It's hard to know which came first: people's passion for huge, multiday AIDS fund-raisers or the grandfather of those fund-raisers, the AIDS rides. But by last August two things had become abundantly clear: People's interest in these events had waned, and--with the financial collapse of AIDS ride organizer Pallotta TeamWorks--AIDS service organizations were going to have to scramble to find new ways to raise the millions of dollars once generated by the popular rides.
Dan Pallotta's genius, according to AIDS group officials, was to devise and brilliantly market fund-raising events in which participants enlisted friends, family, and coworkers to donate to a cause they might have never before considered. Riders became "a whole legion of volunteers to raise money for us," says A. Cornelius Baker, executive director of Washington, D.C.'s Whitman-Walker Clinic.
Problems arose not from the events themselves, activists say, but from publicity and news reports about Pallotta TeamWorks's expenses and high price for producing the events--in at least one case eating up more than 90% of contributions. By 2001 that publicity got so bad that beneficiaries started to leave TeamWorks-organized events. Some riders also became disenchanted when organizers, they say, shifted the rides' focus to the event rather than to the cause at hand, HIV and AIDS. TeamWorks shut down three months after the Avon Foundation decided in May against retaining the firm to produce its 2003 breast cancer walks, when a hoped-for replacement for Avon bowed out.
In fact, TeamWorks's closure in itself isn't that big of a financial blow to AIDS groups, since so many of them had already severed ties or considered distancing themselves from the company. What could hurt, however, is trying to change fund-raising game plans during the deepest economic recession in decades.
Fund-raising was going to be tough in 2003 regardless of whether TeamWorks was there to help. AIDS groups are appealing for individual, corporate, and foundation donations following a stock market nosedive and in a stagnant economy. They find themselves competing with a growing number of other health causes for a shrinking number of private dollars. And as pressing news about domestic AIDS concerns takes a backseat to international AIDS issues, U.S. AIDS groups have to work harder than ever to convince potential donors that AIDS needs remain urgent. "AIDS is devastating Africa so much more than locally that when people think of HIV and AIDS, they don't think of next door," explains Kendall Farrell, executive director of Vermont CARES.
Private money will become even more crucial, many community health officials believe, because public funds likely will decline: State and local governments are financially strapped, and the Bush administration wants to cut outlays for social services.
Yet as these AIDS groups prepare for what promises to be one of the toughest fund-raising years yet, most of them are relying on revamped, TeamWorks-free AIDS rides to keep their doors open rather than attempting to reinvent the cash-cow formula. At the same time, they're hoping a more modest, back-to-basics approach will not only be more cost-effective but also bring back donors alienated by TeamWorks's for-profit marketing.
For example, Bob Power, executive director of south-central Wisconsin's AIDS Network, notes that his group as well as others in Wisconsin, Illinois, and Minnesota announced they were ending their participation in the Heartland AIDS Ride even before TeamWorks folded. Power says officials from the network, which received $260,000 from the Heartland AIDS Ride over five years, decided to launch their own ride so that they could have "a charity event that focuses on the charity and not the event--that refocuses attention on AIDS."
AIDS Network is primarily using volunteers to produce its own ride next summer, which is planned to be smaller, shorter in distance, and less costly. …