Takin' It to the Streets
On May 15, more than 40,000 New Yorkers will hit the streets for the 20th annual AIDS Walk New York, the world’s largest AIDS fundraising event. To commemorate the anniversary, FS spoke with Craig R. Miller, the activist fundraiser who created the AIDS Walk model more than two decades ago. Miller is president and CEO of MZA Events, an event-production, campaign-management and grassroots-fundraising firm that produces AIDS Walks in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, among others. He now pauses to reflect on Ronald Reagan, the Internet and the future of AIDS Walks as fundraisers and awareness builders.
FundRaising Success: Where did you get the idea to organize a walk to benefit AIDS research and awareness?
Craig Miller: It came from my understanding of how government functions and disfunctions. The 1980s was a time of debilitating government inaction related to the burgeoning AIDS crisis. Public health issues in general were not a high priority for the Reagan administration, particularly this issue that was perceived as affecting largely gay people, intravenous drug users and, at the time, Haitian immigrants. … The question was, “What could we do to try and step in and fill the gap left by the government’s negligible response to this public-health emergency?”
FS: Were you surprised early on by the response?
CM: Very surprised, and delightfully so. We had hoped to attract an active participation of 1,000 for that first AIDS Walk Los Angeles back in 1985. And we had hoped to raise more than $100,000 for what was then the fledgling AIDS Project Los Angeles. Four and a half times that many people turned out, and we raised nearly seven times our goal. The reason I found that strong early response so surprising was because it really took a tremendous amount of courage back in 1985 to participate in an AIDS Walk. To be a fundraising participant, it involved approaching people and asking them to sponsor you, which inherently means that, “Hey, this is a cause I care about.” To do that in 1985 was very bold, daring and, I think, heroic.
FS: Why do you think this particular event has captivated millions and become synonymous with the movement?
CM: The AIDS Walk is a very democratic means of participating and making a difference. You do not have to be wealthy. You do not have to be a great athlete. You do not have to raise any predetermined amount of money. All you have to do is care and do your best.
FS: How has the Internet contributed to event coordination, awareness and fundraising?
CM: The relatively new phenomena of fundraising via the Internet has been enormously helpful to us, but I don’t think that it has, in any way, fundamentally changed the AIDS Walks. But the overall effectiveness of these fundraising campaigns has helped participants move from asking people who are within arm’s reach to sponsor them to a much more expanded outreach.
FS: How do you think AIDS Walks will evolve?
CM: It will be determined by the nature of the organizers and the organizing campaigns. To the extent that AIDS Walk organizers or the benefiting charities look at the general downward trend in AIDS fundraising and say to themselves, “You know, we need to lessen our investment in our local AIDS Walk because we’re scared we won’t get the kind of return we once got.” We’re already seeing a sharp decline in AIDS Walks [around the country]. By reducing investment, what tends to go with that is reduced professionalism and reduced visibility.