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Charity without rubber chicken

In a tough economy, AIDS and HIV nonprofits have gotten creative to raise funds.

May 25, 2003|Gina Piccalo | Times Staff Writer

With its confluence of wealth, celebrity and media, Los Angeles is a fund-raiser's mecca, a camera-ready locale for a blowout charity gala, marathon or golf tournament.

The sluggish economy, however, has slowed charitable giving significantly, even amid this city's millionaire enclaves. As a result, nonprofits are getting more creative with fund-raisers. And among the most innovative are L.A.'s HIV and AIDS service organizations, primarily because 160 of them are competing for donations. In fact, insufficient funds forced New York-based AmFAR to close its longtime Los Angeles office last summer.

To avoid a similar fate, local HIV/AIDS nonprofits have largely dismissed the traditional black-tie hotel banquet for themed parties, shopping sprees and athletic challenges. Donors have more fun at these events and are more likely to give again the next year, nonprofit event planners say.

"We're constantly trying to be creative to be accessible to more people and consequently raise more funds," AIDS Project Los Angeles executive director Craig E. Thompson says. "There's just more need every year.... We now have 52,000 people living with HIV/AIDS in Los Angeles County," double the number from 10 years ago.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday May 28, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
AIDS fund-raising -- The AIDS Service Center in Pasadena was misidentified as the Pasadena Service Center on the Social Climes page in Sunday's Calendar.

The main reason for the large number of HIV and AIDS organizations in Los Angeles County is that the disease is communicable and hits a largely poor population -- factors that lead to a lot of government support for agencies serving that group, says Thompson.

AIDS Project Los Angeles, which raises more than $10 million a year, has held a number of interactive fund-raising events, including its marathon-training program, which last year prepared people for races in Honolulu and Vancouver, Canada.

In January, AIDS Project donors were invited to a dance party at the Shrine Auditorium as ABC broadcast a special about the history of disco from the venue.

Project Angel Food has earned broad name recognition for its shopping spree, Divine Design, in which donors are given access to high-end merchandise at cut-rate prices. Although the event raises 40% of the group's $1.6-million annual operating budget, Project Angel Food co-hosts 12 smaller fund-raisers each year to maintain donor enthusiasm for the cause. Among those was the April party at a Los Feliz mansion that awed guests with an aerialist performing on a swath of scarlet fabric, rooms filled with live classical music and nude models.

The fund-raisers boost the agency's visibility, says Brian Kilpatrick, Project Angel Food's special events coordinator. "It's also allowing our donors to have fun at the same time as supporting the agency."

At the Pasadena Service Center's "Big Night Out" on May 17, hundreds of donors gathered at 20 architecturally important homes for themed dinner parties. There was a "retro chic" dinner at a mid-century modern Beverly Hills home complete with TV dinners (prepared by a private chef), and a "Survivor"-themed party with chicken-stuffed water bugs and deep-fried sea worms as hors d'oeuvres.

"We're really trying to get out to that younger, West Hollywood crowd," says Keri Aulita, the group's special events manager. "And this event, in particular, was started to give people what they like -- homes, architecture, history."

For "Dining by Design," an event held by the Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS, designers create extravagant tabletop decorations for fund-raising dinner parties all over the country. Giorgio Armani's home store, Armani Casa, and the design firm Christopher Norman were among those responsible for the tables at Barker Hangar in Santa Monica in November. Director John Waters called the events "the Cannes of tabletop."

The Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation's June fund-raiser is a carnival, which isn't especially original, but it offers some unexpected games. Take human bowling, for example. Celebrities will use each other as bowling balls, with one person inside a large plastic sphere and another pushing it down a cushioned lane toward inflatable pins. Apparently, this kind of gimmick -- and the fact that skateboarding star Tony Hawk will be on hand for a demo -- works. The group routinely raises about $1.5 million of the nonprofit's $20-million annual operating budget at this annual one-day event.

"People's attention spans are getting smaller and smaller," says Kilpatrick. "And things sometimes have to be more flashy."

Times staff writer Michael Quintanilla contributed to this report.

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