Charity Reaches for Stars--Critics Say It Falls Short
Soon after AIDS patient Ryan White won his poignant battle to remain in public school in Indiana, a group called Athletes and Entertainers for Kids signed on as his national fund-raising arm.
Together they became a potent force on the Hollywood charity circuit.
The entertainment community turned out in droves in 1988 for a glitzy benefit at the Century Plaza Hotel headlined by pop star Elton John, with tickets going for as much as $2,000 apiece.
In the following year, Athletes and Entertainers put on an equally spectacular fund-raiser honoring Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The tribute to the retiring basketball legend was broadcast on national television.
Last spring, former President and Mrs. Ronald Reagan attended an Academy Awards night party to benefit the charity. It also was White’s last public appearance.
Seven months since his death, White’s name still appears on Athletes and Entertainers’ fund-raising appeals, and his mother, Jeanne White, remains among its biggest boosters. But now the organization’s achievements as well as its fiscal management are being called into question.
John, who was at White’s bedside during his final hours, has severed his ties to Athletes and Entertainers because a $25,000 donation he made to the charity for use by the White family was never turned over to them.
Relations between the two camps soured even further last week when Athletes and Entertainers named John a recipient of its first annual Ryan White Memorial Award, without his advance knowledge. John’s management said the singer does not want the award and will not attend the presentation ceremony.
John is not the only one who has sought to distance himself from the charity. Two of the largest hospitals that specialize in treating youngsters, Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center and Childrens Hospital in Hollywood, have significantly curbed their dealings with Athletes and Entertainers, reportedly because of unkept promises by the charity.
Athletes and Entertainers was also barred from raising funds in the city of Los Angeles for two months this year for failing to file required financial disclosure reports. The state attorney general’s registry of charitable trusts cited the group in May for the same failure.
Elise Kim, the group’s founder and executive director, conceded in a recent interview that the charity has been guilty of some sloppy bookkeeping, but denied anything improper has occurred and said efforts are under way to improve the charity’s management with the help of the Nissan Motor Corp. of America.
“We haven’t done anything wrong,” she said. “We take an incredible amount of pride in this charity and the things we are doing.”
Mathematical inconsistencies and apparent errors make it impossible to fully decipher Athletes and Entertainers’ finances. The charity reported raising $465,426 in fiscal 1988-89, the last time it gave a financial accounting to authorities. After losses from two major events were subtracted, the group reportedly was left with $393,000 in revenue.
About $108,000 went for charitable purposes, according to Athletes and Entertainers. Another $117,000 was used for expenses, and the remaining $167,000 was held in reserve. The bulk of that money, $115,000, is stored in a short-term certificate of deposit, the charity said.
On the basis of that accounting, 28% of its revenue went to program services in fiscal 1988-89.
“That’s a very poor showing,” said Robert D. Burns, general manager of the city social service department. Burns said the low percentage of funds dedicated for charity and the high percentage held in reserve indicates “irresponsible management.”
One of Kim’s supporters, Salvatore J. Iannucci, an executive recruiting specialist who has served as an adviser to Athletes and Entertainers since its inception in 1986, said the group is at most guilty of ineptitude.
“Elise may have taken on more than she could handle,” Iannucci said. “But her intentions are noble and she now realizes she is in over her head.”
But critics in social service agencies and within the philanthropic community contend that Athletes and Entertainers, for all its high profile fund-raising activity and access to the rich and famous, has surprisingly few achievements to its credit.
While it once pledged to raise $500,000 to $1 million a year to fund day-care and live-in centers for patients with acquired immune deficiency syndrome and their families, it has actually pursued a far more modest agenda of children’s parties, educational seminars, career days and hospital visits.
Alice Drucker, head of a social service agency called the Los Angeles Youth Program, which runs a summer camp for low-income and handicapped children, a volunteer support program for chronically ill children and their families and a medical transportation service, said groups such as Athletes and Entertainers “trivialize” the problems facing sick children.
“These children’s needs are so enormous and so real, in terms of everyday life, that to focus only on going to parties, meeting celebrities and big elaborate outings detracts from public knowledge of what the real needs are,” she said. “Among them are very mundane things. . . . People need help with housing, getting their children to medical appointments, getting help with caring for a sick child. These splashier efforts really should be down on the list of priorities.”
Others accuse Athletes and Entertainers of turning away appeals for substantive assistance.
Terry De Crescenzo of the Gay and Lesbian Adolescent Social Services, the state’s only licensed counseling center for children with AIDS, said Athletes and Entertainers has repeatedly rejected her funding requests without explanation.
Another social worker, who asked that her name not be used, said Athletes and Entertainers once sent out a questionnaire asking what her group needed. “All we asked for were some crayons and things,” she said. “Athletes and Entertainers never responded.”
Kim, who receives $30,000 a year for her work on behalf of the charity, said the organization doesn’t give out funds or other goods because it is solely a service organization. She said the group’s good deeds often go unrecognized. “Basically, what we do is, when a need comes up, we address it,” she said.
The charity contends that 10,000 children a month benefit from its services. In a typical month it claims to reach 1,000 youngsters through special events and outings, 1,000 through hospital visits, 1,200 through gang prevention and stay-in-school lectures and another 6,800 through seminars on AIDS and drug abuse.
Recent events have included a career day and carnival attended by about 1,000 children, a day at the circus for 300 youngsters, a USC football game attended by 100 children and a miniature golf tournament for another 100.
Alex Tucker of the Sickle Cell Disease Research Foundation said the organization’s clown parties and other social events have been extremely well received by his children.
Vicki Brunn of UC Irvine’s Child Life Program also gives its programs high marks. “They’ve done a lot for us and we love them,” she said.
Athletes and Entertainers has also been among the Southern California Gas Co.'s favored charities. Company officials promoted the group’s events in the business community and made donations of $10,000 per year in 1988 and 1989. Dick Friend, a company spokesman, said the donation was cut back to $4,000 this year as the gas company’s “focus” changed.
Despite its other problems, Athletes and Entertainers has always been successful at attracting supporters. People close to the organization give Kim high marks for enthusiasm and her ability to rally people. It is her management skills that are questionable, they say.
“Something always seemed to go wrong,” said one former associate, who asked not to be named. “I used to tell Elise, ‘You can’t just have parties. You have to write some checks.’ ”
In a recent interview, Kim broke down in tears several times as she spoke about the organization, which she started in 1986. Kim, then a USC sports department spokeswoman, had arranged for USC basketball superstar Cheryl Miller to visit a child dying of leukemia. She said she was so moved by the experience that she decided to devote herself to sick children full time.
The charity’s original name--Athletes for Kids--was a reflection of Kim’s strong ties to the sports community. In the early years, her mother provided most of the group’s funding, Kim said. The charity’s main function was arranging hospital visits by sports figures. In one early interview, Kim said the group was established to provide “moral support” to seriously ill children.
The organization gained a larger purpose and a leg up on the thousands of other area agencies that compete for charity dollars in 1987, when it befriended White, a hemophiliac who had contracted the AIDS virus through a blood transfusion.
Elton John had also taken up White’s cause after reading about his plight, and in 1988 he agreed to perform at a Century Plaza Hotel benefit that served as the group’s first foray into big-time fund raising.
The gala, called “For the Love of Children,” was widely heralded as one of the biggest social happenings of the year. Actors Marlee Matlin and Charlie Sheen signed on as co-hosts and John, coming off a two-year performing hiatus, played for nearly an hour to a packed crowd of people who danced on their chairs.
Athletes and Entertainers had predicted that the event would raise as much as $1.6 million, with part of the money to go toward establishing a pediatric AIDS clinic at County-USC Medical Center. Plans for the AIDS clinic were touted in the program that evening, and two County-USC representatives were called up to the dais to detail their ambitious goals.
But in the end there was disappointment. The take was only $283,000, according to documents filed by the charity with state officials. After expenses, the group reported that it had actually lost $20,000 on the evening. (There are some contradictions in various financial statements. In its report to the city, for instance, Athletes and Entertainers did not report a loss on the event.)
Kim blamed the shortfall on poor ticket sales, noting that some 500 tickets were eventually given away. Others say the charity erred by putting the party together itself, rather than turning the event over to a professional benefit organizer.
County-USC, which expected to receive some $50,000 from the proceeds, was told that it would only be getting $1,000.
The hospital subsequently cut most of its ties to the charity. Athletes and Entertainers may sponsor events on the hospital grounds, but County-USC no longer provides child patients for outside events staged by the charity. (Athletes and Entertainers frequently invites sick children from various hospitals to its fund-raisers, parties and other events.)
A similar policy exists at Childrens Hospital. The hospital declined to explain why, but one person close to the situation said Athletes and Entertainers was deemed “unreliable” after failing to honor certain commitments.
Athletes and Entertainers, meanwhile, remained active on the champagne and caviar fund-raising circuit. A 1989 retirement gala honoring Abdul-Jabbar aired on national network television and enjoyed considerable star support. Yet the financial take again was disappointing. The benefit grossed $231,000 and sustained a net loss of $60,000, according to reporting documents submitted by Athletes and Entertainers.
One startling item in the expenditure report shows that the charity used about $78,000--a third of its take from the Abdul-Jabbar event--on travel and meetings. Kim said the money actually went to pay for food, though the item has never been corrected on reporting forms.
The charity’s fortunes took another dive in March of this year, when it sponsored an Academy Awards night benefit. The event drew former President and Mrs. Reagan and grossed a reported $40,000, but suffered from a series of mishaps that further damaged the charity’s credibility and resulted in widespread acrimony.
Planned to take place under a tent on a deserted estate in Beverly Hills, it was forced into a hotel ballroom at the last minute because organizers lacked the proper permits. People who attended the gala said several of the advertised celebrities failed to make appearances. Fire marshals subsequently shut the party down at about 11 p.m. because of severe overcrowding.
Kim said Athletes and Entertainers had nothing to do with organizing the benefit, which was put on by Berle/Bass productions.
Co-owner Michael Bass said Kim was at least partially responsible for the event’s problems. He said Athletes and Entertainers failed to follow through on its commitments to book certain entertainment and print a program, among other things.
Bass said Milton Berle, one of the main supporters of the event in large part because of the participation of his son, Bill, was angry at the charity. “Milton was fuming,” he said. “They were completely irresponsible. It was not a happy occasion.”
The event would mark White’s last public appearance. Soon afterward he was hospitalized, and John flew to Indiana for a bedside vigil. It was after White’s funeral that John’s representatives learned a $25,000 donation which the singer had made to the Whites, through Athletes and Entertainers, had not been received.
“We found out that it hadn’t gone into the White account,” said Connie Hillman, the singer’s co-manager, who spoke at length about the charity with John’s knowledge. “Jeanne White (Ryan’s mother) knew nothing of the fund.”
Hillman said she asked Kim about the missing money and was told that the funds had accidentally gone into a general account. Seeking to appease John, Kim pledged that $25,000 from the next fund-raiser would go to the Whites, Hillman said. In an interview, Kim confirmed the account, but held that John’s staff overreacted to the missing funds. “It’s no big deal,” she said.
John declined to be interviewed for this story. But Hillman said that the singer feels he was mistreated by Athletes and Entertainers. “For a long time this was his pet charity,” Hillman said. “With an artist like Elton John, you just kind of believe that the money is going where it’s supposed to. Maybe we should have been more vigilant.”
John, who has had no involvement with Athletes and Entertainers since White’s death, was reportedly shocked when the charity announced last week that he would be a recipient, along with fellow pop star Michael Jackson, of its new Ryan White Memorial Award during a ceremony at Tiffany & Co. in Beverly Hills. A spokeswoman said John wants no further involvement with the charity.
Athletes and Entertainers said it was one of White’s dying wishes that John be so honored.
The singer established two independently managed funds for the White family in the wake of White’s death. He also joined the board of the Pediatric AIDS Foundation, an AIDS organization whose records indicate it donates 95% of its revenues to charitable causes.
People active in fund raising say Pediatric AIDS Foundation has eclipsed Athletes and Entertainers as the most prominent and most effective local organization fighting for children with AIDS. Its last benefit, a star-studded gala called “A Time for Heroes,” raised $950,000. Among the celebrity participants was John, who operated a bowling booth.
Jeanne White, who has been courted by Pediatric AIDS, remains loyal to Athletes and Entertainers, largely because of its longstanding ties to her son. She recently attended a ceremony marking the opening of its new offices. She said she and John have agreed to disagree about the charity.
“I have not received the ($25,000), but I know I’ll get it,” she said in an interview. “They’re not trying to keep it from me. If they were I’d be upset about it, too.”
Michael Gilmore, Kim’s ex-husband who remains the charity’s finance director, pointed out that Athletes and Entertainers has been a steady supporter of the White family. Some $60,000 has been donated to the Whites through the group’s Ryan White Trust Fund, he said.
The rest of the group’s money is largely channeled into two other accounts: the Ryan White National Fund, which goes to pay for AIDS seminars and other educational activities, and the Hospital and Community Services Fund, which pays for hospital visits and social events.
Kim said Athletes and Entertainers intends to move toward more traditional development activities in the near future. Aiding in the transition is Nissan: The Japanese automotive giant, seeking a higher profile in the community, recently took Athletes and Entertainers under its wing, providing office space in its Carson headquarters and someone to help handle the charity’s finances.
After four years in operation, Athletes and Entertainers is just now conducting its first internal audit. A consultant has also been called in to advise the organization.
With Nissan’s help, Athletes and Entertainers will reassess its goals, Kim said. It may even tone down its highflying image.
“The whole thing of fund raising is a little bit of a turnoff to me,” said Kim, who still keeps a picture of a smiling White on her desk.