AIDS Walk Funding Drop Linked to Thomas Fire

AIDS Walk Funding Drop Linked to Thomas Fire

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After watching their fundraising grow three years in a row, organizers of Saturday’s AIDS Walk Ventura thought they could raise $50,000.

As of Thursday, they had garnered less than half that. Like other Ventura County nonprofits focused on causes other than disaster relief, they think the reason for the shortfall is the Thomas Fire.

Fund-raising started Dec. 1 for the walk that generates money to be used partly to counter an ongoing surge in HIV diagnoses. Three days after the launch, the Thomas Fire erupted, growing into California’s largest wildfire and destroying 777 homes in Ventura County.

“It just didn’t seem appropriate to be fundraising during the two weeks the county was on fire. We put the whole walk on hold,” said Joseph Summers, leader of the event’s sponsor, Diversity Collective Ventura County.

The lost time hurt. The massive outpouring of giving to families that lost homes in the Thomas Fire likely played a role too.

The flood of donations enabled United Way of Ventura County to raise nearly $4 million in fire relief. The Ventura County Community Foundation has given $1.2 million in relief money that comes from donations and grants and has more to give.

The Thomas Fire Benefit that included musical performances from Kevin Costner and Olivia Newton-John raised more than $730,000. Other organizations threw themselves into disaster fundraising as well.

Summers wonders if the lofty numbers means people emptied their pockets before giving to groups not focused on the disaster.

“Typically, people have a certain amount of money that they give to charity each year,” said Summers.

It’s called donor fatigue. Nonprofits across Ventura County are worrying about it.

Some groups have canceled visits to donors or called off fund-raising events, said Dena Jensen, director of the Center for Nonprofit Leadership at California Lutheran University.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness Ventura County delayed a May fund-raising walk expected to raise about $175,000 or about half of the group’s annual budget. The event is now set for Oct. 13.

“We felt like it was appropriate to move it out of respect for the people who lost so much in the fire,” said David Deutsch, NAMI’s executive director.

The May event would have required pushing fund-raising into full swing in January at the same time money was being raised for fire relief. Deutsch said he worried the timing could impede on giving to his group.

It can be hard for nonprofits.

“We certainly support people who were impacted,”  said Lynne West of the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Ventura County, noting that many of the children who are part of the organization were directly affected by the Thomas Fire. “You almost feel guilty looking for funds.”

But the nearly 50-year-old organization relies on donations. So leaders are seeking new funding sources and using reserves to survive the ongoing drop in giving.

“We’ve seen a huge drop in the number of people who gave us any kind of year-end donations,” West said, noting the organization is also planning a March 10 bowling fundraiser.

“Right now it’s down by about $20,000,” she said.

Leaders of the United Way of Ventura County haven’t seen an impact yet but wonder about a fund-raising drive next fall targeted at raising $2.3 million.

“Just being asked multiple times to give… You may say, ‘Hey, I already gave,’ ” said Eric Harrison, CEO of the United Way, noting the pressure is on nonprofits to make sure people understand the importance of what they do.

Grant money through the Ventura County Community Foundation may be available to groups damaged by donor fatigue, said Vanessa Bechtel, the foundation’s CEO.

The foundation teamed up with the Center for Nonprofit Leadership for a February forum that covered donor fatigue. Sometimes a massive fire or flood can make nonprofits raising money for causes other than disaster back off.

“They get afraid to ask,” said Bechtel, urging fundraisers to adopt the opposite strategy.

“Do more asks,” she said, praising area residents for their generosity but also noting the need to cover needs from the Thomas Fire and support organizations dealing with homelessness, AIDS and other causes.

“There’s a lot more philanthropic capital out there,” she said.

The AIDS Walk, a health fair and 5-kilometer walk, starts at 9 a.m. at Ventura’s Plaza Park. For more information, go to http://bit.ly/2HV19nK.

Money raised for the event will be used for HIV/AIDS education and prevention programs. The need has increased with provisional data that shows the number of new HIV diagnoses may have doubled from 2016 to 2017.

“We need the money more than ever,” said Summers, noting the dip in fundraising could mean not hiring an HIV program coordinator as planned and instead relying more on volunteers.

“I think it’s a temporary setback,” he said.

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