Friday, January 24, 2003

Fundraisers, Trust and Accountability

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #200, January 24, 2003)

Food drives. Toy drives. Auctions. Raffles. If you hang around the leather/BDSM community (or the GLBT community or almost any other community, for that matter) you will see individuals and organizations raising money for charity using a never-ending array of techniques, from balls to banquets to bingo. But what assurance do you have that the money you donate will go where it’s supposed to go?

An article in the December 19, 2002 issue of GAZE Guide took several local organizations, including the Atons of Minneapolis, to task for not filing reports with the Minnesota Charities Review Council and/or the Better Business Bureau. The article did not say, or even appear to insinuate, that there was anything dishonest about the way the Atons conduct their fundraisers—but it did suggest that filing with the Minnesota Charities Review Council would “insure [sic] donor confidence.” (The Minnesota Charities Review Council is an organization that has been in operation since 1946 with the twin goals of “providing information that will help donors make informed charitable giving decisions” and “encouraging accountability in the charitable sector by applying standards to selected nonprofit organizations and communicating the results to stakeholders.”)

When I asked the Atons about this, then-president Sam Carlisle responded (quite correctly) that the Atons of Minneapolis is not a charity, it’s a social club. Raising money for good causes is one of the things the club does, but not its main reason for existence.

The same could be said of other local organizations. The Black Guard of Minneapolis has, in the past, brought in talent from places like New York and Las Vegas to raise money for charitable causes. TIES has had several holiday-season toy drives, and the North Country Bears have twice collected teddy bears to be given to children in crisis. The North Star Gay Rodeo Association has designated various charities as beneficiaries of its rodeos through the years. But none of these organizations are charities themselves—they are clubs or social organizations which, as one component of their missions, raise funds to be given to the kind of charities that do file with the Minnesota Charities Review Council.

But what assurance is there that the money raised at these events will actually get to those charities? There is a one-word answer to that question: trust—the same trust that is so essential to so many of the leather community’s activities. Just as we trust that the person we submit to in a BDSM scene won’t violate the boundaries we’ve negotiated beforehand, or just as we trust that the person we trick with won’t steal our wallet or strangle us, we trust that event organizers will be honest and honorable and will turn over all the monies raised to the proper charity.

As with other areas of leather, that trust is not blind. Leather tends to be a self-policing community and this aspect of the community is no exception—we, all of us, form our very own Charities Review Council to ensure donor confidence. Clubs, organizations and individuals understand that the community expects them to be accountable and to do what they say they will do. They have reputations to maintain, and they know that any financial hanky-panky will eventually be found out, and probably judged pretty harshly.

That’s exactly what happened last year to an east-coast titleholder: He held an event advertised as benefiting the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom (NCSF). He recruited volunteers to help him with his fundraiser. He even publicized how much money was raised. But, several months later and after repeated inquiries, NCSF still hadn’t received the proceeds from the event. (The Leather Archives & Museum (LA&M) in Chicago occasionally has had the same problem: someone has told them they were raising money for the LA&M, but the check never showed up.)

Not only did this titleholder disgrace himself, he also embarrassed NCSF and all the people who volunteered to help him with his fundraiser. Several of those volunteers eventually went public with the story, exposing the fundraiser as fraudulent and calling on the titleholder to do the right thing and turn the fundraiser’s proceeds over to NCSF. At this writing NCSF still hasn’t received any money and the titleholder’s reputation is pretty well shot.

Fortunately, the example given above is an extremely rare occurrence. The bad apples are far, far outweighed by the many honest and worthwhile clubs, organizations and titleholders who would never do anything dishonest because they’re honest and honorable people and, frankly, it would never occur to them that being dishonest was an option.

So—as long as the people organizing the events have proven themselves trustworthy—go to the fundraisers, bring the food to the food drives and the toys to the toy drives and buy the raffle tickets. Enjoy the events and enjoy the good feeling that comes from knowing your contributions are going where they’re supposed to go and doing what they’re supposed to do.

There’s another aspect of leather or GLBT organizations raising money for charities that needs to be pointed out: I’ve seen several instances where money was raised but a charity would not accept it because they didn’t like the folks who raised it. Charities that practice this kind of discrimination might think they are upholding their moral principles by refusing to accept what they consider to be tainted donations. But these charities should realize that such discrimination makes them look pretty uncharitable in the eyes of many.

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