Immediate Crisis Over, Howard Brown Looks to Future

by Joseph Erbentraut

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday January 6, 2011

When Chicago's Howard Brown Health Center announced in early November that it would need to raise $500,000 before the year's end in order to keep its doors open, it did not take long for LGBT Chicagoans to rally behind the endangered, queer-geared center as it fought against its financial plight.

On Dec. 23, the center was able to announce that it had met -- and, in fact, exceeded -- its ambitious fundraising goal by raising a reported $663,000 during its Lifeline Appeal campaign. That came as a huge relief for the city's LGBT community, many of whom directly participated in the cause. According to Howard Brown chief development officer Chuck Benya, some 1,500 people donated to the campaign, many of them first-time contributors.

True, Howard Brown, founded in 1974, was successful in its lightning-round push to sustain its services and programming. But center leadership is hardly relaxing with the arrival of the new year. They will need to keep raising funds to chip away at the $3 million in debt left as a legacy from the previous executive team's alleged financial mismanagement.

Howard Brown is currently focusing on taking the community's unprecedented level of support and building on it while continuing to overcome a troubling-at-times financial reputation.

"The response from the community to date was tremendous and remarkable," Benya said. "Our key priorities now are, first and foremost, showing how thankful we are for the response to our appeal and now moving forward with some new plans for the future."

The center is already in the midst of recruiting for new leadership in its board. By the beginning of 2011, half of the center's board had resigned. The remaining members, excluding new board chair Karma Israelsen, will also be replaced by an entirely new board by July 1, the start of the new fiscal year. The center also has plans for a town hall event, to be held in March, allowing members of the community to ask questions about the future direction of the center.

"We are in the planning process now, coming out of this crisis," Benya said. "We are going to continue to have conversations with our donors, stakeholders and those who have been really constructive in this criticisms of us in seeing how we can continue to address their needs."

In terms of its fundraising strategies going forward, the center appears to be borrowing a page from the many small, community-led fundraisers that helped raise funds for the center, as well as educate people outside of the LGBT community of the center's significant role. While big donations came in from Walgreen's ($25,000) and one anonymous donor who matched $200,000 in donations, these smaller events filled many queer Chicagoans' social calendars through the holiday season.

As part of the newly formed Chicago Story Collective of which he is part, comedian Keith Ecker utilized the collective's inaugural "Holidays Are Hell" show at the Town Hall Pub. Ecker already co-produces a monthly Howard Brown fundraising event titled Essay Fiesta every third Monday at the Book Cellar. The Town Hall event raised several hundred dollars for the center on Dec. 10.

That same night, due west in Logan Square, Join the Impact-Chicago hosted a fundraiser of their own. Donations to their Queer Noise open mic event and house after-party went to Howard Brown. JTIC donated $350 to the center.

"If there ever was a reason for the Chicago community to come together, this was it," JTIC member Lindsey Dietzler said. "I think everybody else felt the same way. Our community would be in such dire straits without them."

Both Dietzler and Ecker said they, while encouraged by the changes to the board, hoped to see Howard Brown emphasize transparency as it progresses into the new year.

"I hope the organization makes transparency a priority," Ecker said. "Although I trust that Howard Brown has handled the situation with the best of intentions, I do believe that the initial silence on the issue did more harm than good."

Dietzler also hoped to see more frequent financial reports from the center in the future, as part of that transparency.

Howard Brown's leadership seems to be taking such suggestions to heart as it develops strategies to increase its revenue and sustain its services and programming in the future. He also said the center will be pushing the use of its pharmacy, located at the center, and private practice, Triad, to community members looking to directly support them.

Benya added that its approach to fundraising will emphasize both events with lower ticket prices. Its Feb. 18 gala at the Palmer House, he said, will be scaled down and accessible to a broader range of people - and social networking campaigns.

"We're fundraising on a shoestring budget, using tools that are cost-effective like Facebook and Twitter instead of snail mail," Benya added. "We have a tight rein on our expenses so that we can sustain our client services and programming."

Joseph covers news, arts and entertainment and lives in Chicago. He is the assistant Chicago editor for The Huffington Post. Log on to to read more of his work.