It is a balmy night in early December as dozens of young men and women stroll down Second Street in Austin’s seasonally lit downtown. Their destination is Estilo, the chic clothing boutique that tonight is hosting a fashionable fundraiser for the Octopus Club. As party attendees enter through the glass doors, they gladly hand over their $15 donations and begin browsing the stylish attire, chatting with friends and sipping “Octotinis” from the makeshift bar. Soon, two sleek models clad in the latest winter wear, stroll out onto a nearby runway while party guests ooh and aah.
It seems like a regular, if not upscale, holiday gathering. But this event, like many other celebrations benefiting the Octopus Club throughout the year, is a party with a mission. About $1,000 was raised for the nonprofit at the Estilo fundraiser, a sum that will be used to provide emergency financial assistance for people living with HIV and AIDS in Central Texas. This is the sole purpose of the Octopus Club, a 19-year-old philanthropic organization that has raised more than $1 million since its inception. And it’s all thanks to one man: Lew Aldridge.
While some Austinites may remember Aldridge for his wildly popular restaurant City Grill, which he owned and ran for 17 years, others know him as the force behind Alori Properties, a residential and commercial real estate business that, during the last decade, has gained a reputation as the best landlord in town. But far more people know Aldridge for his most altruistic pledge of commitment and service to his community. As the founder of the Octopus Club, and an avid supporter of many other worthy nonprofit causes, Aldridge has single-handedly changed the landscape of fundraising in Austin during the past two decades.
“If anybody ever deserved some kudos in this community, it’s Lew,” says Sandy Bartlett, coordinator of education and volunteer services for AIDS Services of Austin, the nonprofit where Aldridge was volunteering when he came up with the idea for Octopus Club. “Lew’s involvement enabled us to form a new and more powerful vision about who we were in the early days. We were new as an organization and we didn’t have a good sense yet of the value of our relationship to the community. Lew helped reform the perception of ASA. That truly was invaluable. He imparted a great gift to us.”
One hundred percent of the money raised by the Octopus Club goes in to the Paul Kirby Emergency Fund, and is then administered by ASA to Central Texans living with HIV and AIDS for vital needs such as health care, rent, food and other bills.
“I was volunteering at ASA in the mid-’80s and AIDS was really impacting Austin at that time,” Aldridge says. “People got sick and died very quickly then. And there was often no work or family support for people with AIDS. So the Octopus Club arose from that need to address absolute essentials. And today, the need is even greater for this type of emergency service.”
Though the Octopus Club has done its fair share of fundraising throughout the years, Aldridge is only getting started. In fact, he is resolved to keep the nonprofit thriving until there’s no longer a need.
“We’re here until AIDS is not a problem in Austin,” he says. “We’ve still got a lot of work to do.”
The Making of a Philanthropist
Raised in South Texas, Aldridge credits his parents with instilling in him a sense of caring, an awareness of the needs of his community and the desire to make change.
“I had really wonderful examples in my parents of how to live a balanced and involved life,” Aldridge reveals. “Even after they retired, their lives became all about getting more involved.”
As a political science student at the University of Texas, Aldridge dreamed of becoming a criminal law attorney, and even embarked on a law school career. But by the time he was 25, Aldridge had moved to San Francisco, where he opened his first small business: a brunch-specialty restaurant in the Haight neighborhood called The Yellow Rose. It was there that Aldridge began developing a deeper sense of concern for the homeless. With homeless teenagers flocking to The Yellow Rose for leftover food items at the end of each night, Aldridge could not ignore the needs of those without basic life essentials. He began fundraising for local homeless through his restaurant.
“That’s where I realized that your business has to be involved in the community from which it arises. You really have to get involved and give back to the community or you won’t be successful; it’s very beneficial to your business,” Aldridge asserts.
Though The Yellow Rose was sold after only two years, Aldridge had learned many valuable lessons about business, as well as community involvement. So he returned to his home state of Texas, where he would soon become legendary in Austin’s charity circles.
The list of nonprofit organizations that Aldridge has either led or been involved with is impressive: He’s still a very big part of the Octopus Club and ASA. He spent three years on the board of Caritas of Austin – a group that fights poverty, hunger and homelessness – and was board president for a year. He’s still on the group’s advisory board. He’s a supporter of Austin SafePlace, Austin Habitat for Humanity, the Austin Children’s Shelter, Foundation Communities, Project Transitions and Equality Texas.
But board involvement and personal financial support weren’t enough for Aldridge. As a champion of equal rights and homeless causes, he wanted to do more. So he developed a unique business model that would allow him to encourage others to get involved. Founded in 1998 with his brother Jason Aldridge and business partner Jim Lommori, Alori Properties is not just an avenue for Aldridge to pay his own bills; it’s a fundraising titan that has managed to raise more than $450,000 in 10 years for local charities.
“From the beginning, we wanted our involvement in the community to be systematic,” Aldridge explains.
Here’s how it works: For each property that Alori owns or manages, a different group of investors is gathered for that partnership. And every Alori partnership contributes 1 percent of its gross rents to nonprofit groups that serve the needs of Austin’s homeless.
“When we put that out there in our proposals, we were worried that it might scare some people off,” Aldridge admits. “While 1 percent of rents might not sound like a lot, it really equals about 10 percent of your profits.”
And while some partners may not view it as such, by giving 10 percent of their profits to such organizations, they are “tithing,” or participating in the traditional act of contributing one-tenth of their partnership income to charity. Far from scaring off investors, Aldridge says this business model actually attracts more investment.
“I think that urge is everywhere,” he contends. “People are looking for a way to provide for future prosperity in a way that helps their community. Initially, we thought the limiting factor would be finding investors. Now it’s where to put the money; a lack of capital is not the problem. There are so many people in Austin who are looking for progressive ways to invest their money.”
Serving Up Sustainable Support
While Aldridge is always thinking up new ways to help Austin’s nonprofits, his influence in recruit- ing others to do the same is truly remarkable. Some 15 years ago, while Aldridge was still in the restaurant business, he befriended Stewart Scruggs, the chef-owner of Austin’s upscale Zoot Restaurant. The two quickly became friends, and before long, a unique idea for an ASA fundraiser began to blossom. Together, the two founded the Red Ribbon Dinner Series, a group of dinner parties hosted by local fine restaurants in which guests pay $125 for an exquisite five-course dinner and wine experience.
All but 25 percent of the funds (which are used to cover restaurant costs) go to AIDS Services of Austin. With between four and six events scheduled throughout each year, the series has managed to raise about $325,000 since it began.
“The response from the community has been great, really overwhelming,” Scruggs says. “Over time, we’ve been able to raise quite a bit of money. And I don’t know if we could have gotten it off the ground without Lew’s help. He is so passionate and sincere about what he believes in, and it rubs off when you’re around him.”
Despite being able to contribute hundreds of thousands of dollars to helping those with HIV and AIDS in Central Texas, Scruggs does admit that there are times when the Red Ribbon Dinners can seem a bit heavy-hearted.
“The most poignant thing about the dinners over the years is that you start to
realize that there are faces missing,” he says, referring to those supporters who them- selves have passed from AIDS. “So while it is a celebration of the solidarity in the community, it also tends to be very sentimental in terms of missing those people. … My goal is to someday be able to shut down the Red Ribbon Dinners because there isn’t a need for them anymore. Hopefully, we’ll reach that point sometime soon.”
Reaping the Rewards of Giving Back
Attending countless fundraisers, donating time and money can be exhausting. But, as many of his friends and colleagues attest, Aldridge is diligent and always eager to help out his community.
Of course, not everyone can be as generous as Aldridge when it comes to philanthropy. Or can they? He says the key is to find a group you can be passionate about.
“Get involved in the community by doing something that you enjoy,” he suggests. “It has to be absolutely something you’re going to like doing, or you’re not going to keep doing it. And you’d be surprised at how much you can learn from getting involved.”
Indeed, Aldridge says he first learned to use a computer while he was volunteering at ASA. Not to mention all the business savvy he picked up while donating his time and energy to local charities.
“I don’t think people realize how beneficial it is for your own business when you build your skills at a nonprofit. With nonprofits, you’re having to keep people involved when you don’t have any traditional business incentives to work with,” he says. “It’s a great way to learn how to motivate the people you work with. So you’re definitely getting something out of it, and so is the group you’re helping.”
Believe it or not, not everything in Aldridge’s life is about giving back. He dedicates a lot of his free time (what little he actually allows himself) to exercising and leisure. He loves running and is an avid reader. He is a tennis fanatic and confesses an adoration for spending time at the beach, a love that developed when his family visited South Padre every year when he was a child.
But even Aldridge’s hobbies involve effecting change. He often reads books about the environ- ment, an issue that he holds dear. He has added solar panels to his home, and says soon Alori will have six properties that use solar panels. This, he says, will make Alori the largest solar-producing company in Austin.
In the meantime, Aldridge says he will continue to dedicate much of his efforts to organizations that work to fight homelessness and ease the suffering of HIV and AIDS patients, and those that work for true equality. As he looks to the future, he says he hopes to be able to spend less time on his business so he can devote more time to community involvement.
For Aldridge, such selflessness is a no-brainer. “I can’t imagine life any other way. I came from two parents who were always extremely involved through their church and community groups,” he says. “It’s just a way of life that I was taught. It is the most interesting, most rewarding part of my life.”