The Whitman-Walker Clinic scrambles for dollars in the post-Sept. 11 landscape.
Just days before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, one of the biggest worries among the staff at the Whitman-Walker Clinicthe District’s leading provider of AIDS treatment and serviceswas that the recent stock market downturn would crimp the clinic’s end-of-the-year fundraising push.
“I thought we’d been through worse before,” says A. Cornelius Baker, Whitman-Walker’s executive director. “We were concerned, but I thought all the battles we’ve had in fighting the AIDS epidemic had made us ready for anything.”
Then the world changedand fundraising for local nonprofits changed, too.
Normally, Baker and his staff would spend October counting up the proceeds from the clinic’s biggest fundraiser of the yearthe annual AIDS Walk, held earlier this month on the National Mallor divvying up other dollars raised during what are traditionally the clinic’s most successful fundraising months.
Lately, there’s been none of thatlargely because there’s been little money to count.
Only 3,500 people turned out for this year’s AIDS Walk on Oct. 6, far fewer than the 20,000 who usually show up. As a result, the event raised less than half of the $1.2 million that organizers had anticipated.
Clinic staffers readily chalk up the losses to bad timing. Public service announcements promoting the AIDS Walk were lost in the coverage of recovery efforts in New York and at the Pentagon, Baker says. In the days leading up to the event, some walkers called the clinic to back out, citing security concerns. (The AIDS Walk was the first major event scheduled on the Mall in the wake of the terrorist attacks.) Lousy weather further curbed the turnout.
To make matters worse, the proceeds from Whitman-Walker’s other fundraising venturesincluding a massive mail campaign and telemarketingplunged almost 50 percent in September. It wasn’t a bad pitch or a shoddy campaign, Baker says. He believes that the clinic’s donors just weren’t focused on the fight against AIDS in a time of national crisis.
“We’ve lost almost $1 million in revenues since Sept. 11,” Baker says. “Because of that, our best-case financial scenario says we will be out of money by Januaryand that’s only if we raise every dollar we had previously budgeted for. In this climate, I am not sure how realistic that goal is.”
Local charities and nonprofits had already been bracing themselves for harder times ahead, and many had felt the effects of America’s sagging economy in 2001. But none of them were prepared for the events of Sept. 11or the unprecedented fundraising that followed to benefit victims of the attacks.
According to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, relief efforts tied to the attacks on New York and Washington have raised an estimated $1 billion and counting. But in the shadow of that historic generosity, groups like Whitman-Walker have been left to worry about their own bottom lines as donors redirect their giving.
At Martha’s Table and other District-based food banks and shelters, for example, donations of money and supplies haven’t kept up with demand since the attacks. At the House of Ruth, where contributions are down almost 15 percent since the summer, plans to open another shelter for needy women and children are in jeopardy.
“What is happening to us and other small charities around town is that the need is going up and the contributions are staying level,” says Veronica Parke, president of Martha’s Table. “I have a feeling, though, that we won’t feel the full effects until a few more weeks have passed, and who knows what that will be.”
Health-care charities, shelters, and food banks aren’t the only nonprofits feeling the effects of the terrorist attacks. Just weeks into the year’s most important fundraising period, some of the city’s more visible nonprofits also have felt the need to retool their annual post-Labor Day financial drives.
Public radio station WAMU-FM, for example, included a note in its direct-mail push for contributions, reminding donors that its annual listener-support drive and charity auction had been in the works long before Sept. 11. The Shakespeare Theatre, meanwhile, included a letter of condolence in its package, while also noting that its production of The Oedipus Plays had seen standing-room-only audiences in the weeks after the tragic events.
The gist of both messages was clear: In this time of crisis, don’t forget about us. Some groups are already worrying that this message may have come too late.
At the Capital Area United Way, which funds more than 1,000 different groups each year, organizers face a particularly daunting task in balancing local charities’ needs with the millions of dollars it has raised specifically for Sept. 11 relief. The organization has made clear that no dollar raised to aid victims of the terrorist attacks will be diverted to other funds, and United Way officials acknowledge openly that it’s too soon to tell what effect the post-attack generosity will have on local groups.
“Basically, what we have been trying to emphasize to our donors is that it doesn’t have to be an either/or decision,” says Lisa Kline, a United Way spokesperson. “We want people to give to the Sept. 11 relief fundand we are thankful when they dobut we hope local needs come first.”
If the United Way holds fast to its pledge on the Sept. 11 fundsand the group insists that it will do solocal groups, including Whitman-Walker, might be in a jam. Last year, the clinic received almost $1 million in aid from the group, making it the United Way’s second-largest local beneficiary.
“If we lose the United Way funds, we are going to suffer greatly,” Baker says. “This puts us in a horrible position. As a nation, we want everyone affected by these horrible events to be taken care of, but at the same time, it is life-and-death for us, too.”
At Whitman-Walker, the fall in private contributions couldn’t come at a more inopportune time. The incidence of AIDS in the District is more than 10 times the national average, with about 1 in every 20 adults in the city believed to be HIV-positive, and rates are rising.
Already, Whitman-Walker has felt the effects of these skyrocketing statistics. The clinic has seen almost 6,000 patients so far this yearcompared with 5,700 during the entire 2000 calendar year. By the end of December, the clinic estimates it will have served almost 7,000 peoplethe biggest number since its opening, in 1978.
Roughly half the money that subsidizes such visits comes from private funders to Whitman-Walker. The other half comes from government grantssomething that Baker also believes could be at risk in hard economic times, which Sept. 11 will only exacerbate.
“I don’t think I am being insensitive when I say that we are facing our own time of crisis,” Baker says. “We have $2 million to $3 million in private giving at risk right now, not to mention the money we get from local government. This is very serious for us.”
For now, Baker says all Whitman-Walker can do is make the case to potential donors that his group needs immediate financial help. No additional fundraisers have been scheduled, but the clinic has stepped up its efforts to recruit donors and touch base with its longtime supporters in recent weeks, with mixed results. Already, some of the clinic’s corporate sponsors have alerted Baker that they won’t make their annual financial commitment this year. The money, instead, has been diverted toward Sept. 11-related funds.
History suggests that things might not get better, at least not for a while. Researchers at the Center for Philanthropy, an Indianapolis-based think tank, say fundraising drives can usually ride out a political or military crisis, but not economic woes. The group warns that nonprofits, especially those aligned with single issues like AIDS and education, face hard times ahead.
As a result, Whitman-Walker won’t be hiring any new staff anytime soon, and its wish list of items such as new lab equipment and additional medical training is nothing more than that for the time being.
“The important thing for us right now is reminding people that before terrorism, before anthrax and the thought of nebulous war, one of the greatest threats prior to Sept. 11 was HIV,” Baker says. “That threat hasn’t gone away.” CP