True Believers

A hybrid of Salvation Army and Outward Bound, the AIDS Ride has shaken up the fundraising world with its well-packaged personal journey. But will the journey end the AIDS crisis, as advertised?

The Boston Phoenix/September 5-12 1996
By Ellen Barry

A scene from last year's Boston-New York AIDS Ride: as the spent riders flood into Manhattan, a powerful voice, roaring over the crowd, pledges to end the AIDS crisis. Riders hoist bikes over their heads in euphoria, a sea of arms waves rhythmically, and hundreds of people collapse in tears. One young woman, overcome by emotion, speaks into a camera.

"There's nothing better," she says, weeping helplessly. "I've never done anything better."

Welcome to the telethon, '90s style. When the second Boston-New York AIDS Ride winds up on Sunday, there will be no emcee and no poster children. No one will be laying a guilt trip on anyone, and, as the riders tend to their exhausted bodies after 300 miles of hills, the money may actually seem like a secondary issue.

Instead, there will be a mass of people who are very genuinely moved. They are likely to say things like, "The Ride is my salvation," or, "the Ride changed my life," or, "the Ride . . . is a soul-awakening experience." The R is always uppercase; you can hear it in their voices.

Every few years, an innovative charity event comes down the pike and sets a new standard for fundraising. During the '80s, for instance, Oxfam drove hundreds of thousands of suburban high schoolers to skip lunch, or eat rice out of bowls, or otherwise make themselves conscious of hunger. Midway through the '90s came the AIDS Ride, a physical ordeal that, according to participants and organizers, leaves many of its alumni psychically transformed. Borrowing from the '70s self-help movement, the Ride makes a kind of promise that few fundraisers have ever made, and -- some argue -- that no fundraiser could ever keep.

It has also trumped every other AIDS fundraiser in America. In its third year, the Ride has grown into a fundraising phenomenon, with five different Rides hitting 14 cities. Already the highest-grossing AIDS fundraiser ever, the AIDS Ride has a projected 1996 gross of $25 million.

By Sunday, 11,000 people will have done the Ride this year alone. From riders, it demands, up front, an astonishing degree of commitment -- each person must raise between $1400 and $2500 just to participate. Then come months of training and a trek that is, by all accounts, grueling. After expenses are paid off, the money will be distributed among clinics and services for people with AIDS.

Much of this success can be attributed to the Ride's founder, Melrose native Dan Pallotta, who blended business savvy with his own brand of spiritual leadership, and has suddenly found himself the leader of an empire.

When Pallotta first conceived of the Ride, its primary payoff was an emotional one.

"I think the impulse for the Ride came less from a place of fundraising and more from a place of people expressing their commitment to friends with AIDS," he says. "I mean, I want to climb Mount McKinley. I want to swim the Atlantic Ocean. I want to do something that at some level is equivalent to the meaning of this disease in my life.

"Somehow, a black-tie dinner is not an adequate expression of my desire to stop this," adds Pallotta, with an edge of anger in his voice. "It leaves me wanting big time."

Always drawn to the difficult, Pallotta first attempted the impossible in 1983, when he led 36 Harvard undergraduates in a cross-country "Ride for Life" to increase awareness of world hunger. The Ride for Life fell short of its $250,000 fundraising goal by about $175,000, according to a New York Times article that came out at the time.

But all 36 riders made it, and they got on the Today show, and -- as one participant told the Times -- "we learned how little people know about the problem."

The AIDS Ride, while grossing millions, is informed by a similar spirit. According to Pallotta, its lineage runs back through the Ride for Life to civil-rights heroes like Martin Luther King Jr., and Bobby and John F. Kennedy, who he says were the first role models he ever had, growing up in the '60s.

Another hero -- who doesn't show up in the promotional material, but whose theories surface in some aspects of the AIDS Ride -- is Werner Erhard.

Erhard was the founder of the human-potential movement, which began with Erhard Seminar Training, or est, and which continues into the present as the Forum and the Hunger Project. Est, an intense self-improvement seminar founded in 1971, became wildly popular in the mid '70s, attracting 50,000 new clients a year and bringing in tens of millions of dollars.

By the '80s -- when Pallotta first got into est -- Erhard was widely criticized for his authoritarian style, and est graduates were filing lawsuits charging that the seminars had prompted heart attacks and psychotic episodes. A few years later Erhard would flee the country, owing millions in back taxes and accused of molesting his daughters.

Erhard's theories were also the basis for the Hunger Project, which promised to end hunger by the year 2000, not through relief work but by changing the way people think. When the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reported that of $7 million collected, only a little over $200,000 had gone to relief efforts, Hunger Project officials responded that the project's chief goal was to raise consciousness about hunger.

Critics say Erhard's theories, when applied to humanitarian efforts, can give donors a false impression that they are acting directly.

"The idea is that you create your own reality. You can uncreate hunger," says Steven Hassan, founder of the Freedom of Mind Resource Center, who researched the Hunger Project for his book, Combatting Cult Mind Control. "If you visualize a world with everyone eating, then it will go away. When they say, `We are ending world hunger,' it has no connection with physical reality. It's a wishful-thinking system."

Pallotta says he is no longer active in the Forum, and his company Pallotta & Associates denies that there is any relationship between the Forum and the AIDS Ride. But although they "don't encourage anyone to do it . . . [or] pressure anyone to do it . . . [or] even recommend that anyone do it," Pallotta & Associates regularly contributes $100 toward Forum tuition for those employees who elect to take the seminars, Pallotta says.

One former staffer, who asked not to be identified, said the language of the Forum "is definitely passed through management. People approach you about it. It's like a Tupperware-salesman type thing." Another said, "They were definitely open about [the Forum]. It was a whole mindset, and it was basically shared by everyone who worked there."

Pallotta himself freely says that the Forum's techniques are useful for staff members. "The Forum is so much about possibility, and the AIDS Ride is so much about possibility," he says. The crucial difference, he adds, is that in the Forum, personal transformation is an end in itself: "The Forum is specifically dedicated to a specific technology around personal transformation, whereas the AIDS Ride is dedicated first to reaching out to people with AIDS."

The language of self-help has found an important place in some AIDS Ride pitches. Pallotta's 25-page plan to end AIDS, which at one point cites Erhard as an inspiration, focuses almost exclusively on such tenuous goals as "imagin[ing] no AIDS," and "acknowledg[ing] we don't know" about the disease, and "communicat[ing] our vision, as rapidly, and widely, and as effectively as possible."

"AIDS exists for one reason and one reason only," reads one segment of Pallotta's paper:

It exists because we haven't ended it. It doesn't exist because there isn't enough government funding, or because we don't know enough about immunology, or because HIV doesn't really cause AIDS, or for any other `reason.' It exists because we haven't taken it upon ourselves to end it.

Another section reads:

Let's begin envisioning it being over. No more premature memorial services. Shut down the doors of all the AIDS service organizations. No more AIDS Walks. No more red ribbons. Turn the AIDS Ride into a fund-raiser for the homeless. Friends who were HIV positive will live into their eighties. . . . The end of AIDS in the next five years is a world that exists, if we are willing to uncover it.

To several riders interviewed -- who were otherwise enthusiastic about the event -- the pledge to end AIDS in five years sounded unrealistic.

"What was kind of interesting to me is it was almost as if they thought the money was going specifically to research -- and it's not," says Peter Barros, a participant in last year's Boston-New York Ride. In fact, money raised by the Ride mainly goes not to research but to clinics and outreach services for people with AIDS.

"Some of my friends felt they were being misled, because there was no real practical plan coming out of it," says Michael Marsico, a gay activist who took part in the Philadelphia-DC Ride. "They would say stuff like, `The AIDS Ride will end the AIDS crisis.' I just thought, `Save it,' but a lot of people were offended by it. There are some people who felt [Pallotta] was trying to come off as a messianic figure."

In the end, of course, the AIDS Ride may not cure AIDS, but it does supply money for sick people, and in many communities it supplies a lot of it. Unlike Philadelphia (see "Taken by the Ride," this page), Boston has welcomed the Ride with open arms. The Fenway Community Health Center, Boston's only beneficiary for the second year in a row, expects to take in 50,000 donations amounting to $3 million this year, and, according to Ken Hurd, the center's director of development, "We're very satisfied with what it's allowed us to do." Many of these donations are "new money" from people with no history of donation to AIDS services, Hurd says.

Not counting the Boston-New York proceeds, which are projected at $6 million, the AIDS Ride has already collected $19.6 million this year. It's also generated a real buzz in every city it's touched. The Ride's deep appeal lies in its challenge, in the impression that it is -- in the words of one AIDS Ride official -- "an eloquent response to the disease," a big response to something big.

"There's definitely pressure" on other fundraising organizations to match the AIDS Ride's excitement, says Carlos Inostroza, who works for AIDS Action and rode in last year's Boston-New York AIDS Ride. "It's creating a new and exciting way of raising money. The old charities that have been around for a long time, it makes them look boring and tired and old. Which in a way is good."

It's true: reinvigorating the fundraising community can only benefit people with AIDS. Increase participants' personal stakes, demand sacrifice, give them a little bit of spiritual payoff, and you can prompt an extraordinary response.

When you ask Pallotta what has lofted the AIDS Ride to the position it suddenly occupies, he says it's people's desire to unleash their own hidden potential. The event's publicity materials come close to guaranteeing a transforming moment; it's there in small, official-looking type on the AIDS Ride handbook -- THE AIDS RIDE WILL BE ONE OF THE MOST INCREDIBLE EXPERIENCES OF YOUR LIFE -- and in the pamphlet -- THE AIDS RIDE IS . . . A POTENTIALLY LIFE-CHANGING EXPERIENCE.

"People are drawn to it because . . . they look at the AIDS Ride and they say, `This is the way my life could matter,' " Pallotta says. "All of us live our lives at some compromised level of what we are truly capable of. The AIDS Ride offers a stage on which you can dance out your full potential."

And, according to participants, he is right. In the emotional high of the closing ceremonies, and often long after, many riders say they feel a lasting sense of mission.

"I have definitely carried this with me," says Barros, who rode in last year's Boston-New York AIDS Ride. "I question my job, my career. It's one thing to go to church on Sunday, or to go to a fundraiser . . . The AIDS Ride is something I still think about two or three times a week."

Pallotta is the first to say that personal transformation on its own is not enough, that "the next step needs to be dedicating ourselves to ending the AIDS epidemic, because that's the big bike ride." But when it gets down to specifics, his five-year plan to end AIDS doesn't offer much in the way of practical solutions:

We need to be roaming around the halls of Harvard Medical School, the Pasteur Institute, the CDC, Burroughs Welcome, Congress, libraries, research labs, everywhere and anywhere it will make a difference. We need to be a presence. An overwhelming presence.

He recommends "organized support meetings, similar to 12-step meetings, that keep the health of the context of the volunteers alive."

Dan Pallotta is an instinctive, natural organizer of people, and has given a lot of attention to what people really want. People want, for instance, to scare themselves out of their everyday lives, to feel that they have made a difference, to express their anger toward the disease. And underlying all these things is a longing for community, a desire to belong to something larger than oneself. Pallotta's Ride has set a new standard for AIDS activism by responding to all these needs -- but he should not mistake them for the problem or the solution. The good work of the AIDS Ride is visible at ground level, with the millions going to the care of sick people. That is the measure of the AIDS Ride's success.

The AIDS ride: The cost question

Taken by the Ride -- Among those taking a closer look at the AIDS Ride this summer is the Philadelphia Attorney General's office, which began reviewing the Philadelphia-DC Ride's finances in July.

It's been a long, ugly summer for the Philadelphia AIDS Ride, which netted far less than expected in its inaugural effort this June.

According to final receipts released by the AIDS Ride last week, the Philadelphia ride raised $1.4 million and netted $320,000, which will be split equally among its four local beneficiaries. That means a full 79 percent of the funds raised by Philadelphia riders went to overhead -- far more than the standard 40 percent that the AIDS Ride promises.

But even 40 percent going to overhead pushes the limits of acceptable fundraising costs; generally, it shouldn't cost more than 30 cents to raise a dollar, according to Dan Langan of the National Charities Information Bureau.

In Philadelphia's case, administrative expenses alone ate up 62 percent of the gross revenues. One local beneficiary, the Greater Philadelphia Urban Affairs Coalition, disappointed at the $82,500 it netted this year, has withdrawn its support. A year before the event, each beneficiary is required to pledge $81,250 in seed money in order to participate.

You can "look at it as a fundraiser for people with AIDS, or as something to give bike riders an enjoyable experience, or as something to raise money for a promoter," says James Roberts, executive director of the Minority AIDS Project in Philadelphia, which is part of the Urban Affairs Coalition. "It's hard to do all these things at once."

The event has become a hot-button issue in the Philadelphia AIDS-service community, where "there are people walking around blind with rage at the Ride, and people blindly defending the Ride," says Michael Marsico, a local AIDS activist who participated in the Ride. "It's certainly tempered the enthusiasm I feel on the street," says Marsico.

AIDS Ride officials admit that Philadelphia was disappointing, and have rushed to guarantee Boston-New York riders that their overhead bill will come to no more than 39 percent of gross revenues, as it did last year. They point out that the DC end of the Philadelphia-DC AIDS Ride netted $1.6 million with a similar-size recruiting operation, and they attribute Philadelphia's weak showing to infighting within the city's AIDS-service community.

"The story there is not so much the AIDS Ride as Philadelphia and the AIDS community in Philadelphia," Dan Pallotta says. "In that city there's a lot of divisiveness. . . . There's not anything else coming down the pike. If you can't make the AIDS Ride successful in Philadelphia, you need something like the AIDS Ride. What else are you going to do?"

But Pallotta's arguments have fallen flat for many in Philadelphia, and ACT UP/Philadelphia -- charging that the AIDS Ride caters more to riders than to people with AIDS -- is considering openly protesting the Ride. When the figures were announced in Philadelphia's gay press, the riders, who raised $1400 apiece to participate, were left feeling duped, points out Katie Krauss, an ACT UP member who did not ride.

"It was really demoralizing for people to realize they could have stayed home and written a check for $400 and done more for people with AIDS," says Krauss. "The bottom line has to be, what is it doing for people with AIDS?"

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