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.
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.