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Julia Borcherts, Windy City Times: AIDS: Chicago’s DIFFArent approach to HIV/AIDS

AIDS: Chicago’s DIFFArent approach to HIV/AIDS
by Julia Borcherts, October 5, 2011

Over the last quarter-century, DIFFA/Chicago has granted nearly $2 million to HIV/AIDS-related charities across the area, developed a fellowship with Northwestern University, created an exuberant annual gala which draws design industry heavy hitters from across the country, begun an auxiliary board to groom the next generation for creative fundraising and established a program to be able to fund its grantees in perpetuity. But Executive Committee Secretary-Treasurer and Communications Director Kim Winzeler still remembers the first official grant awarded in the late 1980s.

“Open Hand, which of course is Vital Bridges now, was just starting at Ann Sather’s and my friend Cheryl was packing food,” said Winzeler, who joined DIFFA/Chicago shortly after it formed in the mid-’80s. “They were doing meals on wheels for people that didn’t have anybody take care of them. We actually gave them their first thousand-dollar grant. And I still remember thinking, ‘Wow—that’s not a lot of money but they could do a lot with a thousand dollars.'”

At the time, DIFFA/Chicago was a way for concerned people in the industry—residential and contract designers, showroom owners, Merchandise Mart employees and clients—to try to help in any way they could to respond an epidemic that no one understood.

“People nowadays, they grew up in an environment where AIDS has always been in their vocabulary,” said Winzeler. “And back then, that was just not it. For a long time, we didn’t even know what it was called. Obviously, we were noticing that we were losing a lot of our business professionals and friends to this horrible disease, but nobody really knew what was going on. They didn’t know what caused it but at that point, it seemed to be affecting more of the gay community than it did anybody else.

“And there was sort of a stigma—a certain cloud of silence about getting sick. I mean, people didn’t talk about it; they didn’t want people to know. You could walk through the Merchandise Mart and you could see people that you thought, ‘Oh, there’s something wrong,’ but you really didn’t talk about it—nobody wanted to. And then all of a sudden, you would just hear that, ‘Oh, so-and-so just died’ and you’d be like, ‘What? I didn’t know that he was sick.’ But then you realized that you hadn’t seen them for awhile. And you’d just be like, ‘Oh my God, all these people are dying.'”

Winzeler, who was working at the Merchandise Mart in her family’s showroom ( which was called Design Institute America at the time and is now Pauline Grace ) , remembers feeling concerned and frustrated but not knowing how she could help.

“It was my clients, it was my friends,” she said, “but you just didn’t know what to do. You sort of felt helpless because if they weren’t talking about it, how could you help?

“People didn’t let you come to the hospital to see them; people didn’t want you to call them. They sort of all went underground. And so you felt very disconnected from people that you were pretty close to. You never got a chance to say goodbye to a lot of people because it was so closeted. And I remember feeling like, ‘We have to do something.’ And so when I heard about this group, I remember thinking, ‘Well, I can do this. This is something that we can do collectively that maybe will impact—maybe it’s too late for our friends, but there’s certainly other people that are out there that are going to need help.'”

Around this time—1985 and ’86—the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases reported that one million Americans had contracted the virus but there were no antiretroviral drugs available and years of government indifference had resulted in a lack of funding for support systems for people diagnosed with the disease.

“The social services weren’t there,” Winzeler said. “People didn’t know how to treat it—you couldn’t treat it. They didn’t know what to do. You just sort of went in the hospital or you had pneumonia and then the next thing is, you died.”

So the early members of DIFFA/Chicago—even before they aligned themselves with DIFFA National in New York—began to look for ways to help behind the scenes.

“We knew that there was just a need out there,” Winzeler said. “So we started to get involved and see if we could raise money—it was really to help people that we knew that were alone or they didn’t have a support system. We didn’t really even know how we were going to fund it, how we were going to distribute the money.

“There were so many grassroots organizations [ such as Open Hand ] that were starting and somebody would say, ‘Oh, I know you’re raising money for AIDS—we’re looking for money.’ And I think that’s sort of how it started. There was one group that was trying to raise money and we were trying to raise money and then we gave it to them. It was really that simple.”

Rather than to make direct appeals to designers, firms and clients for cash, DIFFA/Chicago members began arranging social and industry networking events to raise funds.

“Somebody had a connection to Dave Jemilo—he owns the Green Mill,” said Winzeler. “But back then, he also had a little jazz club downstairs on Franklin Street right at Chicago [ The High Hat ] and he offered to host something. It was one of our first fundraisers and we had a handful of people there. And I remember that we were all sitting around and drinking a glass of wine and just like that, we started raising money! It wasn’t a lot, we probably raised a thousand dollars. But then we just started to gain momentum and then we got Holly Hunt on board.”

Both Winzeler and former DIFFA/Chicago Executive Committee Chair Jennifer McGregor—who stepped down in July to transition to the DIFFA National board—agree that attracting the support of world-renowned, Chicago-based furniture showroom and design studio owner Hunt marked a turning point for DIFFA/Chicago.

“It was just a real grassroots group who had a dinner in Holly Hunt’s back yard,” said McGregor, who came to DIFFA/Chicago after that time, in the late ’90s, and first served as development chair. “And that was the first gala.”

“It was up on the North Shore and she [ Hunt ] set up a tent that covered her tennis courts,” said Winzeler. “It was a big-ticket item, probably $200-$250 a person, and we had maybe 300 people—all these design people and people who hired designers. It was a whole design industry party and we raised a lot of money.”

The galas, which have become DIFFA/Chicago’s signature annual event, are now held in large downtown venues and timed to occur in June, the night before Neocon ( the Merchandise Mart’s annual design expo ) begins, a move that has enabled DIFFA/Chicago to generate about $400,000 per year from this fundraiser alone. And the tone of the parties has evolved over the years.

“We used to throw the most elaborate, flamboyant themed parties,” said Winzeler, “and because it was mostly designers, people went way over the top in terms of the way that they dressed. It was just a very upbeat kind of thing.

“Now, it still is that but—it’s the same and yet it’s transformed. One of our goals was always to go out into the world—into the business community, into the philanthropic community—and get larger dollars and larger donors than just those buying a $250 ticket. We were looking for corporate funds. And so now a lot more of the major contract manufacturers and design firms have a very strong footprint on the gala.”

McGregor agreed and believes that the larger scope has contributed to the event’s success. “It’s really more of a national event because of all of these manufacturers that come in to attend Neocon,” she said. “So we have the heavy hitters from the design industry.”

DIFFA/Chicago’s other major annual fundraising event—which also generates about $400,000 annually—is Dining by Design, an event created by DIFFA National which has been shared with a few of the larger DIFFA chapters across the country, including Chicago. Each November, local and national designers—many from the contract industry but also many from the residential, retail and fashion arenas, including Tiffany and Ralph Lauren—create three-dimensional dining installations at the Merchandise Mart which become the centerpieces for several fundraising events at different price points.

“It’s spread out over three days,” said Winzeler. “They have the cocktail party; then they have the Table Hop and Taste. And then we have our DIFFA gala where you actually dine in those environments, which I think is really inspiring.”

And the different events at various pricing levels—which range from $10 for an open-house walk-through to $500 for the dinner party—helps DIFFA/Chicago to make the weekend accessible to more people.

“Table Hop and Taste is like $35 and you get to come on a Saturday afternoon,” said Winzeler, “and you get to taste great food and have great wine pairings and look at great environments.”

Events such as these have caused DIFFA/Chicago to become a powerhouse within the national organization.

“But we work very independently from DIFFA National,” said McGregor. “They support us with relationships and national sponsors and perhaps underwriters for different events. They may have a relationship with, say, Benjamin Moore or Ralph Lauren, so they’ll bring sponsors to us for big events. They’ve been a wonderful support but for the most part, we really do everything on our own.”

That includes granting more than $2 million since the late ’80s to direct-support providers including Howard Brown Health Care, Chicago House, Children’s Memorial Hospital, the AIDS Legal Counsel of Chicago, Horizon Hospice, the Center on Halsted and others across the Chicago area. There are currently 26 agencies receiving DIFFA dollars. One of the things that makes DIFFA unique is that the grants do not need to be allocated to a specific program or resource or clinical trial within the benefiting agency—the charity can use the money to pay operating expenses or develop educational outreach programs or any other area that they see fit.

“The grants are unrestricted,” said Winzeler. “So they can use it any way they want as long as they meet the criteria of the whole granting process. We have a fairly detailed way that we do our grants—all of their funding gets looked at, all of their grant proposals get looked through with a fine-toothed comb. And then we get to do site visits.”

DIFFA/Chicago also created a unique program in 1991—a DIFFA/Chicago Fellowship which was established at Northwestern Memorial Hospital to fund HIV/AIDS research, patient care and education.

“Every year, Northwestern names a DIFFA Fellow to do their work in a field that’s related to HIV and AIDS, which is solely funded by DIFFA/Chicago,” said McGregor.

The amount awarded in the fellowship has been reduced in recent years due to the economic downturn, but DIFFA/Chicago has been able to maintain its commitment to that and to the breadth of other organizations to which they grant by employing a savvy money management strategy.

“We created an endowment within the last five years that will help us remain financially viable and benefit the organizations in perpetuity—a sustainable longevity strategic plan that was put in place before the recession so that we can continue to give and continue to work operationally,” said McGregor. “And so we are the most financially viable chapter of DIFFA, which is wonderful.

“But we also have maintained our sponsorship base through the midst of a recession, although we obviously have seen it dip to a certain degree.”

Giving levels may have dipped, but between the gala, the Dining by Design events and the fundraising done by the organization’s new Auxiliary Board—made up of the next generation of design professionals—DIFFA/Chicago raised just shy of a million dollars in 2010. And when McGregor became the executive committee chair in 2000, she began tracking the giving history of DIFFA/Chicago’s donors so that they could be paired with a benefiting organization at the DIFFA/Chicago grant awards ceremony each year in February.

“We match up the 26 grants to the top 26 sponsors,” said McGregor. “At our ceremony, it’s not the board that’s handing out the checks; it’s actually the sponsors and our long-time givers and supporters of DIFFA. So at this reception—which used to be at the Mart in someone’s showroom but we actually now have it at the Chase Auditorium where we can hold up to 300 people—we fill up the auditorium and it’s more of a formal event, kind of like the Academy Awards.

“And it’s not just the local rep—it’s the VP of sales or the CEO. They come in for this program to get to know the grantees. And they hear all these wonderful stories about where their money goes. It’s become more of a celebration, something that people really look forward to. And then we have a reception with red-velvet cupcakes and champagne. It’s really closed the transactional loop.”

Winzeler agreed that this approach has helped to enhance the community spirit so central to DIFFA/Chicago’s mission. “It really sort of completes that circle of why you get involved in DIFFA,” she said. “And I think that that’s unique to our organization, that we are able to have that kind of interaction between donors and recipients.”

In keeping with its community-building initiative, DIFFA/Chicago also hosts networking events for its grant recipients so that these service providers can discuss ways to partner up and share resources to avoid duplicating efforts. But as the face of HIV/AIDS changes, DIFFA/Chicago plans to look at the best ways to continue to serve the community, including a comprehensive study that DIFFA National is working on to determine the directions the organization will take in the future.

“With all of these wonderful advancements and anti-retro-drug therapy and we hear that a vaccine is imminent—what happens to DIFFA?,” said McGregor, who will be part of that team in her new role with DIFFA National. “What happens to the aid when we do find a cure? Do we remain steadfast to HIV and AIDS? Do we branch out in other ways that continue to help the community?

“It’s a tough one because we have constituents that will be living with this disease, albeit healthily, but they will be living with this for the rest of their lives, another 50 years or more,” McGregor said. “So they still need our support whether there is a cure or not—especially as it relates to legal advocacy, to food and nutrition and housing.

“It’s a very highly emotionally charged conversation. It’s very split; it’s very mixed. But I will tell you that here in Chicago, we will remain where we are.”

See www.diffachicago.org for upcoming community, gala and Auxiliary Board events.

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