Black Tie winners

Don Maison was worried.
As president of AIDS Services of Dallas, the only local agency providing housing to indigent persons suffering from the HIV virus, Maison this spring found himself facing two problems.
The waiting list for his agency's handsomely renovated garden apartments in Oak Cliff was growing. And the opening of ASD's nearby facility, a 64-unit high rise primarily designated for homeless people with AIDS, was being delayed because of substantial cuts--$55,000, to be exact--in federal AIDS funding.

ASD needed help, and Maison felt the logical group to ask for it was the Black Tie Dinner. Sponsored by the gay and lesbian community's elite, the 15-year-old Black Tie Dinner--this year scheduled for November at the Wyndham Anatole--has become the largest sit-down charity soiree in the city. Attracting more than 3,000 people last year, it is the premiere see-and-be-seen event in the gay community, equivalent to the Cattle Baron's Ball.

And, most significantly, it raises a ton of money--almost $350,000 at last year's dinner, which featured former Gov. Ann Richards as its keynote speaker. Half of the money is always earmarked for the Washington-based Human Rights Campaign Fund, the largest gay and lesbian political organization in the country. The other half is divided among local homosexual and AIDS service organizations.

Certainly, 10-year-old AIDS Services of Dallas, one of the largest facilities of its kind in the country, deserved to be a recipient, Maison and his board of directors figured.

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But the Black Tie committee has decided not to give ASD any of the proceeds from this year's dinner. Now, Maison says he believes that the way this swank and successful charity chooses its beneficiaries and apportions its proceeds may, in fact, discriminate against those organizations--small agencies and those catering to the poorest and sickest members of the community--that arguably need the money most.

Organizations vying for Black Tie Dinner funds complete a surprisingly simple one-page application. The only information it asks for is the name, address, and phone number of the organization, the top officer, and a contact person.

Unlike most other fund-raising groups, Black Tie does not require its applicants to demonstrate need, or explain what the money will be used for. In fact, this superattenuated application doesn't even ask for a description of what the agency or group's purpose is.

The application does make clear that beneficiaries are required to sell 50 tickets at $200 apiece--or $10,000 worth. (Ironically, the majority of last year's 13 beneficiaries each received less than $10,000 in funds from the Black Tie Dinner.) Beneficiaries also must sell at least $250 in raffle tickets and take out a full-page ad in the "Dinner Journal."

"I think this poses an unfair burden on certain agencies," says Maison. "Smaller agencies, or ones that serve the neediest members of the community, don't have the constituency to buy the tickets, nor the staff to help sell them."

Black Tie Dinner committee members disagree. "It's in the Black Tie Dinner's best interest, and the beneficiaries' best interest, to have them sell tickets," says Steve Habgood, owner of a Dallas marketing company and head of public relations for this year's Black Tie Dinner. "It's win-win. It certainly offers a level of recognition for the beneficiaries and it raises more money overall to be distributed among the individual organizations."

"We're only asking recipients to come up with five table sponsors--five individuals who support the organization--to step up to the plate and sell the tickets," says Janice Vaughn Mock, a Dallas lawyer and co-chair of this year's dinner.

The money raised at the Black Tie Dinner is apportioned according to the number of votes each agency gets from the dinner guests, who check off charities from a list on the back of the dinner ticket. Money raised through a silent auction and raffle also is parceled out based on the percentages determined by the balloting.

The process goes a long way toward explaining why the higher-profile and largest agencies also pull in the lion's share of the proceeds. Last year Oak Lawn Community Services, which provides therapy and support groups, received $30,000; the AIDS Resource Center, an Oak Lawn-based storefront providing education, support services, and a food pantry got $52,000.

Other groups consistently chosen as beneficiaries since the Black Tie Dinner began 15 years ago include the Metropolitan Community Church, which boasts the largest gay congregation in the world, and the 200-member Turtle Creek Chorale. Last year the church got approximately $19,000 and the Chorale received $15,000.

Black Tie chairperson Janice Vaughn Mock calls it a "democratic" process. "It's a community event and the community decides where the money goes," she says.

Don Maison calls it "a popularity contest."
"The organization that knows the most people wins," he says sarcastically. "So not only do we have to sell tickets, but then we have to lobby the crowd.  

"I can understand if there is an incentive given for beneficiaries to sell tickets," Maison adds. "But there shouldn't be a penalty if they fail. Our main purpose is taking care of sick people. That is where our focus, our effort, needs to be."

One of the main characteristics of Black Tie funds, says Mary Mallory, co-chair of last year's dinner, "is that our money is unrestricted. We don't ask beneficiaries what the money is going to be used for and we don't judge whether it's worthy. Maybe it is a popularity contest. But at least it's not one person, or committee, playing God."

Maison is not the only complainer. The director of another local agency, which helps AIDS patients fight for social services, says she has never considered applying for Black Tie Dinner funds because her agency doesn't have the resources to begin meeting the criteria. "Worrying about selling tickets would take too much time away from our work," says the woman, who wishes to remain anonymous.

The Black Tie Dinner's approach to charity is relatively unique, both inside and outside of the gay community. Take, for example, the Design Industry Foundation Fighting AIDS, or DIFFA--the group that raised $250,000 this year by, among other things, auctioning off jean jackets designed by celebrities. "We would never require our recipients to sell tickets to our events," says Al James, the executive director of DIFFA's Dallas office. DIFFA does require applicants to fill out a grant request, and has awarded money to ASD.

Razzle Dazzle, an Oak Lawn street fair and AIDS fund raiser, does require beneficiaries to participate, but Maison says that is different. First of all, Razzle Dazzle asks prospective recipients to provide a funding proposal, and a financial and mission statement that counts for about 25 percent in the decision to award money. Razzle Dazzle also requires recipients to sell 200 tickets at $10 apiece, provide volunteers to work at booths selling food and drinks, and host their own booth.

"Razzle Dazzle was having a tough time. They were desperate," says Maison. "What they were asking was doable. Selling the tickets wasn't easy, but at $10 apiece it was a lot easier than trying to sell $200 tickets."

In the late 1980s, during the first few years of ASD's existence, the organization did qualify for funds from the Black Tie Dinner. As Maison explains, one volunteer made it his mission to sell tickets to the event. When he died of AIDS in the early 1990s, there was no one to take his place. In 1991, ASD was selected to be a Black Tie beneficiary, but it could not fulfill its obligation. (It did receive the promised money, however.)

"Many of our volunteers were often members of other organizations, such as the Cathedral of Hope or the Turtle Creek Chorale, which were also vying for funds," says Maison. In an ironic twist, Arete, a gay social and fund-raising group that had offered to help sell Black Tie tickets on behalf of ASD, withdrew its support when it decided to apply for Black Tie funds itself. For two years, Arete got several thousand dollars from Black Tie. This year the group folded.

In 1992, ASD applied again for funds, but this time the Black Tie Dinner committee gave the agency a stern rebuke: ASD board members were told that their agency needed "to put out or get out," says Maison. The ASD board tried to explain its position, says former ASD board member Jan Goodwin Munn. "But [Black Tie members] were firm in their position. They didn't offer any help. So the ASD board decided to withdraw its application," Munn says.

ASD did not apply for funds for the next four years. The agency was busy renovating and repairing apartment complexes, feeding and providing medical treatment to its residents, and fighting for federal and state funds.

This year, with federal funds being cut and other government money threatened, the ASD board decided to apply again for Black Tie money. The agency still didn't think the Black Tie criteria were fair. But ASD leaders felt that, since their agency was better established ("no thanks to the Black Tie Dinner," says Maison), its board larger, and a development director was on its staff for the first time, it was up to the challenge.

It never got the chance to prove it. Black Tie received applications from 18 agencies this year; only four were rejected, including ASD.

"We were perplexed and disappointed," says Maison. "They didn't give us a reason." After ASD was rejected, Andrew Smith, the development director of ASD at the time, says he tried to find out why. He says he phoned Black Tie beneficiaries liaison Mary Mallory at least three or four times, but never got a return call. Mallory denies ever getting a message from ASD.  

Maison says he has heard through the grapevine that ASD was rejected because of the problems his agency had in the past selling the required number of tickets. "If they had doubts, why didn't they ask us?" Maison asks. Steve Hickerson, the co-chair for this year's Black Tie event, says it is up to the agencies to contact them.

But there is nothing in the Black Tie material that encourages agencies to do that. "I would have relished the opportunity to convey to them what we do, and how desperate our clients are," says Maison.

Come August, Maison will open his facility for homeless people with AIDS after all, thanks to an 11th-hour grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. But he knows that government funds are not going to be there forever. AIDS unfortunately will be--at least in the foreseeable future.

With that scenario on the horizon, says Maison, there is no room in the gay charitable community for popularity contests.

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