Running a charity with two full-time staff is never an easy task—but, amid a pandemic, with need higher and resources lower than ever before, the challenge was exponentially bigger. It’s well deserved, then, that one half of that two-person team—Elizabeth O’Neil, executive director of Variety, the Children’s Charity of Southern California—is receiving the Al Shapiro Distinguished Service Award at this year’s ShowEast, taking place weeks before O’Neil’s retirement at the end of the year.
O’Neil’s love of cinema started at the drive-in. The youngest of 10 children, she and her siblings would be bundled into the family station wagon (the younger kids in their pajamas) and taken to the movies, where the older children would sit on the roof while the little ones stayed in the car, likely to fall asleep before the film was over. The Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the first movie O’Neil remembers attending at the theater, caused some sleepless nights: “I had nightmares for years!” When she was 7 or 8, she remembers an older sister—ostensibly on babysitting duty—taking her along with her friends to a drive-in double feature of M*A*S*H and The Andromeda Strain, “which scared me to death. I don’t think my parents ever found that out.”
Luckily, early exposure to age-inappropriate films didn’t turn O’Neil off the world of cinema. Her professional connection to the exhibition industry began in 1986, when she started working for USA Cinemas (later acquired by Loews Theatres, eventually to become a part of AMC Theatres) as a co-op advertising coordinator. Later, she became their director of in-theater marketing. Following her time in exhibition, O’Neil moved to market research firm Theatrical Entertainment Services—taking her to Los Angeles—and Technicolor Cinema Distribution. It was while working at the latter company that she was asked to join the board of directors at Variety, the Children’s Charity of Southern California; three years later, in 2008, she became its executive director.
It was her time at these companies, O’Neil says, developing skills in the areas of sales and client relations, that helped her once she moved to the nonprofit sector. “I still very much try to run the charity as a for-profit,” she says—both in terms of getting as many contributions as possible and in running Variety, the Children’s Charity of Southern California with efficiency and transparency. Through her efforts, charity assessment organization Charity Navigator increased the rating of Variety’s Southern California chapter from two to four stars, indicating a nonprofit that (per Charity Navigator’s official assessment criteria) “exceeds industry standards and outperforms most charities in its cause.”
“We’re a small chapter,” says O’Neil, and thus “it was really important for us to let donors know that their contribution is going to help the greatest number of children where the need is greatest.” With that four-star rating, Variety of SoCal is able to instill confidence in their donors that as much of their donation as possible is going to the mission of helping children—particularly those with medical disabilities who, with Variety’s assistance, are able to get much-needed adaptive bikes, mobility equipment, and other equipment and services to help them lead happier, more active lives.
In 2020, with the Covid pandemic shutting businesses’ doors and keeping billions quarantined, the emotional and mental importance of being able to spend a few active minutes outside hit home for families and individuals worldwide. Variety of SoCal—like the cinema industry as a whole—had to pivot to virtual events, a challenge for a nonprofit that previously generated the vast majority of its donations from in-person events, including poker and casino nights, an annual Golf Classic, and the Heart of Show Business luncheon. In September 2020, when Covid case numbers had taken a dip, Variety of SoCal held an in-person, outdoor golf event that sold out immediately, says O’Neil. “The biggest takeaway was that it was so nice seeing our colleagues again and just catching up with people. We can’t get into the mind frame where everything is going to be virtual from now on, because we still need that human interaction.”
What Covid has taught her, she says, is that “we really need to diversify more into other revenue streams, other than just in-person events. We love seeing our supporters. We love getting together. We love the events that bring all our friends out to support the industry. That’s so important. But I think the key is to get a better balance between the in-person events and other revenue streams.”
From her 14-and-counting years as Variety of SoCal’s executive director, the moments that stick most in O’Neil’s mind involve that in-person connection—not with entertainment professionals (though she immensely values the charitable spirit of the entertainment community that makes Variety of SoCal’s work possible), but with the children and families who benefit from Variety’s work. She recalls a 75th anniversary event, where 75 adaptive bikes were given away to at-need children. “It was the most amazing day. I remember one father came up to me—his son was named Angel, and he had written the most beautiful note on his application. He came up to me and gave me flowers to thank me for what was happening that day. The parents are the heroes. The parents are the people that—24 hours a day, seven days a week—are dealing with meds and therapies and walkers and wheelchairs. Yet they never lose joy and hope. They are dedicated and driven to giving their children their best lives possible. They are the ones that inspire me. They’re the ones that are the heroes.”