoting international understanding and building global partnerships for 50 years.
“While the Meridian Ball in particular has involved embassies for over 40 years, their primary support is not financial,” he noted, “but as participating partners in our global leadership collaboration programs, which link Americans with the rest of the world year-round.”
Likewise, Debbie Sigmund, founder of Innocents at Risk, a Washington-based organization combating the worldwide trafficking of women and children since 2005, said that working with the diplomatic corps has been essential to “our awareness work.”
“Over 15 ambassadors graciously opened their beautiful residences to host fundraising events for us, and from those events we build ongoing relationships with each country that have led to great success in launching awareness programs back in their countries,” Sigmund told The Diplomat.
“Through the embassies we have been able to identify and partner with NGOs in their home countries,” she added, noting that “two former diplomatic wives, Minerva Espinal in the Dominican Republic and Veronica Ferrero in Peru, are still helping us even though they’ve left Washington and returned home.”
Many diplomats have also developed a close personal bond with the Washington Performing Arts Society, which has showcased performers from around the world since 1965 and has become a natural cultural tie-in with the embassies. Argentine Ambassador Héctor Marcos Timerman and his wife Anabelle Sielecki are this year’s honorary diplomatic hosts for the WPAS Gala on May 8, whose theme this year is “from Broadway to Buenos Aires” and will feature a special performance by Tony Award winner Chita Rivera. In addition to the performances on stage, the annual event always boasts one of the biggest silent auctions in town, with dozens of tempting diplomatic offerings.
In addition to its cross-cultural appeal, WPAS President Neale Perl credits the group’s award-winning Embassy Adoption Program for taking the diplomatic relationships “one big step further, involving the embassies with the District’s sixth-graders,” he said. “This creates a special relationship, makes it personal, and makes us partners with the embassies.”
It’s exactly that type of community outreach that appeals to many embassies, large and small, and drives their participation. “Many of the smaller embassies are happy and eager to support local charities in ways that don’t necessarily call for direct financial support,” said Kareen Kakouris, the American-born wife of the Cypriot ambassador. “You have to be creative and find other ways to help. For example, embassies have supported Restore Mass Avenue by having members of their embassy staff available to help plant trees. The Embassy of Cyprus and other embassies have also supported the Susan G. Komen Foundation by organizing embassy teams for the D.C. Race for the Cure. Obviously, fighting breast cancer is a cause which affects all nations.”
Kakouris also noted the invaluable contribution of items donated by embassies to auctions, from wines to personal dinners with the ambassador. “These donated diplomatic dinners, receptions, and national craft items to silent auctions often bring in significant amounts of money for local charities and schools. These contributions are quite popular in Washington, and donors are willing to pay for the access they offer. I’m often surprised how many thousands of dollars someone will pay for an embassy dinner,” she said.
As an educator, Kakouris also donates her time by volunteering at Language ETC (Education and Technology Center), which provides local English language classes at affordable prices to immigrants, embassy personnel and their families. “They are able to keep the cost down by using volunteer teachers very effectively,” she said. “I love this program as it works with my schedule and feeds my passion for being involved.”
About the Author
Gail Scott is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat and lifestyle columnist for the Diplomatic Pouch.