On Feb. 18, 2013, event wrangler Jennifer Horn Stevens faced a “go/no-go” deadline as to whether to greenlight the first Mack, Jack & McConaughey benefit.
Namesakes Mack Brown, Jack Ingram and Matthew McConaughey — plus their wives, Sally Brown, Amy Ingram and Camila Alves — had only two months left to prepare for a two-day benefit in April 2013 that nobody knew would produce a dime for their chosen children’s charities.
“Year one, we wanted to see if we could break even,” Stevens recalls. “We didn’t even know if people would show up. It was not until I was standing on the floor of the gala watching the live auction unfold, doing the math in my head, did I think, ‘Hey, this is going to work.’”
The first MJ&M event didn’t just break even. It netted $900,000, an unheard-of amount for a debut Austin benefit.
Over the course of five years, the group has raised more than $7.5 million for the Rise School, CureDuchenne, HeartGift, Dell Children’s Medical Center of Central Texas and the Just Keep Livin’ Foundation.
“Some on our planning committee were skeptical,” Stevens says. “How did I know that this would work? For me, it was gut instinct. If we build what I think we are building, it’s going to work.”
Year by year
With the big event returning April 12-13, how do you go from zero to one of Austin’s biggest fundraisers in just five years?
For Stevens, it all began in fall 2012, when she auditioned for the role of wrangler.
“Event planners spend money,” Stevens told this newspaper in 2014. “Fundraisers raise money. That’s what I am. If your goal is to raise money — and also have a good event — hire a fundraiser.”
A few months later in April 2013, a preliminary VIP scrum gathered on a Wednesday at the stately home of the Browns. The next night, John Mellencamp served as the headliner at ACL Live, while Heath Hale and his team enlivened the evening with their three-ring auctioneering.
During the day on Friday, some guests played golf at the Barton Creek Resort, while others attended a small fashion show — designed to keep the major sponsors’ wives entertained — at Neiman Marcus in the Domain. Lela Rose from Dallas was the designer.
That Friday evening back at ACL Live, Ingram introduced his winning “Jack & Friends” lineup of singer-songwriters, who later broke out into small groups at the W Austin Hotel to play picking parties for major donors only. Guy Clark headlined.
A crucial strategy — ignored by many nonprofits — was to identify the most likely bidders on the big auction items well in advance. But even Stevens was surprised when a woman sitting in the general-admission balcony made the winning bid on an Aston Martin, and a private concert with Miranda Lambert sold for more than $50,000.
“Today, that would sell for 150 to 200 grand,” Stevens says. “That’s the evolution of who is attending. Nowadays, a lot of our guests are from outside Austin.”
Yet nobody knew if there would be a second year. In December 2013, at the Alamo Bowl, coach Mack Brown announced to his University of Texas football team that he was leaving the program. Then Matthew McConaughey won the Academy Award for best actor in early 2014.
“Every year has its complications,” Stevens says. “Luckily, Mack said, ‘We are always committed to Austin and this event.’ And what outsiders might not know: Mack is the rock star of this show. Still, we had to wonder, was the first year a fluke? Can we really repeat it? On the planning committee, they said, ‘Someone might give you 50 grand once, but they will never do it again.”
Wrong. Stevens and her crew did their homework. They scanned what other charities were offering for auction items and steered clear of them.
Picking the right headliner among Ingram’s friends each time was also crucial for attracting a baseline audience.
“That year it was Sheryl Crow,” Stevens says of 2014. “She already had a relationship with Jack through their songwriting and with Matthew because of her relationship with Lance (Armstrong).”
Badgley Mischka was the designer for the then-still-small fashion show. Meanwhile, the singer-songwriter party on Friday grew in importance.
“If you are a real music lover, Friday is what you love the most,” Stevens says.
In 2015, the golf party moved to Spanish Oaks Golf Club, where it has remained since. More importantly, sponsors, including Spanish Oaks, now came to MJ&M rather than the other way around.
“Also, the planning became a year-round effort,” Stevens says. “The event had gotten so big, and there were so many moving parts.”
The marquee act that year was Toby Keith, with Little Big Town as the opener.
“There was such a demand for tables on the floor and gala participation, we started to use the suites on the upper floors almost like a table, with catering, drinks and bites,” Stevens says. “The rest of the upstairs seats remained public, general admission.”
In 2015, the fashion element with its New York-style runway show changed the most. Featuring designer Milly, it moved to the larger W Austin Hotel and included a luncheon at ACL Live.
“We wondered if anyone would buy a seat,” Stevens says. “It sold out with a long waiting list. We knew, again, we were on to something.”
That year, too, comedian Jimmy Kimmel opened “Jack & Friends” with a monologue.
In 2016, Dierks Bentley and Kacey Musgraves served as headliners and Veronica Beard was the designated fashion designer for an even larger event at the JW Marriott Austin Hotel.
“There was a discussion around that,” Stevens says. “Do we always have the strongest fashion brand, or the next new thing? At this point, we could carry that. We could introduce a brand to the market. These are all people Camila, who leads the fashion show, respects in the industry.”
Eric Church and Little Big Town were standouts at “Jack & Friends.” “No big band,” Stevens says. “No light show, just voices, heart and guitars.”
In 2017, tickets for Thursday concert headliner Miranda Lambert sold out in 20 minutes. The designer was Jason Wu, and the fashion show alone attracted 480 people with another waiting list.
Lambert, who wrote the Grammy-nominated “Tin Man” with Ingram, insisted that he open for her.
“The most fun thing we did last year, at the year at the end of ‘Jack & Friends,’ all came out and performed ‘Me and Bobby McGee’ together. Very fun. Very cool to watch,” Stevens says. “I kept thinking, what was going to go wrong this year? The answer was nothing. Nearly flawless.”
This year, the Dixie Chicks sold out the Thursday concert in 90 seconds. To add to the festivities, Brown was selected in January to enter the College Football Hall of Fame.
“It takes the commitment of each of the guys, each of the wives, and our team,” Stevens says. “After each event, we don’t high-five and walk away. We are never complacent, always thinking about how to make it better. After all the great press, great response from sponsors, we still might get pages of notes from a principal. I appreciate how much they care – that’s what makes it special. It’s their event. We never rest on our laurels.”
Mack, Jack & McConaughey
Gala at ACL Live: April 12
Fashion show and lunch at JW Marriott: April 13
Golf at Spanish Oaks Golf Club: April 13
Jack & Friends at ACL Live: April 13
All events are technically sold out.