When the Gay Men's Health Crisis announced last month that it would no longer hold a popular annual fund-raising event on Fire Island, the move did more than end the public relations nightmare that the Morning Party had become.
While the spectacle of merrymakers collapsing from overdoses and being arrested on drug charges had caused embarrassment for G.M.H.C., the nation's largest AIDS service organization, the cancellation of the summertime dance party highlighted a more serious fund-raising problem.
Faced with a decline in private contributions, the agency has eliminated more than a quarter of its staff positions in 15 months. It has also dissolved a research department and consolidated two other divisions. More cuts could be ahead for the agency, which relies on donations for 80 percent of its $22.4 million operating expense budget, a budget that has declined nearly $5 million from two years ago.
"It has been painful," said Ronald S. Johnson, the agency's managing director for public policy. "We're potentially chipping to the bone."
The decline in donations is not confined to G.M.H.C. With the advent of life-prolonging treatments and a significant drop in AIDS-related deaths, AIDS groups in New York and across the country are struggling. Donor fatigue has set in, even though H.I.V., the virus that causes AIDS, continues to infect 40,000 new people a year in the United States.
"AIDS in America is no longer considered a problem; everybody thinks it's gone away," said Larry Kramer, a writer who is one of the six co-founders of G.M.H.C. "Aside from that, it's happening to people who nobody wants to give any money to, poor people, people of color, drug users. In the beginning, when gays were threatened, gays gave money. But gays don't feel so threatened anymore. They are giving money to fight for gay marriage and other gay issues."
As donations migrate to other causes, AIDS groups are trying to reinvent fund-raising approaches and to devise fresh ones that might compel potential contributors. Some struggling groups are even considering mergers or pairing up with non-AIDS organizations.
For the first time, G.M.H.C. is taking part in the kind of fund-raising events that might have seemed ridiculously arduous a decade ago. Staff workers and volunteers, some of whom are H.I.V.-positive, will solicit pledges to run in the Marine Corps Marathon this fall in Washington. They will join contingents from AIDS Project Los Angeles and the Whitman-Walker Clinic in Washington, another AIDS organization.
Some AIDS groups are finding that they must venture further afield to find support. The 15 AIDS service organizations that are part of the Harlem Directors Group, for instance, are being encouraged to approach cancer groups for joint projects and financing.
"People are beginning to feel like they've probably given enough to H.I.V. and AIDS," said Ravinia Hayes-Cozier, the group's executive director. "For AIDS organizations, the ability to go beyond H.I.V. and AIDS is going to be important. Seven or eight years ago, I would have said you could not do it because of the emergency of the epidemic, but we cannot afford to just be a singular focus disease entity."
Raising money has become so difficult for the People With AIDS Coalition of New York, which offers informational phone lines, support groups and forums, that it is considering a merger with other AIDS service groups. Its executive director, Doug Wirth, said a quarter of the coalition's $1 million annual budget used to come from the bequests of AIDS patients. Now the amount is less than 5 percent because many people with AIDS are living longer.
As the coalition tries to replace those funds, it has also faced a drop in grants by the Government, which is directing more financing to outpatient health care and drug costs. "It's been a dramatic challenge and the question is, 'How long can that be sustained?' " Mr. Wirth said of the effort to maintain the coalition's budget.
By virtue of its name, G.M.H.C. is more closely linked to a gay donor base than most AIDS service organizations, and it has long been the most politically and economically connected group in the world of nonprofit AIDS service. Even so, G.M.H.C. has had to cut back, and it is seeking tenants to help it fill its 12-story headquarters in Chelsea.
With the cancellation of the Morning Party, the agency has lost its second largest fund-raising event after the AIDS Walk, which made $4.24 million last year, slightly down from the previous year. The dance party attracted 4,500 people and raised $464,000 in 1998.
"There's no way to say it's not a tough hit," said Mr. Johnson, the agency's managing director for public policy. "It will have an impact on the operation."
The Morning Party became a symbol of the agency's roots because the same community that gave rise to G.M.H.C. summered in Fire Island Pines, off the south shore of Long Island. Though the party began as a modest affair in 1983, it evolved over time into a swank event that attracted hordes of gay men.
"It was a huge piece of revenue and speaks directly to the core constituency of G.M.H.C., their leadership, their board," said Rodger McFarlane, a former executive director of the agency. "Those white upper-middle-class gay men are really important to G.M.H.C. and always have been."
In recent years, the gay dance party on the edge of the Atlantic lent cachet to a growing number of similar parties around the nation, known as "circuit parties." It also became increasingly associated with illegal drug use and unsafe sex.
Last year, in the predawn hours leading up to the Morning Party, a 35-year-old man from Bronxville, N.Y., overdosed and died. During the event, a party producer hired to oversee security and to weed out drug use was among 21 men picked up on charges of illegal drug possession. The year before, the same number of drug arrests occurred. And in 1996, a man slipped into a drug-induced coma and had to be evacuated by helicopter.
In recent years, as critics complained that the party was out of control, G.M.H.C. officials cited educating partygoers about the dangers of illegal drugs as one of the main reasons the organization remained committed to the event. The agency started holding drug counseling workshops on Fire Island around the party, and distributed fliers warning partygoers that illicit drugs would not be tolerated.
Now, in an effort to recoup the loss of revenue from the Morning Party, the agency is considering playing host at a series of smaller house parties in the Pines.
For some gay-rights advocates, the demise of the Morning Party signals the loss of a part of history.
"It's the only fund-raiser that G.M.H.C. had that was still gay, born in the gay community and targeting the gay community," said Randy Wojcak, a former organizer of the Morning Party who serves on G.M.H.C.'s education and program committee. "With the AIDS Walk, you see people with baby strollers, wives, husbands, brothers and sisters."
But Mr. Kramer, the co-founder of G.M.H.C., said gay men have never contributed as substantially to the agency as people might believe.
"The Morning Party was an old and tired idea, good riddance as far as I'm concerned," he said. "It's a drop in the bucket compared to what they need. They have a big building and a big staff and they haven't got the money to take care of all these things. There are a lot of wonderful programs that are really severely threatened."
During the last round of budget cuts, the talk was about which programs should stay and which ones might go. Among the programs that came under scrutiny was the buddy service, in which volunteers are paired up with sickly clients to do chores like shopping and laundry. The program, one of the agency's oldest, stays for now.
Meanwhile, volunteers like Dena Hammerstein hope the agency is through the worst. Mrs. Hammerstein devotes her time to the agency's Child Life program, which serves H.I.V.-positive women and their families.
Mrs. Hammerstein is also a longtime donor. She said she and her late husband, James Hammerstein, a producer who frequently directed the musicals of his father, Oscar Hammerstein 2d, raised about $10,000 for the program during the couple's silver anniversary celebration last year.
For five years now, Mrs. Hammerstein has volunteered twice a week. But because of the high staff turnover, she knows fewer of the staff workers these days.
"There's been a lot of upheaval all over," she said. "We volunteers have gotten more active. I think we felt a need to. We want to make sure we don't let our families down."