It wasn't exactly a tough sell. Each member of the audience, after all, had dished out between $25 to $150 to park themselves in one of Severance's plush blue velvet seats. The money would go toward the housing council's shelter programs, an indispensable service for many of those with HIV/AIDS in the Cleveland area.
What no one mentioned that night, however, is that for months the council has been in serious financial trouble, a situation that could force the organization to partner or merge with another local nonprofit in the next several months in order to sustain services for its 1,200 clients.
"That's one of the possibilities," says council Board Vice President Gorman Duffett, "but that's not by any means the only possibility. There's a whole spectrum of opportunities."
Over the last several years, the agency has hosted some of the most conspicuous fund-raising events in the city, bringing in high-profile musicians such as Ma, violinist Itzhak Perlman, and opera star Kathleen Battle. While the shows have garnered a lot of attention, they are both time-consuming and expensive to stage. And rather than alleviate the council's financial woes, in the last year that fund-raising strategy has actually exacerbated the organization's problems.
Last October and then in February, the housing council hosted two special-event fund-raisers, one featuring Battle and another with violinist Joshua Bell. Neither one, says Housing Council Executive Director Justin White, brought in as much money as the group expected, leading to a cash flow crunch that strained the agency throughout the summer.
"It's true to say that the special event fund-raising activity, while a very good thing in many respects, has certain disadvantages," says council Board President Roger Lynch. "One, it's probably the most expensive way to raise money, and two, if it turns out to be not as successful as you had hoped, it creates additional financial stress to an agency. That is one of the things that we as an agency have to be very clear about: that there will need to be greater diversity" in fund-raising.
One person who works for another local HIV/AIDS organization put it more bluntly: "For any nonprofit to put all their faith in one fund-raising strategy is just stupid. You do seven different things at the same time, so that if one doesn't work, you've got six others to fall back on."
Further complicating things for the housing council has been a dilemma with which almost all HIV/AIDS organizations have had to grapple in recent years -- the changing face of the disease. No longer predominated by gay men and intravenous drug users, HIV/AIDS victims are increasingly poorer and more often are black or Latino, and accompanied by problems such as substance abuse and homelessness.
For the housing council, those changes have meant an expanded need for services, without a parallel expansion in fund-raising. "Now we're playing catch-up," says White.
There is already a waiting list for those services, a situation that hasn't been helped by a delay in opening the second of two federally funded apartments for people with HIV/AIDS. The buildings, dubbed Carey East and Carey West, were financed by $3 million from HUD -- the housing council's main source of funding -- as well as $136,500 from the city and $600,000 from the state.
Carey East opened this summer, but Carey West, a 15-unit building on Detroit Avenue, won't open until late October at the earliest due to an architectural problem encountered earlier this year, says White.
Despite a capacity crowd at the Yo-Yo Ma event, the housing council's difficulties have only been forestalled, not erased, and the board is continuing to canvass for a possible partnership or merger with other local organizations. "I think what we're looking at is how best to position ourselves in terms of meeting various needs we have," says White.
Board members say the services the agency provides -- everything from assisted-living services to subsidized apartments -- will not be interrupted regardless of what happens.