On a sultry Wednesday evening last August, hundreds gathered at Mercury Hall in South Austin for an event 19 years in the making. That night, amid the clink of Champagne flutes and tunes from Trent & Dave, the nonprofit Octopus Club raised its one-millionth dollar – no small feat for a group that prides itself on lacking structure.
For nearly two decades, the Octopus Club has partied with a purpose. The group formed 19 years ago by businessman and activist Lew Aldridge holds a series of events every year raising money for the Paul Kirby Emergency Fund, an extension of AIDS Services of Austin that assists those in the region living with AIDS and facing financial hardship.
While medical breakthroughs in recent years have dramatically increased the lifespan of those who contract the HIV virus, the cost of treatment has skyrocketed. And since many of those being diagnosed today are poor, they often don’t have the resources to obtain proper treatment. Enter groups like AIDS Services of Austin that provide individual case management, helping connect people to various social services.
Named for one of the first AIDS activists in Austin, the Paul Kirby Emergency Fund acts as a bridge fund, supplying temporary financial assistance to HIV-positive individuals – helping pay for everything from necessary treatment to rent and utilities – as they are processed through the AIDS Services system. In 2006 alone, 271 people benefited from the emergency fund.
“There is still a lot of stigma associated with HIV/AIDS, and some people will put off accessing services as long as possible,” says Lee Manford, executive director of ASA. “The motivating factor for the majority of [ASA’s] new clients is the need for financial assis- tance.”
While the Octopus Club has remained largely what it was at birth – an informal group of concerned people pooling funds while having fun – what’s changed significantly is the amount of money raised. From intimate pool parties of fewer than a dozen people contributing $20 each, the Octopus Club has grown to a series of four main parties and a slew of smaller ones that rake in more than $100,000 annually.
Nearly all of the money in the emergency fund comes from the events of the Octopus Club – a group that is perhaps itself a best-case study in effective nonprofits. There’s no paid staff for the club, no offices and no board, only four Head Octopi who donate their time and talents to one goal: organizing fun parties that make money. The Octopi seek out corporate and private donors to pay the overhead for parties so that every dime raised at the events goes directly in to the fund.
Today the club stages four main events throughout the year: the Octo Tea Dance in the fall, Oscar Party in the winter, Rubber Ducky in the summer and Art Erotica in the spring. Octo Tea is by far the largest of the events, drawing about 1,000 people annually.
“Any idea for a party that’s out there, we’re going to pursue it,” says Michelle Patterson, one of the current Head Octopi.
The Octopus Club’s fundraising strategy is grounded in two fundamental qualities: gracious hospitality and human compassion, says Manford.
“It’s the perfect mixture of social and advocacy: everyone has a good time, all the while knowing that they are also contributing to a good cause,” he says.
As HIV/AIDS continues to spread among an increasingly diverse cross section of the population, Patterson says it’s more important than ever for the Octopus Club to reach its tentacles further in to the community. And though the primary mission of the club remains helping those with AIDS, she points out that the group also has “an opportunity to educate and prevent more people from becoming infected.”
To that end, the club is brainstorming on the creation of a fifth regular party that will be youth-oriented, attracting the teenage to twenty-something crowd. The Head Octopi have met with students from the University of Texas and other young people, gathering their perspective on AIDS and how it differs from the elder generations.
“I think there are a lot of young people out there who realize they didn’t have to go through [losing friends to AIDS], and they don’t want to ever have to go through that,” says Patterson. “It’s up to us who are rooted in the community to offer that support.”