Part Five - Options and Alternatives
by Jim Provenzano
Bay Area Reporter
The participation of people with AIDS (PWA) cycling in the AIDS Rides, particularly the California AIDS Ride 6, which commences June 6 in San Francisco, includes members of the group of cyclers called Positive Pedalers, people at a turning point, re-entering the work force and defying previous perceptions of PWAs as inactive and debilitated.
This year is Michael Brown's third ride. He's done more than overcome barriers. When he seroconverted 14 years ago, "My doctors response back then was, 'You've still got a few good years,'" he told the Bay Area Reporter. "A lot of the medical profession at the time thought that way."
Eleven years later, he was still healthy and thought about doing an AIDS Ride, "but I wasn't sure if I could do it."
The former Indiana native began biking as a youth with a Mennonite church group called OutSpoken (his stepfather is Amish, but he was not raised in their traditions). He had done long trips, but the additional burden of dealing with HIV daunted him. He works as a hair stylist, an industry that "has lost a lot of co-workers," he said.
Brown finds Positive Pedalers an inspiration. "Other groups were for people who were planning on dying. I thought I had more in common with more active people."
Bikers have socials and potlucks. Training rides include 10 to 20 participants, depending on the time of year and proximity to the Ride. "It's a great way to stay in touch every weekend," he said.
Recovering from a recent bout of meningitis "knocked me out of training," Brown said. He's getting a late start, stepping up his regimen, and vows to complete the ride.
He draws inspiration from an experience last year, where his PWA tentmate was taken to the hospital, but brought back that night. "He caught up by lunchtime the next day."
Brown is both proud and outspoken about his long-term survival, and last year put his styling skills to use for the Ride. "I dyed my hair purple with zebra stripes" and clearly labeled "HIV" on himself. He'll be riding on a Bianchi hybrid mountain bike. "I definitely came out as HIV-positive."
For Brown, the AIDS Ride shows that "you don't have to crawl in a corner and die. It was a message I wanted to send to people who've recently seroconverted."
That message, he believes, is also conveyed to supporters along the routes, from children to retirees who offer beverages, banners, and applause.
How do AIDS Rides' financial snafus appear to someone who may be directly affected by it?
"It hurts," Brown said of the criticism, but not of the fees taken by the production company, Pallotta TeamWorks. "It's unfortunate that those returns aren't greater," he said of the other Rides. "There's so much good that goes on during a Ride. It provides a place of real commitment. It gives people a sense that this is something they can do. It's not about the money. It's about the experience of the Ride. It's beyond dollars."
Brown doesn't consider the fees taken by AIDS Ride creator Dan Pallotta's company as excessive. "People should make what they can make," he said, citing "the people who are willing to volunteer, giving up their weekends. If we didn't have those people," he said, "it wouldn't happen. I respect their right to make a profit."
How does he respond to allegations that the money is misspent? "I just go out and raise as much as I can, from clients and friends." Brown has raised over $20,000.
Others, however, don't respect the profit margin and have decided to create their own rides on a smaller scale.
John Weatherhead, executive director of CenterOne, Broward County's oldest and largest AIDS service agency, led the consortium of charities in the Pallotta-produced Florida AIDS Rides in 1996, and 1997, which added five additional agencies.
The first Pallotta-produced AIDS Ride had problems, reaping only a 17 percent net return. Weatherhead noted that "out of $1.5 million gross, the agencies received only $300,000 total."
Florida AIDS Ride 2 only reaped a 6 percent return, he said. Part of the blame is placed on disgruntlement with the previous Florida Ride. "It became clear that we'd have nowhere near the predicted 60-70 percent net. We didn't know it would be so bad."
CenterOne opted out of a new contract with Pallotta TeamWorks. "We figured there was a way to do an event that would be less expensive."
Efforts to create their own ride were met by warnings from Pallotta's company. "They sent a letter saying that we did not have their permission to replicate their event," Weatherhead said.
Calling it the Red Ribbon Ride, "We used a different type of event, different contracts and sponsorships. We couldn't use the Florida AIDS Ride name. Certainly Dan Pallotta is not the first person to conceptualize a bike ride. You cannot copyright a fundraising idea."
"We put out an RFP [request for proposal] to various production companies," and chose Clear Channel Communications, a national media company of mostly Southern radio and TV stations whose marketing division produces many fundraising events.
With Clear Channel, the AIDS agencies risk was lower, Weatherhead said. "The contract with Pallotta was very one-sided. There was no guarantee with regard to net return on investments."
They also had to put up less seed money, $30,000 instead of the $325,000 that all six charities had to collectively raise in previous Rides, which pushed their financial limits.
With their new contractors, the consortium enjoyed a less risky deal. "We were guaranteed a minimum of 40 percent, and a maximum of 60 percent net proceeds," something Pallotta's group never offered. This time, "the agencies were at zero risk."
When drug store chain Walgreens signed on as a major sponsor, "they contributed over $200,000 in cash," said Weatherhead. "Every Walgreens in the state had Red Ribbon Ride posters in their stores." Caterers donated or provided low-cost food. Fifty sponsoring radio stations provided free publicity. "The in-kind donation of ads was in excess of $1.5 million."
Weatherhead bristles at the blame some have placed on "smaller regions" as a cause for financial failure. "It's hard to categorize Florida as a small community," he said. "The Broward County agencies serve 15,000 people." He also mentioned South Florida's "huge gay population."
Weatherhead said that anti-Pallotta sentiment resulted in the Red Ribbon Ride's higher turnout. "The community was angry about the previous Rides and rallied behind us to ensure that this one was a success. It was clearly a reaction.
"There are so many factors," in this change, Weatherhead stated. "On the national level, clearly things could have been done less expensively. They were unwilling to bend their formula to reflect our reality."
"The ride," Weatherhead said, "is not easy. It's a great bonding experience, but the primary focus is as a fundraiser. Although I'd like to think that everyone's philanthropic, you need to have an event that people go to, regardless of the cause. The money is a by-product for the attendees. If they're having a good time and raising money, I don't see anything wrong with that."
But he draws the line when sensible budgeting is given a lower priority than "raising awareness." He asks, "Who the heck doesn't know about AIDS?"
Is the Red Ribbon Ride setting a pattern for alternative versions of the rides? "I certainly hope so," said Weatherhead. "For cities that have done well with Pallotta, I'm happy for them. It worked for them. It didn't work for us."
FAR and Away
Another group that succeeds on a smaller scale is Ride FAR of Massachusetts. All proceeds from Ride FAR go directly to the receiving AIDS service organizations (ASOs), and have since 1989, when creator Suzie Becker started a ride with only 25 riders. To date, they have raised over $275,000.
"All of the money we raise goes to the AIDS groups, and all of our lodging and rest stops are donated," she said.
Contacts from her small business at the timea greeting card company (Becker is currently a book illustrator), suppliers and clients helped her publicize and produce the ride, which treks from Concord, Massachusetts to Storrs, Connecticut, through New Hampshire, "and a bit of Rhode Island."
Becker is not a paid fundraiser, but agrees that other nonprofits should pay their development staff a decent wage. But for a benefit, "if the margins aren't the way people want," she notes that the established mode of bike rides "is not the only way to do it."
Becker hopes Ride FAR can be an example for other small groups wary of high production costs. Her low-budget style is admittedly "a huge amount of work. In the summer I'll spend 30 to 40 percent of my time on the ride."
Financial assistance offered includes the Berkeley-based Plum Graphics that prints shirts for Ride FAR, which come in handy when publicizing her rides. She still has to clarify between the Tanqueray-sponsored Rides and Ride FAR.
"We're not in it to raise money about our rides," she said. "It's about our community-based organizations. It stays local."
Another small-scale, yet successful, event is the Paradise Ride of Hawaii, one of the newest of AIDS rides not associated with Pallotta's company.
Eduardo Hernandez, resource development director for the Maui AIDS Foundation, said that despite first-time snafus, last year's ride made $80,000 with 39 riders participating.
Among their sponsors are local airlines that fly riders between islands. Bikes go on specially-designed racks aboard cargo flights, so participants don't have to box or disassemble bikes. This year's event will include 150 riders.
"Our event is a grassroots collaboration of primary ASOs in the Hawaiian Islands," said Hernandez. Recipients include the Life Foundation, (Oahu), Maui AIDS Foundation (Maui County), Malama Pono (Kuai) and the Big Island AIDS Projects. He estimates that Maui has about 3,000 HIV cases.
"We did our own ride with a consultant who set the tone and launched the model," Hernandez said, "but we're doing it our own this year," which, he admits, has proven to be a daunting task.
"It'll be a pivotal year for the ride," he said. "Running it on our own takes a lot of everyone's time." Although they are considering hiring a consultant for the 2000 ride, "we're building on the feeling that it was a very intimate experience with an extraordinary amount of community support."
Hernandez concurs with other smaller communities' having first-time problems. "Because we're in the formative stages, we are experiencing some higher costs, but it's raised money that would not have previously come in. It's motivated riders and donors to become more aware of HIV and AIDS."
It also has one added bonus: "It's definitely the most scenic!"
Objects of Charity
But even with rides underway all across the country, one question remains for some activists: Do AIDS Rides raise awareness for AIDS, or just AIDS events?
Stephen LeBlanc, a longtime member of ACT UP/Golden Gate, one of less than a dozen remaining chapters of the internationally recognized activist group, said, "I'm very reluctant to criticize people who believe they are doing something to address AIDS, but I don't believe that the California AIDS Ride, as run by Dan Pallotta, does anything to benefit PWAs in San Francisco.
"It really sickens me to see all the money raised and all the hours devoted that result in nothing for PWAs."
His opposition is also personal. As a lawyer, living with HIV for years, LeBlanc tells of workplace pressure in fundraising. "My law firm, over the years, has given thousands of dollars to employees who have done the Ride, and several staff ask for sponsorships every year. These people are friends of mine. They know about my activism, and they know how I feel about the Ride.
"I've talked to them about other places to give money or about getting involved in activism to improve AIDS treatment or AIDS prevention, but pressuring drug companies for greater treatment access or options doesn't have the same yuppie appeal as a week-long bike marathon, the expenses of which are paid for with donations for AIDS."
LeBlanc had the opportunity to meet with Dan Pallotta in 1996. "About five members of ACT UP/Golden Gate had dinner with Dan, at his request. He said that he wanted to give his riders a chance to become involved in AIDS activism between Rides. We were very encouraged by that idea and suggested Pallotta could provide living-expense stipends to a couple of activists to serve as organizers of political activity of the riders. Dan replied that there was simply no money available."
Pallotta attended an ACT UP meeting and lauded the group as visionaries in his newsletter to riders a month later. "But," LeBlanc said, "we never heard from him again."
LeBlanc spoke of his impressions of the distance that events like the AIDS Rides place between PWAs and Ride participants, which he sees in an historical context of how our society treats the sick and disabled. "I heard an amazing radio program by the Disabled History Project last year. The project documented that in our society, disabled people are supposed to be thankful and teary-eyed objects of charity," he said. "Historically, those who ask questions or want some input or control regarding funds raised on their behalf are considered ingrates with a bad attitude. That's exactly how people with AIDS are treated today by big ASOs and fundraisers like Pallotta."
Yet, LeBlanc understands the reality of modern fundraising. "These people feel like they're doing something. Most of them will never do what I would call AIDS activism," i.e., speaking out to government and medical officials, or even participating in the now-seemingly passť act of civil disobedience.
Renowned ACT UP/D.C. spokesman Steve Michael, who died of AIDS one year ago, was more blunt, calling the AIDS Rides "mini-vacations" that take "normally productive people away from doing direct services." He accused Pallotta TeamWorks of being the "worst AIDS profiteers since Burroughs-Wellcome."
With organizations like Washington D.C.'s Whitman Clinic, and its program Food & Friends, dependent upon the AIDS Ride for up to 25 percent of annual budgeting, (according to Food & Friends Executive Director Craig Schniederman), administrators for such groups will be reluctant to criticize a company that can produce $1.56 million, even if it costs more to get it.
Schniderman's salary figures, obtained by former Pallotta employee-turned-critic John Haley from IRS 990 forms posted on the Internet, show the following increases, compared to its client base:
o 1995$62,915Food & Friends serves 500 clients
o 1996$102,125Food & Friends serves 640 clients
o 1997$135,000Food & Friends serves 676 clients.
His salary jumped by 63 percent in 1996, the year the Washington, D.C. AIDS Ride began. In 1997 it jumped by another 32 percent, doubling in two years. How can anyone expect criticism from those it personally benefits?
But complaints aren't limited to AIDS Rides. Pallotta TeamWorks has taken their fundraising mechanisms into other disease fundraisers, like the GTE Big Ride Across America to benefit the American Lung Association (ALA), which Haley called "a huge flop."
Haley said that the GTE Big Ride "netted only $1.4 million out of $5.9 million grossed, or about 25 percent. The ALA dumped him and is producing the ride itself this year. Pallotta didn't care. He made his huge one-time production fee and got out."
Complaints over Pallotta TeamWorks' hefty fees were shared in a riders' bulletin board related to the event.
"I'm not sure that I really want my donors to know that they basically funded my 'vacation,'" said Laine Hardman in an October 1998 message posted on a bulletin board about the Big Ride '98. "And I am concerned that it will hurt the ALA by association even if they don't use Pallotta next year."
Participant Donna Harris echoed that sentiment. "I called my local ALA and was told that it was true. Pallotta's company gets $6,000 per person. The ALA across the U.S. were outraged over this. I am in shock over this. I only raised $6,500. That means only $500 went to my local ALA."
According to Haley, "Pallotta's not even concerned about the AIDS Rides anymore," now that TeamWorks has a "new cash cow," the Avon 3-day Breast Cancer Walks. He asserts that Pallotta's interests are perfect for such an event, "because there are no organizations directly involved, just a foundation that awards grant money. With very little oversight, he can charge whatever he wants and get away with it. This guy has to be stopped."
Or simply avoided. As the first Florida Red Ribbon Ride drew to a close the last weekend in March, Weatherhead was happy to report the event came in under budget. He anticipated over $300,000 in net proceeds.
(letter to the Editor, May 22 issue)
On Bicycles, On Balance
It is not news that Jim Provenzano doesn't like the AIDS Rides. Quite frankly, I can't even tell what his real complaint is. Is it that the AIDS Rides have high overhead? Guess what the AIDS Rides are not another one of those lousy cocktail parties that have bored most of us to tears through the years.
The AIDS Rides are big operations that cost big money. These Rides needs lots of donors giving lots of money to make them have a defensible return. It takes someone who has actually participated in a Ride to appreciate what it must take in manpower and money to move a mobile city down the coast night after night. The operation is big and it ain't cheap.
Those infant Rides in remote places may never be able to get successfully off the ground. The negative publicity will no doubt detract from far more successful events like the California Ride. Jim Provenzano has shrieked loud and long about the low return of the Texas AIDS Ride (and other infant Rides). No doubt, this scares would-be California donors away as well. Perhaps if Provenzano screams long enough the donations here will drop to the point of indefensible percentage returns as well. Then he can shout, "See I told you!!" A self-fulfilling prophecy.
Maybe those would-be AIDS Ride donors will show up at one of those cocktail parties. Somehow, I doubt it. Most AIDS Ride donors are peoples' grandmothers, aunts and uncles, and friends. Do you think they are giving because of their desires to end the world from the scourge of AIDS? Nope. They are giving because of their fondness for the individual rider.
I suspect that the California AIDS Ride won't need detractors like Provenzano to kill it though. The simple fact is that the "glory days" of AIDS fundraising is probably history already. There is a common perception that AIDS is no longer the scourge it once was. The B.A.R.'s obits are testimony to that. AIDS hospices are closing. The AIDS Ward at SF General Hospital is no longer dedicated to serving AIDS patients. Funny, while people start to live AIDS Rides (and other such fundraisers) will suffer. Ultimately, this strikes me as a good thing to be celebrated. But for those of us who grew up around the disease, the fear and the fundraisers, it's kind of sad in a melancholy sort of way.
For the time being, I ride in the AIDS Ride (and occasionally show up for cocktail parties). I am not disheartened by the fact that such a Ride is expensive to produce and that people insist on getting paid for their efforts. Rather, I am disheartened by detractors that produce nothing but accusatory rhetoric. If such detractors can do better, why don't they just do it. I get very tired of listening to them.
[Jim Provenzano replies: I don't like or dislike the AIDS Ride. Nowhere in these articles have I offered my opinion, pro or con. I have plenty of interviewees who are quite informed and willing to do that job. The extreme opinions on either side of the debate over what constitutes "benefit" and "profit" are what make this news.
In doing this series of articles, I've noticed a pattern: defenders of the Ride dodge the facts and prefer to make snide personal attacks on any critics. They refuse to consider that the expenses of the Ride may be excessive, or that there is anything wrong with a for-profit company refusing to reveal the level of their enormous profits.
The only "shrieking" statements about the Rides are from those who refuse to listen to any facts about the AIDS Ride, considering it a sacred shrine of philanthropy unworthy of any criticism or query. While the number of organizations refusing to do business with Pallotta grow, his defenders and hired publicists continue to attack critics who simply document this turning tide. To them, reporting actual events is seen as "slanted." But how can reporting about the AIDS Rides be balanced, when the subject refuses to reveal any financial facts?
I don't "hate" such ignorance, but I feel sorry for riders and their "grandmothers" who blindly believe that a majority of the funds will fight AIDS, while news stories from several "remote" regions like Boston, Wisconsin, Florida, and Texas prove a less than reasonable loss.]
addendum: (A $3.5 million event is an "infant" ride? That's a really big baby!)