The Zip episode 15
I’m excited to share my interview with Jason Kirk, Director of Development, of Lowcountry AIDS Services, or LAS, in Charleston, South Carolina.
Jason joined LAS in October 2015 to oversee the agency’s fundraising efforts. From individual donors to corporate sponsors and foundations, Jason connects these supporters to the LAS mission. Jason also coordinates the agency’s participation in a number of fundraising events throughout the year to ensure those events raise money and awareness for the mission. – and we’ll talk about some of these events during the podcast. Plus, Jason oversees the volunteer program, working with giving and talented volunteers who help with educational outreach, administrative support or special event needs.
Megan: So, Jason, you’ve been with Lowcountry AIDS since 2015, I believe, but the organization itself has been around since the early ’90s. Can you tell me a bit about the history of Lowcountry AIDS Services and then how you came to be a part of the organization?
Jason Kirk: Sure. So, we just celebrated this year our twenty-fifth anniversary. We were founded as a satellite of another nonprofit based out of Columbia, South Carolina and we were serving the needs of the Lowcountry, which is the Charleston area, and we decided that we needed to be our own nonprofit and to fully serve the area. So, what we do is we work with folks who are living with HIV and AIDS, and we also do HIV testing and prevention work and we focus exclusively on the Charleston area. I’ve always worked with AIDS service organization because it’s a passion of mine to help folks to not become HIV-positive and to help those who have become HIV-positive. So, my background is all in fundraising; I’ve worked for various nonprofits, and when Lowcountry AIDS Services needed a development director, I jumped at the chance and I’ve been here for about a year now.
Megan: You’re like, “I’m the guy.”
Jason Kirk: It was always the organization I’m like, if there was a position open there that fit with my background, I would take it, just because I care so much about the work we do.
Megan: Yeah, well that’s awesome. That’s awesome that you’re able to find the organization that you’re most passionate for and be able to work for them. So, you said that in the ’90s you split off from another organization. Were they also an organization that was serving people with HIV and AIDS? It was just–
Jason Kirk: Yes.
Megan: — maybe you guys wanted it to be more targeted toward a certain region?
Jason Kirk: Yeah, they were based probably about an hour away from here, which is a very large service organization for the work we do. The majority of our clients, in fact 94%, live at or below the federal poverty level, so as you can see, having an office where it’s an hour’s drive is not going to work for most folks who rely on public transportation or trying to take time out of their day to go just to make an appointment to talk about their medical care and any social services they might need to live more sustainably.
Megan: Yeah. Yeah, that makes sense. It’s so cool that you guys were able to– yeah, help be a closer location for people. So, with HIV and AIDS, I feel like so much progress has been made in the past twenty or so years and people with the virus are living much longer, generally with a better quality of life than they were a few years ago. How have you seen this issue and the virus change and people afflicted with it on a national scale but also in the Charleston area?
Jason Kirk: Sure. And that’s very true. I mean, people who have access to medical care and are getting treatment and having their needs met, by and large they’re living nearly normal life spans. The medicine advances that we’ve had have been amazing. Early on, the epidemic was extremely detrimental to the LGBT community; a majority of HIV-positive folks in the ’80s, ’90s, even into the 2000s were gay men. Now we’re seeing a trend for the epidemic that’s changing, especially in the south; the majority of new cases of HIV infliction are within the African American community, oftentimes not just African American men who are gay, or we call it men who have sex with men, because they don’t always identify as gay. But 43% of our clients are women, which is I think a shocking statistic to most people when they think of the face of the epidemic. And like I said, the majority of our clients are living at or below the poverty level. For those folks, health care, even with changes in the Affordable Care Act, health care isn’t as readily available. So, if you don’t have the health care coverage, you’re not getting the medicine, you’re not in treatment, those rosy pictures that we see because of the advances in the medicine, they don’t trickle down to everyone, and those are the folks that we really focus on helping.
Megan: Yeah. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. It kind of goes into my next question, too. So, you mentioned how particularly in the south, the demographics of people with HIV and AIDS might be different from, I guess, what people might expect, but what would you say are some of the biggest concerns for people with HIV or AIDS that are living in the Charleston area? Do they have access to the same types of resources that people in other cities or states do, or are there issues particular to this region that you’ve found that you guys are working to address?
Jason Kirk: Well, I think it starts before we get to the point where someone tests positive. Here in South Carolina we have an abstinence only sex ed policy, so we firmly believe that we need to start with how we educate youth on their sexual practices and learning about safer sex. Focusing exclusively on not having sex until marriage we don’t think works and we’ve seen that pan out. But once folks do test positive, we have– you know, Charleston’s doing very well in terms of growth economically, which generally means with any city affordable housing is an issue, and we look at HIV as sort of a stool that has numerous legs, and one of those legs is sustainable housing. So, that’s a problem here and that’s something that we focus on, because if someone doesn’t have a place to sleep or doesn’t know where they’re going to be getting their next meal, their health appointments probably suffer; they probably don’t keep those up, and they’re probably not regularly maintaining their HIV medication regimen.
Megan: Yeah. Well also, it’s really the big picture of their life.
Jason Kirk: Yeah, and then you look at transportation, and unlike some larger western an northern cities, we don’t have a very good mass transit system here. We have busses, but there’s no light rail, there’s no subway, so just making your way through your normal day, whether that’s going to work or going to a medical appointment or coming into our office, we specifically have our office right off of a major bus route, because we know that that’s a barrier for some folks if they can’t take a bus to get to see us.
Megan: Right. Yeah, so definitely seems like– just even particular to Charleston there’s some difficulties, and I definitely see what you mean about– with housing, yeah. If you’re trying to figure out the– to meet your very basic needs for that day, then it’s probably a lot harder to, yeah, make a particular appointment or go somewhere. So, do you guys work with organizations that help provide housing and provide shelter and food to people that need it?
Jason Kirk: Yes. We use a referral service model. So, we know that we’re very good at what we do; what we’re not wanting to get good at is being like a food pantry or being a shelter or we don’t do medical care here, we refer out our clients to different hospitals and medical practices. So, we work very closely with the local– it’s SCD out here in South Carolina is basically our Department of Health. We work with housing through the city of Charleston, the city of North Charleston, and we work with our medical institutions as well as doctors, and together we make it work.
Megan: Yeah. And you kind of read this a bit earlier, but one fact I found interesting– I was looking at your annual report that you guys posted online and according to your report, which was for 2015, of the new HIV cases in your area that 39% of these cases are of people who are newly discovering that they are HIV positive are people that are twenty-four and younger, and I thought– I was like, “Wow, I didn’t– that’s a lot of people under twenty-four.” So, what do you think– or why do you think that so many young people are contracting HIV? Is this messages around safe sex not being shared enough or do you think it counts– is it because there might be babies that are born with the virus, or what do you think–? I looked up the national statistic, at least according to the government website I found, said the national statistic for people under twenty-four was 22.5%, so it did seem a little big bigger in the Charleston area. Do you think– I guess what do you think might be some reasons?
Jason Kirk: I think it starts with education. I don’t know that the state of South Carolina is near the top at all in terms of graduation rates or education levels, and so there’s been definite studies that show health outcomes decrease dramatically with less educational attainment, and that’s something we’re taking seriously. We’re actually launching a new program, we’re calling it Andy’s Fund in honor of a former grant writer that we had here whose passions were literacy, education, and HIV/AIDS. So, we work with our clients to help them increase their educational attainment, whether that’s getting their GED, whether that’s job skills training, whether that’s going back to school and getting their Masters or just getting their undergrad done, because we know that that will end up helping them to live more sustainably, to take care of themselves. We really focus on it– we are a safety net, but we are not part of the welfare system, just to be bluntly– you know, we want to help people, but we don’t want to be the only source they have to take care of their lives. So, I think that that’s part of it. I think you alluded to it earlier: everyone gets these messages about how it’s not a death sentence anymore; it’s not like back in the ’80s and ’90s when it was just devastating in terms of someone was diagnosed and then they lived maybe a couple years and it was a horrible, horrible tragedy that happened. Now people are saying, “Oh, there’s a graying of people with HIV.” The fastest-growing population of people with HIV are fifty and older, because they’ve had it for so many years and they’re living. So, people see this and think, “Well, I could put on a condom, or if I do get it, I will just take a pill every day and my life will be fine.” That’s not the case for so many people.
Megan: That’s so interesting that– yeah, that it’s getting better, which is obviously a great thing, but that maybe people aren’t as afraid of it as they should be, which is– I mean, does– I guess, how much do you think nowadays for the average person that finds out they’re HIV-positive, how much of a life disruption would it be? Is there still a lot of– I assume there’s still a lot of medical issues that you’re dealing with and concerns that you would have.
Jason Kirk: Yeah, and it is not a rosy picture for everyone, and just do people want to take that gamble that the medicine’s going to work for them right away and that their health is going to improve dramatically? And I really think that people need to really take care of themselves better and not– this is a completely avoidable epidemic, and yet here we are still thirty years later.
Megan: Yeah. Yeah, and I agree. Personally I think a lot of it does start with education and having really good education around preventing STDs in general. So, onto a slightly different topic of fundraising for Lowcountry AIDS Services, which is your particular area of expertise, you guys get a lot of support from government grants but you also get significant donations from donors and then some donations from corporations as well. So, I guess, was it a decision to break up your budget this way and why did you guys decide to break up your budget this way, and do you find that working with businesses is a whole different ballgame than working with individual donors?
Jason Kirk: Sure. I mean, many AIDS service organizations are very lucky in that there’s a vast majority of funding that comes from government grants and programs through various vehicles, and that’s because the government sees the value in the work we do in prevention and also in maintaining health for those folks who are HIV-positive. But the thing with government funding is it comes and goes, it increases and decreases sometimes without reason, just based on changes in political structure for our country, so we’ve pushed – and not all AIDS service organizations do this – but we’ve pushed to diversify our contributed revenue model, and that will include individual donors, fundraising events, corporate sponsorships, private grants from foundations and grant organizations, and just in the last year we’ve decreased our reliance in government grants. It was at, I believe, 89% and now it’s closer to 82%.
Megan: And that’s the particular area that you focus on, right?
Jason Kirk: Yes. I do help with the government grant-writing, but the majority of what I’m doing is the contributed revenue from individuals, businesses, and foundations, and I want to see that trend go down that more money is in that pool rather than the government grant funding.
Megan: So, how do you tackle that? You came in, I guess, in 2015, so a year ago, maybe a year and a half ago, and you’re like, “Okay, I’m gonna diversify our revenue.” How do you get started doing that for an organization that might not have some of those programs already in place?
Jason Kirk: I think many organizations take for granted the wealth of information they have on people that care about them. We had twenty-five years of records: some folks realized we hadn’t been asking for money even from or letting them know what we’re doing so that when we do ask they think it’s something important. So, we went back through and just reintroduced ourselves to thousands and thousands of people here in Charleston, and when I was looking through our end-of-year appeal last year that we mailed out to folks, there were folks that hadn’t given in a decade and they were giving $200, $300. That all adds up and it really made me happy that we chose to reconnect with those folks. It’s always more expensive in fundraising to acquire a new contact. It’s difficult, whether that’s a corporate sponsor or an individual. It’s so much easier to go back to someone that you have a relationship with and it costs a lot less in time and money, so we went that route to start with.
Megan: Cool, okay. Interesting. So then as a follow up, I was, again, on your annual report – you guys put together a really good report, by the way; it had a lot of great graphs and it was really educational as well as informational – but I saw that one of your biggest sponsors is Belk, the department store, along with MedExpress Pharmacy, and I found Belk particularly interesting, because with MedExpress I’m like, okay, pharmacy, HIV, AIDS, there’s a connection there–
Jason Kirk: Makes perfect sense.
Megan: Yeah. With Belk I was like, okay, there’s less of a direct connection between their business and then providing services to people with HIV or AIDS. So, did your team pursue Belk as a sponsor or did they come to you? How did that relationship form?
Jason Kirk: We’ve had a history with some of our events and fundraising initiatives that are based in fashion. We’re generally pretty well connected with Charleston Fashion Week. There’s been a lot of fashion shows, charitable fashion shows, that we’ve put on in the past twenty-five years that raise money for the work and the programs we do, so we were already sort of in that fashionable charitable realm, and we connected with Susan McWaters, who’s a regional SVP with Belk here in the area, and she cares deeply about what we do. We’re happy to have her now as the chairwoman of our board, so that certainly helps with connecting to Belk, but they’ve been very generous; it’s something that they care about. They realize that a healthy community is something that they can help contribute to through their charitable giving, and we’re so thankful for their donations.
Megan: Yeah. No, that’s awesome. And, you know, at Zipsprout we’re always– we see that a lot too with companies that might not have an obvious reason to support an organization still doing that, and I think that’s such a great way for any company to really show that they care beyond just their profit mission, I guess.
Jason Kirk: Sure. I think it helps. Our philosophy with our donors is we have many ways we can give back as a nonprofit organization and we take care of those folks who contribute and help out with our causes so that we can do more good. So, with that background in being able to bring donors and supporters into something that’s more fashion-based, which, you’re right, is totally not a from A to B kind of pattern, but we were able to demonstrate that and so it works well for both sides. We fully believe that those who support us, we can provide benefits. They’re not financial benefits, but we can show that they care, that they’re doing good with the money that they donate.
Megan: Right. Yeah, no, I’m a big believer in that as well. And so, you guys also do a lot of events, so, again, according to that budget report, fundraising events brought in 4% of your budget that year, so it’s not, I guess, a huge amount in terms of your budget, but I was wondering if you see that differently – if you see that as an area that’s potentially growing? And also I’m wondering, do the events have other benefits that you see besides directly to your budget like raising awareness or maybe just of your organization or just of the HIV issues in general?
Jason Kirk: Yes. We– [laughs] yes to all of that.
Megan: It’s a lot of questions, yeah.
Jason Kirk: Yeah, the 2015 number will be quite a bit lower than we’ll see in 2016 in terms of percentage of our operating budget that’s derived from fundraising events, and that’s because we only had one big one in 2015. In this last year we’ve doubled that, and plus we’ve done a lot of smaller fundraising events that all add up in the end. So, we decided to do more on those events and we decided to make those events reach out to new audiences. One event is our Charleston Biergarten where we have three thousand folks come for a day, we do an outdoor popup biergarten with twenty-plus different breweries, we have forty-plus beers, there’s music, there’s games from arm wrestling competitions to hands-less pizza eating to cornhole–
Megan: Hands-less pizza eating? So you just have to put your face in the pizza and–
Jason Kirk: You just have to put your face in the plate of pizza, yeah. We got some great photos from that, I can tell you.
Megan: Yeah, I can imagine.
Jason Kirk: And we don’t– we like to have some awareness at an event like that, but we want it first and foremost to be– it’s almost like the sugar with the medicine: folks are going to get the messaging about what we do; they’re going to hear the awareness things, but it’s not knocked over their head, and most of the folks that come to something like that are in the sort of twenty-five to forty-five range, maybe they don’t think HIV affects them, but they would be wrong if they thought that, and if we can get some message to them, connect with them, and continue to tell them that this is something that’s very serious in our area and something that they should be aware of, then we think it’s a win-win. Plus, it raised a good amount of money for Lowcountry AIDS Services.
Megan: Right. Yeah, so between the two events you guys did this year and then all the little events, what is your personal favorite event that you guys do?
Jason Kirk: I do love the biergarten. Who doesn’t love a good selection of beer? But we re-launched an old event in the summertime: we partnered with Charleston Pride and we put on this event called Gay Bingo. It was actually an official event, it was a Tuesday night, and we had five hundred of our closest friends in an auditorium here playing bingo with the numbers being drawn by a local drag queen.
Megan: I love bingo and I’ve actually played gay bingo in a couple of places in L.A. and then here in Durham, and it’s always so much fun. Yeah. I think bingo is getting a comeback.
Jason Kirk: Yeah, so it’s a common nonprofit for AIDS service organizations to do. I first went to it a long, long time ago one New Years in Seattle where Lifelong AIDS Alliance put it on and so that was like– when we had the option to do a new event here, it turns out we’d done it over a decade ago – it was much smaller, it was a much different event than it turned out to be this year, but it was kind of fun to bring it back and hear from some people. They remembered back in the day when we would do it at a local founder’s hall with 120 people.
Megan: Yeah. I feel like the thing with bingo, which is kind of funny, is like my grandmother plays bingo. She’s been playing bingo for years and years and years at the lake – I don’t know, Elk’s Club or something – so you think of it as this kind of thing that’s a little bit old-fashioned, but I swear it’s having a comeback. It’s like a cool thing now to go play bingo now, and a lot of times it is with fundraising types of organizations, but it’s a fun thing.
Jason Kirk: We specifically have the– we had a ’70s theme, so that was sort of the naming of our bingo this year, but our subhead was, “It’s not your Grandma’s game.” So, we were–
Megan: Exactly. Exactly. Oh, that’s awesome. Well, cool. So, how would you characterize the Charleston community in general when it comes to fundraising? At Zipsprout we found when we did a lot of outreaching in Charleston that it’s, maybe compared to other cities, a very old money sort of community, which I can see as a positive and a negative when it comes to fundraising. I don’t know, was it harder for you guys when you were newer organization to kind of break into the right circles, but is it easier now because you have broken into them, or maybe you had a totally different experience?
Jason Kirk: Well, we definitely rely on those longtime supporters who have been very generous, especially with financial crisis hitting in ’08. We had a few months there where our executive director did not take pay because he wanted to make sure that his staff was taken care of, that the organization continued to operate. I hope he doesn’t mind me saying this, by the way. But it’s something to be proud of that we would weather that storm, and it was partly due to the longtime supporters who might be considered the longtime residents of Charleston that would be in that old regard of money and we’re so thankful for them. What we’re seeing now is those folks continue to support us and they are certainly– they provide a baseline of support that we need. With all the new folks coming into town, the population growth here has been fairly amazing over the last few years, and it’s constantly introducing ourselves to new people, and that’s why our special events are super important, because it’s an easy way to get to know those people and introduce them, otherwise it’s hard to connect with the new folks in town, whether their level of giving is a $25 ticket price or perhaps it’s more like a $10,000 gift.
Megan: Right. Yeah, I was in Charleston a few months ago and I was talking to, I don’t even remember who, like an Uber driver or something, and he’s like– like the whole conversation was like, “Oh, so many new people are moving to Charleston.” Apparently I guess it really is people there that have maybe lived there for a long time are like, “What are all these people doing coming to our city?”
Jason Kirk: Yeah, we’re all like, “Get off our lawn.” No.
Megan: I mean, it’s an amazing city. Yeah.
Jason Kirk: So, I think we mostly complain about that when there’s heavy traffic.
Megan: I can definitely understand that. Just gotta get more people to ride those trolley cars around for their main transportation.
Jason Kirk: [chuckles] Yes.
Megan: So, final question Jason: Who is one person, and they can be associated with a nonprofit or business or even just a community organizer in general, but whose brain you would love to pick over lunch at some point?
Jason Kirk: Oh. You know, maybe my mind is in a political realm just because we’re less than a month out from this presidential election, but it would definitely be Michelle Obama.
Megan: Ah, yeah.
Jason Kirk: I just– every time I hear her talk recently I’m inspired. Whether she’s talking about getting kids to be fit or she’s talking about politics or she’s talking about her family or the state of just sort of our social system here, I think that she has such wonderful insight and she does it with such poise and confidence. If I could download that from her, I would see no end to how much money I could raise.
Megan: Yeah, I would love to be a fly on the wall with that conversation, too. Well, cool. Jason, thank you so much for talking to me today. I’ve loved learning about Lowcountry AIDS and what you guys are doing, and yeah, thank you for being on the show.
Jason Kirk: Of course, it was my pleasure.