Video: A Q&A with RAIN’s Nathan Smith on this year’s Virtual AIDS Walk Charlotte

In this week’s Facebook Live broadcast, Charlotte Pride’s Matt Comer (he/him) spoke with Nathan Smith (he/him), RAIN’s vice president of philanthropy. RAIN, one of Charlotte’s HIV/AIDS service organizations, was due to host its annual AIDS Walk Charlotte on May 2, but has transitioned their largest fundraising event of the year into a month-long virtual event due to the COVID-19 crisis.

Nathan Smith

This year marks the 25th year of the AIDS Walk and Nathan said the group had big plans to celebrate and raise critical funds necessary for supporting RAIN’s client services. COVID-19’s complications dropped their original fundraising goal from $175,000 down to $125,000. Even then, Nathan said he was worried about meeting that goal. But, as it turns out, the community has been incredibly generous. With more than a week left to fundraise, RAIN is only nine percent away from reaching its goal.

“When our community comes together, it really does support those who need it,” Nathan says.

Watch our full conversation with Nathan in the livestream video above or read below for a written version, which has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Matt Comer: Tell us a bit about yourself!

Nathan Smith: I’m Nathan Smith, vice president of philanthropy. I’ve been with RAIN for 15 years in January. I started here part-time and wound up working here throughout the years and worked my way “up the ladder.” I have a personal passion for nonprofit fundraising, especially events. My mindset is: Can I get it for free, and if not for free can I get it at a discount, and if I can’t do either, do I really need it? I’ve really enjoyed being able to see RAIN grow and change as this disease (HIV/AIDS) has changed. It’s been a fun ride and I’m not looking to get off it any time soon.

You all have a much larger client base now as opposed to in the past. How has COVID-19 affected your services with your clients and how are you staying connected with your colleagues.

We started working from home about a week prior to the stay-at-home orders coming down. awe knew we couldn’t stop our services. our clients need us. we served about 800 clients last year. The great thing is that our office has virtual desktops anyway. for us to go virtual and work from home was a fairly smooth transition. There were a few hiccups; some people don’t have printers at home, for example. But we all found it relatively easy to transition into that virtual environment. our staff worked hard that first few weeks to make sure that every client had their medications, they were calling the pharmacies to make sure they would be delivered to clients doors. we call clients on a weekly basis. we created a resource guide for clients – including free or discounted meals or other necessities. It was difficult in the sense we don’t get to see each other every day but we knew we had to do what needed to be done to make sure our clients are served.

When you started working from home, did you also start thinking of modifying the AIDS Walk? When did that decision making start? What did going virtually mean?

In February. We wound up talking about it in feb. we brought it to our board and had  deep discussion around what going virtual meant. we were never going to cancel it. We needed the event financially and the community needed the event in terms of coming together. We worked with some board members to research other aids walks in the U.S. and elsewhere to see what they were doing. In March is when we made the final decision and shifted. For the first two weeks, I think I took every webinar I could to learn more to shift it virtually. The great thing for us is that most of the fundraising we get is done prior to the day of the walk. I wasn’t worried about the advance fundraising, but some walk teams had their fundraisers canceled or affected. We did work with our sponsors in order to create match days, so they could get some recognition online but also help raise funds throughout the month. We’ve seen a decrease in fundraising obviously, because of COVID-19, but the donations have been really amazing. People who can give have been really generous. Our average donation amount has actually gone up compared to previous years.

It makes sense that some fundraising would decrease given that so many people are tightening their “financial belts.” That also means it’s much more important for those who have the means to give to really step up, right?

It’s been cool that some of our walkers have raised several thousand dollars in the past, they have bene able to surpass their goals from previous years. We have one fundraiser who usually raises $10,000, but he’s raised $13,000 this year. When people can give, they’re giving really generously. The match days really help. For example, today was Ernst & Young. They’re matching $10 donations. When someone gives $10, Ernst & Young doubles that with an additional $10.

That’s really cool. You’re really focusing on small donors. So many people think that giving to charity takes a lot of money, but small donations amounts help too, don’t they?

For us $10 allows us and helps us to get a client to a doctor appointment. We’re using Lyft a lot right now to get clients without transportation to doctor appointments. A $10 donation can allow a client to get to that appointment.

Let’s go back quickly to talk about that transition to the virtual AIDS Walk. We’re all learning new things in this environment. What are one or two cool things you’ve learned about transitioning to this virtual platform?

Over-communicating and under-communicating. I’ve learned to over-communicate with our supporters and sponsors and make sure they understand the event is still happening. But I made a conscious effort to under communicate with walkers. So many people are working from home and I didn’t want to inundate them with emails every other day, so they’d be more likely to connect with us instead of just ignoring a deluge of emails. I’ve also learned a lot about video. It’s easy to make random silly videos just to encourage folks and connect with people.

With the event going virtual this year, what are some things you all have done or things you’ve seen walkers do in a virtual way that’s been unique? How have people responded? Do you think you’ve maintained that same sense of empowerment and inspiration that’s present in an in-person event?

I think the empowerment piece is there. It’s just different. It’s been really cool. We have one team which has picked a specific day to go walking individually. They’ve asked their team to walk and snap a photo and they’ll send this photos in to make a big montage. Teams have joined together in new ways they haven’t before. At RAIN, we’ve also done lunch-and-learns. We have seen the community come together, from sharing our posts. The match days have really helped, because it is encouraging the individual walker to fundraise. And you can do it in a creative way. We joke about, you can walk in your neighborhood, on your treadmill, around your house, or you just walking to your fridge. I don’t care. Just walk!

Tell us a bit about how critical it actually is that people participate and donate for the virtual AIDS Walk. What does this fundraising mean for RAIN each year.

The walk is our major fundraiser. We really do depend on the funds. the walk fills a gap in our services, so they have the funding they need. We get grants for many of our programs, but not every grant covers every program’s full cost. We’ve also lost several grants this year, because of COVID-19, because needs are changing — housing and food, for example — which we know is needed. But we also have to pivot and figure out how we can continue to serve our clients. For every dollar we raise, 88 cents go back in to our programs; only 12 cents goes into administrative costs. Our staff has been rally cool about how to pivot and change and continue serving. One of them has been our outreach team. Obviously, they can’t go out and do what they’d normally do face to face int he community, but they’ve transitioned to virtual online chats. Last night they had 400 people watching. The Walk supports programs like that. But the Walk isn’t just about raising money. It’s also about raising awareness and building community. We can’t come together as a community in-person, but we can still come together virtually.

How can someone participate? How can they donate?

They can go to our website at aidswalkclt.org. You can search for teams or register yourself  and donate right there on the website.

Thank you for chatting with us tonight, Nathan!

Thank you!

Resources and Links

AIDS Walk Charlotte website
RAIN website
RAIN Facebook
RAIN’s “Keeping it 100” live discussion series (Tuesdays and Thursdays, 6:30pm)