Taken for a Ride?

An AIDS charity event's enormous expenses are alienating some activists

Married to a man with AIDS, Sally DeVito signed up for the 1997 AIDS bike ride from Boston to New York City. But as the date got closer, her husband got sicker, and she was afraid he'd die while she was gone. She went, deciding that it was more important for her to raise money so other AIDS patients could get the drugs that weren't working for her husband. He died three weeks after she got home.

Last year, on the first anniversary of his death, DeVito supervised the first Tanqueray Texas AIDS ride: a seven-day, 575-mile journey from Austin to Houston to Dallas.

"It felt like the exact, right place to be," she says.

And this year she's back on the bike, raising more than $4,300 in pledges for AIDS patients.

The Tanqueray Texas AIDS ride, which begins October 14, earns a lot of money from people like DeVito. But last year most of it didn't go to the sick people themselves, but rather to the Los Angeles-based Palotta Teamworks that organizes and runs the ride and four others like it elsewhere in the nation. But critics say this AIDS ride is actually taking donors for a ride.

In 1998 the Texas riders brought in $2.7 million in pledges, Tanqueray threw in $150,000, they sold a few T-shirts and bumped the total up to $2.87 million. Not a bad haul.

But only $400,000 went to AIDS charities. The rest went to the hot catered meals, mobile showers, staff salaries, office equipment and related expenses. Last year 43 AIDS organizations invested $5,000-a-share seed money to be beneficiaries -- less than half that number are returning this year.

"We trusted them, and we got screwed," says Byron Trott, executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Community Center in San Antonio.

Four of the nine Houston organizations dropped out this year. So did all ten groups in San Antonio and three out of five in Austin.

In San Antonio, the AIDS ride didn't market its ads to the Spanish-speaking community (a big segment of the city) and it didn't target the black community, says David Ewell, executive director of the San Antonio AIDS Foundation. Ewell would have been happy with a few Spanish words or phrases tossed in so Hispanics would know the ride welcomed them. Also last year, ride organizers stopped advertising in San Antonio, closed the Austin office and cut off the toll-free phone number, Ewell says.

"They didn't customize it. It could have been done in Muncie, Indiana," Trott says.

This isn't the first time the AIDS rides haven't brought the return they promised, or the first time they've been called racist. In Philadelphia, no black AIDS organizations were included until a month before the ride, when one was brought in as a beneficiary. The Pennsylvania attorney general's office forced Palotta Teamworks to pay $110,000 in penalties and restitution for improper registration and misrepresenting the amount of charitable proceeds.

"It was very disheartening from an ethical standpoint," says Charlotte Hale, executive director of Austin's Project Transitions. She says the ride should have kept expenses down so that money raised to fight AIDS actually goes for that purpose.

The National Charities Information Bureau recommends that fund-raising costs be less than 35 cents on the dollar, rather than the 85 cents of the last AIDS ride.

Cheryl Geoffrion, managing director for the ride, admits that the last return wasn't as good as expected. They always strive for 57 percent, she says. More money should go to the beneficiaries this year, Geoffrion says. They've made a few changes: The Austin and Hill Country leg has been dropped, reducing it a four-day, 350-mile ride from Houston to Dallas. And they've lowered the minimum pledge fee to $2,300 from last year's $2,700.

She's hoping all 1,285 registered riders show up. Last year only 702 of the 1,300 who signed up participated in the event. Since each rider had to shell out a $45 entry fee and raise at least $2,700 in pledges, the no-shows would have brought in a minimum of $1.64 million.

As it was, in 1998 each rider raised an average of $3,846 in donations, but only $570 of that amount went to the AIDS organizations. Overall expenses averaged more than $3,300 per rider. Staff salaries were the highest cost, coming in at $627,685, with riders' food and equipment a close second.

The 1998 ride ran into other problems. The first night it rained. Flash floods forced bicyclists off the road and into an overnight stay in Giddings's high school gym. The silver lining is that the next morning some of the riders went into the classrooms and talked about AIDS. Then the riders took up a $4,000 collection and donated it to the school.

Another night they went to Navasota's high school homecoming bonfire and mixed with students. They also camped in Calvert and invaded the Dairy Queen. The last day, they rode into downtown Dallas to a crowd of 8,000 people and a victory party.

All those Kodak moments are the real benefit of the ride, says Sara Steen, administrative director of Houston's Center for AIDS.

"We couldn't purchase that kind of awareness dollarwise," Steen says.

Awareness is nice, but an AIDS patient needs the money, says David Smith, executive director of Austin's Interfaith Care Alliance. He compared the ride to standing between a rich guy and a person with AIDS. The rich guy gives you $1,000 and you turn to the AIDS patient and tell him he's only getting $150 of it, Smith says. "The person with AIDS is not going to think that's okay," he says.

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