In its 24th year, AIDS WALK Charlotte is one of the largest HIV awareness and fundraising events in the Carolinas. Due to shelter-in-place orders, this year’s event has gone virtual, so qnotes reached out to organizers to learn more about how one can be involved and how the event has changed. The walk supports the Charlotte-based HIV service organization, RAIN, and its programs for people living with HIV and AIDS in our community. Debbie Warren serves as the organization’s president and CEO and Nathan Smith is RAIN’s vice president of philanthropy.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
CR: First off, how are things going during the pandemic?
Debbie Warren: We’ve had a lot of people who’ve lost jobs. It may not be the entire household, but a lot have lost 75 percent of the income for the household. And then, there’s a lot of anxiety all the way around for people living with HIV. We’ve gone virtual, and we have HIPPA-compliant platforms for mental health counseling and other supportive services. People are concerned about health insurance and getting their medications — access to their medications. So, a lot of our work is around that right now.
CR: When did you decide to move the 2020 AIDS WALK to a virtual event?
DW: The board meeting was on March 17 and we had a discussion that night of what would it take to go virtual since we had such a robust website. We knew that we were going to need to go virtual.
Nathan Smith: Obviously, as things have progressed and things have changed day to day with COVID-19, we kept thinking about it in February, but it was really in the middle of March when we realized that the stay-at-home and work-from-home orders were coming down the pipeline. We knew it was the best decision.
CR: What can people expect?
NS: What’s good for us is that the majority of our fundraising that has been done for the walk is done prior to the day of and so, for us, it was really just changing our language and telling people that though we’re not going to meet in person it still doesn’t mean that you can’t fundraise or need to stop fundraising. We just ramped up our communication. The little things that we were thinking about doing like little fundraising tips and videos have come up as top priority.
DW: Normally, there are a lot of lead-up events that contribute to what teams are doing. We do a lot of “lunch and learns” at various corporations around the region and around the county.
NS: We would typically do these “lunch and learns” and several teams had a huge fundraising initiatives that were all based on being in-person. So, we figured out what that looks like now. We’ve done virtual “lunch and learns,” and we also know that everyone is on Zoom calls now so we decided to keep the events to 30 minutes at a time.
CR: Do you plan to have any kick-off events?
NS: We’re really looking at this as a month-long event. We are kicking it off, however, we have several sponsors who have already committed to the event, and after we went virtual, are still committed to supporting us. Part of their benefits are that they would get a booth space and logo recognition at the event, which is important to companies. Since we can’t do that, we’ve switched gears and we’re doing match days. We’re giving each sponsor a match day and we’re kicking that off on May 2 (the original day of our walk) with Wells Fargo. The first 100 $50 gifts that people receive on that day, Wells Fargo will match. We’re doing things like that. We’re encouraging teams to pick a specific day as well, so as a team they can come together to walk around the house or around the neighborhood. One thing I’m trying to work out is how we can do a virtual team photo, so basically asking the individual people as they’re walking to take a photo of themselves and create a virtual page for each team where each of their photos will show up. That’s still in the works.
CR: Did you think about cancelling or postponing this year?
NS: The WALK is the largest fundraiser that we do every year, so we knew we couldn’t cancel. We really depend on the money to continue our mission and our vision. The first two weeks of working from home, the team was taking different webinars to gather ideas. We were really trying to do as much research as quickly as possible to make sure that we were offering everything we could virtually. It was never necessarily a matter of can’t, but rather what does it mean for us to go virtual.
DW: Some of our board members were looking at what people in the United Kingdom had done, because they preceded us with response to COVID-19 and we could see some of their AIDS fundraisers were going virtual. That really served as some encouragement to us that we too could move ahead. We knew the results were probably going to be different this year. We could carry on and pull it off.
CR: The walk is about continued visibility as well. What can people do to raise visibility about HIV without the physical walk?
NS: We’re encouraging people to use hashtags, #aidswalkclt and #positiveimpactclt. Virtual or not, our tagline and vision this year is “how are you making a positive impact?” I think it’s even more fitting now. We’re encouraging people to take photos and share how they are making a positive impact by making a donation or registering and more — it’s really about how you are making a positive impact, not just for RAIN, but for our community as a whole.
DW: Some of our staff have been doing brief recordings about how they are working and the type of work they are doing with clients during COVID-19 as well. We’ve posted a few of those already from our case managers and our youth patient navigators. The videos are on Facebook and Instagram. Liking those, reposting those and making comments about the important work of RAIN, even more so with our vulnerable population, are all tremendous things that folks can do.
AIDS WALK Charlotte, Virtual is an online fundraising initiative that allows people to register and hold their own symbolic walk while still fundraising for RAIN. The goal of this year’s walk was reduced to $125,000 from an original $175,000. In 2019, the event raised $160,000. As of press time, the walk has raised over $49,000 with 423 people registered.
The organization has not yet had to lay off any staff or furlough employees. They did not make it through the first round of the federal Payroll Protection Plan and realize that other events like Broadway Cares which regularly support the organization through grants will not be there this year. For every dollar that the walk raises, 88 cents goes back into programs with the remainder supporting administrative costs.
To register or donate, visit AIDSWalkCLT.org. As the website says, “We won’t have the opportunity to meet up in person on May 2, but we’ve giving you an extra month to fundraise.” The organization still plans to give out awards to top fundraising teams and individuals, along with commemorative T-shirts to all participants.