At its 30th anniversary gala Saturday night the AIDS Emergency Fund surprised donors and board members with the news that it had received the largest donation in its history.
The estate of Thomas M. Dross bequeathed $1 million to the San Francisco-based agency. Dross, a gay man known to friends and family as Tom, died on January 7 due to a sudden heart attack. He was 71.
A native of Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, Dross moved to San Francisco in the 1970s. He got his start in advertising and marketing and worked for Pritikin and Associates. He went on to open Upstairs, Downstairs, a popular financial district restaurant.
In his later years Dross split his time between the city and Palm Springs. He named as co-executors of his will local couple Alfredo Casuso and David Perry , longtime friends for whom Dross hosted at his home their 2008 wedding reception.
"Tom was one of the kindest and most generous people we ever met," stated Casuso and Perry in a news release announcing the donation. "His will stipulated that the main beneficiaries of his will would be AIDS charities. There is no greater example of the 'San Francisco Model' of AIDS care than the AIDS Emergency Fund. We look forward, over the next few years, to working with AEF to make sure these funds get put to good use."
AEF intends to use the $1 million as a challenge grant to seek donations over the next four years, as it will not have a milestone anniversary to help it raise funds as it did this year.
"We will draw down from it as we get matching gifts from people in the community," said AEF Executive Director Mike Smith in a phone interview Friday with the Bay Area Reporter. "We will use this over the next four years to encourage people to be generous to AEF. Each time they make a gift it will be matched by this gift."
Since the only other person to learn about the bequest prior to the gala announcement was his board president, Smith said he and the board had yet to finalize how to best leverage the gift. He expected that the agency would also use it to invest and earn returns off it each year to bolster its coffers.
He estimated that AEF's budget would likely grow by $250,000 due to the donation when its new fiscal year begins March 1. The agency, which provides emergency funding to people living with HIV and AIDS to cover living expenses such as rent or utility bills, has had an annual budget of $2.3 million.
"We will have a thoughtful budgeting process for this," said Smith.
The majority of the agency's funding comes from government sources, as well as fundraising events or individual donations. Apart from its federal funding, AEF's single largest yearly contributor is Donna Sachet's Songs of the Season.
The holiday cabaret show marked its 20th anniversary this year. Created by Sachet, the Bay Area Reporter's society columnist, it raised $70,000 over the course of four nights of performances at the Rrazz Room.
"Donna's event, outside of the federal government, is the single largest supporter of our clients," said Smith.
Until now the largest single donation ever given to AEF had been $490,000 made 12 years ago, said Smith.
According to AEF's records, Dross had been a modest donor to the agency. He would buy AEF's Bare Chest Calendars or write $100 checks to the agency, said Smith, adding that he never met Dross.
"Like most big bequests, they don't come from where you expect," said Smith. "This was a real surprise."
Earlier this year AEF had launched a major fundraising drive to raise $300,000 as part of its gala-year activities. The Bob Ross Foundation, named for the B.A.R.'s founding publisher and overseen by current publisher, Thomas E. Horn, announced it would provide a $30,000 matching gift in addition to its yearly contribution of $30,000 to AEF in order to draw new donors to the agency.
Smith said that, due to its special fundraising push, AEF now has a surplus for the first time since 2009. And due to the Dross donation, it is projecting to have balanced budgets through at least 2016.
"We now have a surplus and can replenish our coffers from the last three years of deficits," said Smith. "A gift like this means we will be able to continue to have balanced budgets for the next three to four years."