The Crisis of Crisis

When the Ali Forney Center asked for help following Sandy’s destruction they needed a miracle. Well, they got that—and much more. The double-edged sword of charitable giving in a time of tragedy.
January 24, 2013

On November 3, a post appeared on the blog Joe. My. God. with the subject line “Ali Forney Drop-In Center Destroyed By Hurricane Sandy.” The post included a letter from AFC executive director Carl Siciliano explaining that their drop-in center at 527 West 22nd Street—which provides homeless LGBT youth with essential services like food and mental health care—was in Flood Evacuation Zone A and had seen extensive water damage. It ended with a plea for money. 

What happened next was nothing short of a miracle. The event struck a chord with New Yorkers, especially gay men in the city, who wanted to give back in their beloved town’s time of need. Locals sprang into action, organizing impromptu events to raise the $200,000 needed to rebuild and replace destroyed equipment. Corporations, who had ignored pleas before, were making massive donations. It Gets Better sponsored a concert with Broadway stars. Duke University student Jacob Tobia ran across the Brooklyn Bridge in five-inch heels and raised thousands. Everyday events, from birthday parties to award galas, became Ali Forney Center benefits. New York’s hearts and wallets opened and the Ali Forney Center was the fortunate recipient. By mid-December AFC had raised $400,000, twice as much as initially needed. And the money was still coming in.
 
“There was no magic behind it. There [were] no hours of planning and no strategic calls or meetings or anything like that…It was all social media. It really was that,” explains Ali Forney Center director of development Alex Roque. “The first three days we had so much traffic and so many hits and so many phone calls and outpouring of support while most of New York city was still paralyzed.”
 
But with the outpouring of support came concerns. Rumors began to swirl and, a month after the storm, Village Voice blog Runnin’ Scared ran a suspicion-filled article about the massive response to AFC’s tragedy. The article, titled “After Sandy, the Ali Forney Center Raised Hundreds of Thousands of Dollars for a Move It Had Already Planned,” accused the Ali Forney Center of misleading donors. It argued that since AFC had already scheduled a move to a new 24-hour drop-in center in Harlem after the start of the new year, their campaign to rebuild may not have been ethical. “Is it appropriate to raise ‘Hurricane Sandy Relief’ money that’s ultimately going to expenses that existed before the storm?” questioned writer Nick Pinto. 
 
Though Siciliano never explicitly stated how much money AFC needed to cover the cost of the damage in his original appeal in a response to the above article he explained that the $200,000 in damages was for damaged equipment and acknowledged the planned Harlem drop-in center had faced major setbacks just before the storm. Roque admits that the outpouring of support for AFC was so great that the $200,000 in donations was raised faster than expected. In fact, AFC was forced to ask donors to reroute their giving for Sandy relief—including funds raised by Tobia and the It Gets Better concert—to the new center or general operating costs. In all instances, the donors were happy to comply. “We were true to the need,” Roque implores. “Had an apartment been lost you probably wouldn’t have heard about it.” 
 
But the concern of the Village Voice article is fair. And there is no doubt Ali Forney Center was handed a cursed blessing. They suffered damage and a massive interruption to their vital daily services but also created a fundraising machine that was not in their control. AFC had taken strides to be transparent about its plans, but even they couldn’t change the message from “we will rebuild” to “help us move” once it went viral.
 
(Siciliano posted this video appeal on Ali Forney's website a month after the storm)
 
For many weeks in the second half of 2010, the news cycle was gripped by America’s new suicide problem. A Rutgers’s student, Tyler Clementi, jumped off the George Washington Bridge after his freshman-year roommate secretly videotaped Clementi’s intimate encounter with another boy. Over the weeks that followed the press descended on every youth suicide they could tie to school bullying, especially over issues of sexual identity. It hit the hearts of Americans everywhere, especially now-successful gay Americans, and they wanted to respond with their dollar. Youth suicide hotline The Trevor Project gladly became the recipient.
 
Before 2010, The Trevor Project would conduct their phone and web chat-based counseling work on a sizable annual budget of $1.2 million. In 2012, following the rash of suicides, The Trevor Project’s annual income was up to almost three million dollars. 
 
Though current executive director Abbe Land wasn’t with the Trevor Project during the 2010 crisis, she is aware of the difficult role it faced in being the financial outlet for a crisis. “I think the challenge always is: in the middle of that heightened awareness, to be responsible with those funds,” she explains. “You don’t want to grow something and then if the funds dissipate, [not] have the ability to continue what you are doing.” Land says that the influx of funding since the suicide crisis has gone straight into their programs, from expanding their Lifeline to building a social networking site to new advocacy work, proudly asserting that 80 cents of every dollar is going to the organization’s programs. 
 
The fundraising urgency that follows a singular crisis or event can present a catch-22 for organizations like Trevor and Ali Forney. Both know all too well the hardships of having to run programs through fundraising droughts. And as exciting as sudden windfalls of cash flows can be, it’s a struggle to manage the flow of money to last throughout the years without national media attention. 
 
“There was a huge situation that the country was paying attention to: Sandy destroyed the Northeast; it did a lot to New York City and New Jersey and people were paying attention and we got picked up,” admits Roque of their twisted luck. “I mean there were many other organizations that were devastated, Bailey House has issues; there is a list of people who had major losses to the storms with bigger and/or smaller budgets who didn’t get that amount of attention.”
And the exponential media attention both organizations encountered only adds to the difficulty in maintaining transparency. Because when crisis goes viral the windows into their finances quickly become murky. It’s why information about AFC’s new center might not have been clear to many who gave. 
 
So how much responsibility in keeping donors informed relies on the donors themselves and how much lies with the organization? This crisis of a crisis stems mostly from classic donor behavior; people aren’t always willing to give and usually only want to when they find it self-serving. After all, the social-media-savvy Ali Forney Center received far fewer donations during its campaign against government budget cuts earlier this year. “When you talk about our baseline need it’s homophobia, it’s rejection, it’s all these different things but there is no instant gratification there,” he explains. “I can’t think of a better correlation between giving and instant gratification than being able to identify with ‘Right now I can [rebuild]’ versus ‘I can’t throw $25 at homophobia.’”
 
In the end, the truth is, most donors who are moved to give money to a cause or nonprofit trust the organization enough to not investigate exactly where their dollars are going. And that is doubly true for gay men, who have historically provided more support for “adult” causes like gay marriage and job discrimination while giving much less financial support to fight the crises affecting gay youth, include homelessness, suicide and bullying. Educating ourselves on the details has never been as important as following what is in vogue, including the organization of the moment. But the crises that organizations like Trevor and Ali Forney face don’t come around only every few years—they are happening every day. And until we can take it upon ourselves as a community to answer a need that exists 365 days a year, we force these organizations into playing every angle they’ve got in order to serve those they’ve sworn to help.  Can we really blame them for that?