When a cause is no longer celebre
DIFFA and AIDS Foundation of Illinois hustle to fundraise now that HIV/AIDS has drifted off the philanthropic radar screen.
by Lisa Bertagnoli
Three decades ago, when HIV/AIDS was a new, mystifying and deadly disease, local organizations found it easy to raise money for research.
As recently as 2011, the Chicago chapter of Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS, or DIFFA, brought in a total of $500,000. That year, its spring gala, held during Neocon, the international commercial design fair, attracted 900 guests and netted $210,000. Dining by Design, a fall dinner featuring spectacular tablescapes created by design professionals, netted $122,000.
AIDS hasn’t disappeared. Last year, the Chicago area saw 800 new cases of HIV/AIDS, one of the highest among U.S. metro areas, and about 20,000 people in the area are living with the disease, according to data compiled by AIDSVu, an online mapping tool. But it has drifted off the philanthropic radar screen, pushed away by more current causes such as #MeToo, and the dollars don’t roll in as easily as they used to. “It’s fairly serious,” says Todd Baisch, principal at Gensler and board chair at DIFFA, which has granted nearly $5 million to AIDS research since its inception 31 years ago.
DIFFA’s model—it’s a foundation that raises funds to grant to other nonprofits—also can hinder fundraising efforts in a time when donors pay close attention to how much of their gifts go directly to services. “People are becoming less comfortable with the notion of pass-through,” says Lynn Fordon, central region vice president at Steelcase, a Grand Rapids, Mich.-based office furniture manufacturer that has supported DIFFA for 30 years. DIFFA’s corporate sponsors still back events, but at lower levels. “The dollars have been harder to raise,” Fordon says.
Health-related causes seem particularly sensitive to the whims of philanthropy. “Causes come in and out of, quote, fashion,” says Jamie Klobuchar, senior consultant at Giving Tree Associates, a Chicago-based fundraising consultancy. She notes that individuals affected by a certain disease have launched many health-related charities, and initially turned to friends, family and events to raise money. When those organizations mature, Klobuchar says, they need to turn toward the university and hospital model: finding and cultivating long-term individual donors.
AIDS Foundation of Chicago still holds annual events, including World of Chocolate, a dessert-focused celebration of World AIDS Day that netted $88,000 last year. The organization has a goal of $115,000 net for this year. Its big focus, though, is on individuals, and it revamped its development department four years ago to dedicate an employee to foundation and corporate donors, and another to individuals. “That’s our greatest opportunity,” Wagner says. Development executives meet one-on-one with donors, and the organization has asked its board to give meaningful “stretch gifts” above and beyond buying event tickets. As a result, individual giving has grown 25 percent, to $504,000, over the last two years.
DIFFA Chicago, meanwhile, plans to make events work as a fundraising strategy. On Oct. 18, the organization will host its second Art for Life, a juried art competition that has replaced Dining by Design as a fall fundraiser. The fundraising goal is $60,000, quadruple last year’s take. On Nov. 29, it will host the second annual World AIDS Day Indoor Street Fest at Center on Halsted, an LGBTQ community center in Lakeview. The goal: $100,000, more than double last year’s $42,000.
Last year, DIFFA had to dip into its endowment for the first time to maintain fundraising levels. This year, it will most likely cut grant-making by 50 percent to get the events up and running. Will fundraising hit its former high-water mark? “I feel optimistic,” Baisch says.