Liz Page has a blunt explanation for why she started the AIDS Walk. It was part of what she calls her “penance.”
It was 1986, and she’d been a volunteer with AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts almost since its creation three years before. “I started volunteering with them in about 1983,” Page said, “because I lost a dear friend early on in the AIDS crisis and I was not there for him like I needed to be. And when he died, it was an incredible shock to me. I went to AIDS Action Committee kind of as penance, to tell you the truth, and said, ‘What can I do to help?’ And they said, ‘Oh, my God — we need money.’”
Page worked with the organization to create a volunteer fundraising committee, and helped stage events like an art auction in 1984 that was supported by the mayor of Boston, the governor of Massachusetts, and Boston’s entire congressional delegation — no small accomplishment during the dawning years of the AIDS epidemic.
Two years later, Page came up with an even bigger, higher-profile special event: the AIDS Walk.
WALK, DON’T RUN
“It was so important for us to do something public that was accessible to a lot of people,” said Page, today the principal at Liz Page Associates, a Boston-based event-planning and fundraising agency that she founded 20 years ago. “And it’s why we named the event what we named it — from all walks of life. Because people from all walks of life were affected by this disease, not just gay men.”
The first AIDS Walk — held in Boston on May 31, 1986 — came together quickly. Planning only started that January, which gave organizers less than six months to “brand it, get permits, the whole thing,” Page said. About 5,000 people participated, raising a total of $367,000 — “which in 1986 was just a phenomenal amount of money.”
Serving as associate director of development for AIDS Action Committee, Page ran the AIDS Walk for five years, through 1990, when 35,000 people participated. She and her team also hosted people from other states to show them how to start their own AIDS Walk programs. Today there are dozens of them held across the country every year — including the original AIDS Walk Boston & 5K Run, which is happening this month.
“We needed to make it clear that you can do something,” Page said. “You can show up, you can fill up a pledge sheet. You can walk publicly, which in 1986 was a very courageous thing to do — walk right down Commonwealth Avenue in Boston and say, ‘I support AIDS Action Committee, and I’m here to try to fight the AIDS crisis.’”
‘JUST TELLING THE STORY’
Page left AIDS Action Committee in 1990 to become executive director of development and public affairs for the Schepens Eye Research Institute. In 1994, she started Liz Page Associates after realizing that while she liked development, she preferred to do it through special events as opposed to “direct mail and annual appeal.”
In particular, Page wanted to produce events with some sort of emotional or service component, and that’s what her agency has come to specialize in, with clients including Boston Children’s Hospital, Greater Boston PFLAG (Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), the New England Holocaust Memorial, and the Special Olympics. “What always motivates me is when you can get someone to step outside themselves and make a connection in the community,” Page said. “We do a lot of fundraising events, and when I can get that person in the audience — especially a person with resources — to understand a problem in the community and to get them to emotionally feel that and then realize that they can be part of the solution, not only is it good for the person who has the problem, I believe that it’s deeply healing for the person who makes that commitment.”
How can Page’s fellow meeting and event professionals make that happen at their own live programs?
Go beyond the party. “Go beyond fancy centerpieces and dramatic lighting effects,” Page said, “and find out what lives at the heart of that organization, and express that.” At an annual dinner for Caritas Communities, which provides affordable housing for low-income workers, Page had three formerly homeless veterans talk about their struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and addiction. The event ended up raising $640,000 — nearly a quarter-million dollars more than the year before. “That is all because of just telling the story,” Page said, “of what is the truth that that organization is doing.”
Take risks. “A lot of times,” Page said, “a risk can be a venue.” A year after taking over Greater Boston PFLAG’s annual Pride and Passion fundraiser, for example, Page moved the 600-person event from a hotel to the Black Falcon Cruise Terminal in Boston Harbor — knowing full well that if a ship needed to dock there, Pride and Passion would have to be moved. Sure enough, she was notified two weeks beforehand that a ship would be coming in the night before the event, but probably would be gone by noon the next day.
“We didn’t say a word to anybody in the public,” Page said. “We found another alternative venue and we had it on hold. And we literally had tables, chairs, plates, salt and pepper shakers, lighting, DJ booth — everything — on trucks outside of the cruise terminal.” The ship did indeed leave by noon, and Page’s team had six hours to set up for Pride and Passion. “For us special-event geeks, we love that risk,” Page said. “Can we do it? Can we make it?”
Stay in control. “Do not ever let anyone walk up to the microphone that you haven’t thoroughly worked with to express themselves,” Page said. “Someone who has a great story to tell, if it’s not told in a disciplined way, it can unravel before your very eyes.” Especially when you’re working on a high-emotion event, “you have to have complete knowledge and understanding of every single moment, so when it does go wrong, you have got an idea of how to solve it.”
While Liz Page acknowledges that nonprofit organizations often have an advantage when it comes to telling an emotionally impactful story, she’s increasingly excited to do that for corporate clients as well. “Many corporations and businesses are doing great things philanthropically,” Page said, “and they’re not telling the story to their employees, to their clients, to the greater public.”
Page arranged for one of her event clients, investment firm BNY Mellon, to serve as a major sponsor of the opening ceremony and subsequent activities for the New England Holocaust Memorial. “One of the reasons they did that was that they have a tremendous amount of Jewish clients,” Page said, “and they wanted to do something that was meaningful for those clients.”