Critics Say AIDS Rides Place Participant ‘Experience’ Above CharitiesDan Pallotta, whose company Pallotta Teamworks has produced AIDS Rides since 1994, has drawn criticism from groups that contend too much of the money raised goes toward promotion and production expenses and not enough goes to the charities the rides are intended to help, the Washington Post reports. Pallotta's ride from Raleigh, N.C., to Washington, D.C., is set to begin today and is expected to draw more than 2,000 riders who have raised more than $2,400 each. But last year, the ride had expenses of $1,300 per participant, netting a 59% return for the D.C. charity Food & Friends and the Whitman-Walker Clinic. Pallotta charges between $182,000 to $398,000 to stage an event and demands control of "all aspects" of production, including media interviews. The company's events are "mammoth and laden with creature comforts." Company records show an average yield of 60% to charities, but for some events that percentage has dropped as low as 12%. The Better Business Bureau's Wise Giving Alliance standards for fundraising say that expenses that exceed more than 35% of the contributions fall below its standards.
Changing People's Lives
Pallotta said his events "can't be compared with other fundraisers" because they are also a "vehicle for transforming [participants'] lives." The company mission statement's only allusion to fundraising is an expression of support for groups that "elevate the level of possibility in addressing issues of social concern and in alleviating human suffering in the world." In contrast, the company's goal is to help participants "experience their own magnificence, and forever alter their sense of what is possible and what is impossible, both for themselves and all humanity." The slogan for the AIDS rides, which are held in 11 different regions, is "Impossible." This focus on the participant and his or her experience has "engendered scrutiny and criticism" of the organization, the Post reports. "The first time I heard Dan Pallotta speak in 1996, he was president of what was described as a fundraising consulting firm. Now it's a human potential discovery company. That's fine. But should it be tied up with fundraisers for charities? The money isn't given to create human growth experiences. It's to help people with AIDS," John Haley, a former AIDS Ride participant and recruitment director who resigned when he could "no longer defend the expenses," said. Pennsylvania Attorney General Mike Fisher sued Pallotta over a 1996 ride that returned only $324,000 to city charities after more than $1 million in expenses. Pallotta paid a $93,000 fine in the case but admitted "no wrongdoing." Wayne Turner of ACT UP said he "used to think the people who go on these rides had good intentions. My view now is that they're greedy. They have their friends and relatives pay for a four-day bike journey with food, showers and a massage. It's a glorified vacation ... If you want to give money for AIDS, get on a bike and ride it over to your local AIDS service organization and write a check." But Pallotta disputed the notion that the rides are a vacation, saying participants are obviously "exhausted" at the end of events. He pointed out that events that ignore the "empowerment of the participant" are "missing a huge opportunity to impact the very cause" they intend to help, because if people can "discover the profundity, that magnificence dormant in their own nature," they may participate again or seek out other volunteer opportunities. "It made me a lot more aware of the community," Todd Brown, a Maryland accountant who is doing his third AIDS Ride this year, said. "It's a great group of people who come together for the event, from bike racers to grandmothers who haven't been on a bike for 50 years. It's that participation that makes you realize what the event is about," he added. Craig Shniderman of Food & Friends said that ultimately, the rides "rais[e] a tremendous amount of money that can save lives in the community. What could be more important than that?"
Pallotta said too much emphasis has been placed on the $76 million in expenses and not on the $88 million he has helped raise for AIDS. "For too long, the charitable obsession has been on saving money. The obsession should be on raising more money. The great causes of the world need the same talent and market savvy used to sell Disneyland or BMWs or Nike ... I've netted more money, more quickly, than anyone. To critics, I say: 'Look at our results." He is also "aggressively marketing" his approach with a series of "self-help 'practicums' about 'allowing your dreams to manifest'" and a 203-page autobiography: "When Your Moment Comes: A Guide to Fulfilling Your Dreams by a Man Who Has Led Thousands to Greatness." However, Craig Miller, another fundraiser whose MZAEvents has produced events that have netted $200 million for AIDS groups, cautioned that events that focus on the participant at the expense of the charity can "break faith with donors and feed public cynicism" (Morello, Washington Post, 6/20).