For all the talk of the fun in fundraising, some gay men in Atlanta just aren’t having as good a time as others.
By Mike Fleming

“Party with a purpose.” We hear the phrase often enough in gay Atlanta. It’s code for event fundraising, and at least on the surface, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s the perception and reaction that comes after hearing it where opinions split.

Are some events more party than purpose?

CMI_Survey_Digital_Male_300x250Without exception, every one of the community’s most beloved institutions puts one or more sure-bet moneymakers on the gay agenda by promising to put “the fun in fundraising.” And it works, to the tune of millions of dollars, as well as tens of thousands of in-kind donations and volunteer hours per year.

Sounds good, right? Well, it depends on who you ask.

It’s been over a decade since Hotlanta River Expo went down in flames of shame. Back then, a few organizers of what was billed as the oldest circuit party in the world reported others of their flock for misusing funds. Allegations included using event proceeds to pay for recreational drugs during the event.

These days, most organizations can and do report not only the money they raise, but exactly where it goes, often line by line. With rare reports of embezzlement by one person, or whispers of behind-the-scenes puppet masters and villains, the pressure to remain above board on accountability and transparency is high, and the vast majority take the obligation seriously.

So why do the biggest gay fundraising parties take so much flak from naysayers?

The multi-layered answer covers the gamut of gay subcultural issues, from cliques and substance abuse, to diversity and racism, from mere appearances and suspicions of impropriety, to differing priorities on how our collective money should be spent.

So is it all good – or no good at all? Or is it a matter of opinion?

Follow the Money

The HRC Atlanta Gala Dinner, which recently wrapped its 30th annual event, raises in the reported neighborhood of a quarter- to half-a-million dollars each year through ticket sales, donations and proceeds from a massive silent auction. Some 1,200 local LGBTs in tuxes and gowns are proud to donate those funds to help fight for our rights at the federal level and receive moral, strategic and volunteer support.

In 2016 alone and with an expanded mission to help more people, gay Atlanta stalwart Joining Hearts raised nearly $194,000 against HIV in Atlanta with its signature summer pool party and yearlong calendar of other events. Funds were split among eight beneficiary organizations, with Jerusalem House, Living Room, AID Atlanta and Lost N Found Youth leading the pack.

That doesn’t count additional funds at popular Joining Hearts events like Love on the Rocks and several satellite fundraisers peppering the calendar. In 30 years, the organization and its loyal patrons have been responsible for donating more than $2 million to fight a disease that has affected so many gay men.

In about half that time, For the Kid in All of Us, founded by gay Atlanta City Council Member Alex Wan, has distributed more than 40,000 toys and gift cards through the gay holiday tradition Toy Party, as well as 12,000 backpacks filled with school supplies during its Backpack in the Park. Their donations also include a whopping $475,000 in funds distributed directly to local agencies like Chris 180 and Childkind, among many others.

Several of the benefactors of those events also host their own big gay shindigs. In 2016, Goliath‘s sibling publication David Atlanta raised $50,000 for Joining Hearts with its annual Men of David contest and party.

Likewise, perennial beneficiary Jerusalem House hosts an annual October bash that’s considered the standard bearer for local gay Halloween parties. The themed costume party also sets the bar for funds, raising about $50,000 each year. That’s on top of other signature Jerusalem House events like the Stars Party, the auction mixer each spring.

In the gay rights arena, Georgia Equality’s Evening for Equality, which raises money with speakers and cocktails each June, drew in some $120,000 in 2016. For perspective, the statewide lobby and advocacy group reported an annual budget of about $350,000 in 2014. On a long list of projects, they lead the local fights for marriage equality and against so-called “religious freedom” backlash bills in Georgia.

If you’re keeping a running total, that’s a lot of good in the gayborhood, and it’s not even the tip of Atlanta’s fundraising iceberg. We’d be hard pressed to count the myriad socials, beer busts, theme nights, dine-outs, dance parties, drag shows and sporting events for every LGBT and allied organization in town. Your hard-earned party dollars go every week to causes from HIV to gay youth, and fund activities from gay softball to gay movie screenings.

Party Problems

It’s great to see the power of people coming together, and sometimes a little overwhelming to envision the sheer size of the gay dollar. Therein lies the rub when concentrated efforts turn into big money:

The vast amounts alone are one of the reasons people can be so sensitive to how the spoils get spent. The moment a fundraising effort starts to show big gains, comments start flying about how the money could be better spent.

As just one example, last year’s Atlanta Rainbow Crosswalks effort drew criticism from people who thought the money should go to making a real difference in people’s lives – like in healthcare, housing, or anti-discrimination efforts. Just as many people took umbrage to that line of thinking. They fired back that not only is the money the patrons own to spend how they see fit, but that giving to one cause does not preclude them from giving to another.

And while more than 1,000 people don their black-tie best to support the annual HRC Atlanta gala, another large contingent just as strongly opposes how much of the proceeds leave the state for good. According to one report, as little as 3 percent may go to local campaigns in actual dollars.

From HRC Atlanta’s perspective, doing Georgia’s part in national Human Rights Campaign efforts is generally a good thing. The organization’s national successes, while nuanced, are admirable.

It’s difficult to track the cost of intangibles like volunteer and strategy support when it’s time to, say, get out the vote to flip Atlanta’s 6th Congressional District, or to quash anti-gay legislative efforts in Georgia. It also costs money to include our state in annual HRC reports on LGBT fairness in corporations and municipalities. The local use of HRC dollars may be hidden in those ways.

This Time, It’s Personal

While debates over money roil, there are still tougher reasons why some gay men avoid Atlanta’s biggest gay events altogether: It’s their perception of issues like Body Shaming, Substance Abuse, Mean Girls Syndrome, Racism, Embezzlement, and Sexual Hypocrisy.

Well, that doesn’t sound like a party at all! Exactly.

Some people view gay fundraising parties as antithetical to the very causes they support. Critics point out that guests can overdo the party favors, so events are therefore complicit in feeding the substance abuse that disproportionately affects LGBTs.

Others say lowered inhibitions and throbbing beats combine after too many cocktails to facilitate behaviors that lead guys into less-safe sexual behaviors. Still others argue that we’re all adults, and each of us is responsible for his own behavior. And no organizer condones illegal activity or behavior that would put their guests in harms way.

Whether based in reality or in insecurity, or a little of both, another faction of the community doesn’t attend the biggest parties because they’re seen as exclusive only to guests who look a certain way – whether by virtue of their physical fitness, skin tone, economic status, or gender.

Rightly or wrongly, that can translate into a perceived cliquishness that turns would-be participants away, makes them feel less-than, or effectively bullies them into staying home.

What’s worse, potential donors can simply feel that their lives and concerns aren’t represented by the mission or the homogeneity of the organizers, so they feel unmotivated to participate without a place at the larger table.

Even if any of these concerns are only slightly true, think of the dollars left on the table for every person who finds popular gay fundraisers more intimidating or exclusionary than philanthropic.

If you want to influence how the money is spent, get involved. If you are already involved, influence ways to be more inclusive and effect even more change.

It’s worth keeping the conversation going about inclusion and priorities, because among all the contested viewpoints, one point is certain: “Parties with a purpose” are an integral, defining thread in the fabric of local gay culture, and they aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.

Sources: Guidestar, Atlanta Journal Consitution, Project Q Atlanta, Georgia Voice