Increases, Impact and a Tony: 10 Minutes with Tom Viola, Executive Director, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS

Reproduced from the Funders Concerned About AIDS (FCAA) website, published September 9, 2010

10 Minutes With Tom Viola

In 22 years, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS (BC/EFA) has given more than $53 million to HIV/AIDS and family service organizations through its annual National Grants Program. The program’s three grant-rounds include: #1) Food Service and Meal Delivery Programs; #2)  Nationally Recognized Service and Advocacy Organizations; #3) Emergency Assistance, Direct Services, One-Time Expense, Substance Abuse and Harm Reduction Services, and Quality of Life Programs. This ongoing funding support is an essential component of BC/EFA’s commitment to people living with HIV/AIDS, their families and the organizations that serve them.  As a grassroots organization, BC/EFA raises funds without relying on an endowment or business-related profit. Those funds are quickly translated into grants for organizations across the country.

In 2009, state budgets across the country were slashed causing devastating cuts to prevention and direct service efforts and creating waiting lists for AIDS drug programs in many states.  Against this backdrop, one of the few glimmers of hope has come from BC/EFA whose supporters stepped up to the plate to provide welcomed increases in funding to help sustain vital life-supporting programs.

In this issue of “10 Minutes With…”Tom Viola, Executive Director of BC/EFA shares their recent good giving news, and how they’ve prioritized their funding to sustain impact.

Q1. How was your grant-making affected by the economic crisis?

Our fundraising was down by 17% in 2009 – primarily in terms of corporate support, event sponsorship and major donor gifts.   Everyone has experienced that.  There was a great retrenching by donors at every level.  It didn’t necessarily go away, but there was certainly less of it.  For example, a major donor who in 2008 gave $5,000, in 2009 might have been able to do $2,500.   A regular direct mail donor might go from $100 twice a year, to $50 once.  Thankfully, the very unique fundraising we do with the theatre community was steady.  Attendance on Broadway, with the national tours and at theatres across the country remained quite strong.  The community very generously continued their fundraising efforts for us with a wide variety of initiatives, including audience appeals, signed poster sales, auctions, special cabaret performances and, of course, hundreds of theatre professionals participating in our annual fundraising events and one-time benefit performances.   But whatever the sum of all the fundraising parts, essentially what we raise in any one fiscal year – starting October 1st through September 30th – is what BC/EFA grants in that same time period.  There is a prudent reserve.  But it’s more or less money in, money out.  The reserve is a safety net that is carried over year to year and would allow us to weather operationally a sudden interruption of our fundraising efforts.  But what I say to staff every October 1st is that the fundraising odometer, no matter what we’ve done the year before, clicks back to zero.

10 Minutes With Tom Viola

The grand total raised by 56 Broadway, Off-Broadway and national touring shows in six weeks of fundraising prior to The 24th Annual EASTER BONNET Competition.

Q2. You have some very good news to share. Can you tell us about your most recent round of grant-making?

Sure, I’m very happy to report that over the last eight months, BC/EFA awarded grants totaling $3,720,000 to 475 AIDS and family service organizations in 46 states Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico, through our National Grants Program compared to $3,125,000 to 462 organizations in 2009, an increase of 17%.  That includes our most recent grant round in July (the final of three rounds) in $1,785,000 went out in grants to 322 AIDS and family service providers nationwide, a 10% increase over 2009’s third round of $1,684,000.  This doesn’t include the $4.1 million sent to The Actors Fund, the social service provider and employee assistance program of the entertainment industry, half of which funds The AIDS Initiative.Social service providers, particularly those serving people with AIDS, have been forced to continue cutting their budgets in 2010.  While we can never make up the amount of public dollars cut or decreases in other public support in general, BC/EFA is very pleased to be able to do better than we did in 2009 and come close to what we did in 2008.  For those service providers it is small respite in the midst of very difficult times.  But certainly not enough, particularly as many agencies, particularly those providing food services and delivered meals or working, health clinics certainly and those providing a wide variety of services to minority communities are seeing a sharp increase in clients.

Q3.  Why is it important to prioritize direct services – particularly in these difficult economic times?

HIV/AIDS has always created or reinforced economic hardship.  It magnifies issues of poverty, absence of decent, affordable health care, lack of job opportunity, homelessness, hunger and a fraying network of resources.  BC/EFA will never be able to make up for any organization, large or small, the budgets cuts that have been made at the state level, or for decreases in their own corporate or major donor support. But we do know that the $5,000 – $25,000 grants that we award allow a provider to address immediate short-term needs and keep operating, responding directly to clients immediate needs as they hopefully are able to address long-term challenges.  We’ve always looked to fund direct services, as that’s where we felt we could have the biggest, immediate impact with the size of grant that provided.Secondly, the people in the theatre community whose fundraising efforts make so much of this support possible, for the most part, are not well versed in the intricacies of AIDS service delivery. What moves them to do as much as they do, which is truly remarkable, is a clear and simple commitment to helping people in crisis and need.  That’s most easily understood in terms of direct services, particularly around meals and nutrition, a doctor’s appointment, a secure, safe and supportive place to live, emergency financial assistance.  It’s almost direct services as triage. These folks are extraordinarily generous and motivated to want to make a difference.  They are genuinely moved to want to help people in a way that only they can do it. What they say to an audience in a fundraising appeal from the stage is less an AIDS pitch and more about how we all can come together to make a difference.   That story is told quickly, in simple sentences, with a general but heartfelt understanding of our grant-making process and is totally based on the rapport they actors have created with the audience during the performance.  It’s not what you’re going to hear at an AIDS conference, demonstration or policy meeting.  And it shouldn’t be.  To work, it can’t be.

The annual BROADWAY BARES fundraiser surpassed $1 million in 2010
The annual BROADWAY BARES fundraiser surpassed $1 million in 2010
The annual BROADWAY BARES fundraiser surpassed $1 million in 2010
The annual BROADWAY BARES fundraiser surpassed $1 million in 2010

Advocacy and prevention programs are definitely less easy to explain, in terms of our theatre fundraising. We don’t expect the company of a Broadway show or national tour, for example, to engage the audience in a discussion on AIDS issues. However, as an organization, we fund those doing public policy work because those organizations directly impact the work of the entire network of AIDS service providers. We created the Nationally Recognized Service and Advocacy grant round in 2002 in recognition of the importance community-based organizations whose efforts can change the landscape of service delivery, public policy and treatment options for people living with HIV/AIDS nationwide.  Again, BC/EFA’s support is not going to radically transform any one issue.  But we are steadfast in our on-going commitment to those who can.

Q5. 2008 marked the 6th year that BC/EFA ranked as the top AIDS grant-maker with a primarily domestic focus. What does that ranking mean to BC/EFA and why do you communicate it to your constituents?

It’s nice to be recognized.  But it’s not a contest and, in truth, I wish that we were fourth or fifth, with three or four other funders doing even more than we are presently doing.  But I do appreciate the work that FCAA does in reporting and verifying the grant making we all are doing.  It’s very important for people – fundraisers and donors alike – to understand where all this money goes and how it’s put to work, and that it’s indeed having an impact.

Q6. You have been with BC/EFA from the beginning. Can you share a little of your history with us?

I came to New York to be an actor in the late 70s, did that some out of town but by the mid 80’s was doing a lot of freelance writing (and a good deal of cater-waitering.) That eventually landed me at Actors Equity, the actors and stage managers union, as their special projects coordinator. This was about 1987-88.  I was assigned to staff the newly formed Equity Fights AIDS committee. At the time I was also working as Colleen Dewhurt’s assistant.  Colleen was a brilliant actress and an amazing women who was then president of the Actors Equity and quite respected and beloved in the Broadway community. Colleen’s heart knew few bounds.  She was determined that Equity Fights AIDS and Broadway Cares – an organization that had come up at the same time – would take root in the theatre community and reach out to many others were all to willing to turn their backs on.  She encouraged me personally to do whatever needed to done to make this happen.  And unbeknownst to me at that time, I needed something to connect my passions, talents, heartbreak and enthusiasms to, as I think many others in the community did.  And we all somehow found each other in this whirlwind that, I think, Colleen understood instinctually better than just about anyone.   I’ve been involved since the days when literally we were trying to figure out how to do a bake sale in the lobby of Cats, through the merger of the two organizations in 1992, and then the incremental but incredible expansion of this fundraising efforts that has involved literally thousands of theatre artists and over the last 22 years has now raised over $180 million dollars.  It’s different than it was when it all began, but it goes on.

Liza Minnelli stars in the opening number of The 21st Annual EASTER BONNET Competition
Liza Minnelli stars in the opening number of The 21st Annual EASTER BONNET Competition

Q7.  This June you were presented with the 2010 Tony Honors for Excellence* in the Theatre. How does it feel to be a Tony winner, and who did you wear?

It was wonderful and I have to say a bit overwhelming to receive the Tony Honor.  The fact of the matter is that I share it with everybody, anyone whose efforts and generosity of talent, time and spirt has made this all possible – from the members of BC/EFA staff and Board, to literally thousands of volunteers across the community and what must be hundreds of thousands of donors, large and small, across the country.  It was a very exciting and emotional experience.

*Established in 1990, this honor is awarded annually to institutions, individuals and organizations that have “demonstrated extraordinary achievement in theatre, but are not eligible in any of the established Tony Award categories.

Watch Tom’s acceptance speech here.

Q8. Any parting words?

You know, we’ve had a very good year.  And hopefully we’ll have more.  BC/EFA’s commitment and that of the theatre community and our donors is unwavering, though the outcome will vary from year to year.  But rather than hold on to money raised today for fear that the next few years will be more difficult — and they very well may be — what we really want to do is get that money out immediately to the organizations that need it right now.  It doesn’t help any AIDS service provider, or any person living with HIV/AIDS or any critical illness for that matter, for us to hold on to money now to grant next year. I guess it’s a bit of a risk, trusting that the enthusiasm and support will be there.  But so far, so good.  Or as the cast sings in Rent:  “No Day But Today.”  Somehow it works.

Read more about BC/EFA’s 2010 grant-making and meet a few of their grantees.