“Today my 14-year term as chairman concludes,” Cole told the crowd at the event at Cipriani Wall Street, which honored director-producer-writer Lee Daniels and W magazine editor in chief Stefano Tonchi. “It has been a true privilege to work alongside so many talented, dedicated and committed individuals. Through my ongoing work as the U.N. AIDS ambassador and with the U.N. AIDS Coalition, I remain personally committed to aligning resources and galvanizing global action and working with amfAR to make AIDS history.”
Later, Cole released a statement: “I’ve proudly served on the board of amfAR for more than 30 years, and as its chairman for the last 14. During that time, we’ve raised hundreds of millions of dollars for groundbreaking research and public advocacy campaigns that continue to save lives across the globe.
“The amfAR board has adopted a number of governance reforms that will ensure our beloved organization can continue to thrive. One of these is instituting term limits for board members which is why I, along with four of my colleagues, will be stepping down from the board. In the interim, I will continue to serve as an honorary chairman and be part of the process for selecting a new and committed chairman.
“Though I am stepping aside, I am not stepping away from this fight. I will continue in my role as an International Good Will Ambassador on behalf of U.N. AIDS, and as chairman of the End AIDS Coalition.”
Cole and the amfAR board had been under fire since last year following an inter-member rift triggered by a questionable deal with the disgraced Harvey Weinstein and the group had seen a decline in fund-raising.
The upheaval stemmed from amfAR agreeing with Weinstein to split proceeds from a 2015 Cannes benefit auction with the American Repertory Theater in Boston. Cole had faced calls for him to resign or be removed in the wake of the deal and even up until last month had said he had no intention of stepping down. But the controversy continued to rage in advance of amfAR’s board meeting this week, where among the subjects it was due to discuss were governance issues recommended by New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman. If that weren’t enough to contend with, the nonprofit continues to race to reach its goal of finding the scientific basis for a cure by 2020 and the Trump administration last month fired the remaining members of the Presidential Advisory Council on AIDS/HIV.
As a longtime amfAR supporter and an unofficial human pipeline to celebrity guests, big spenders and philanthropists for its benefits, Weinstein appealed to amfAR to split revenues from a 2015 Cannes benefit auction with the theater. The deal was to equally share proceeds up to $1.2 million. Weinstein produced and previewed “Finding Neverland” at ART and theater officials agreed to reimburse him and the musical’s other investors $600,000, provided they secured third parties to donate that amount. ART had agreed to reimburse him and the show’s other producers, provided third parties donated the amount of the trial run. AmfAR had never shared proceeds with another nonprofit. That arrangement — as well as requests for board members to sign NDAs to prevent them from discussing Weinstein or the deal — led to division within amfAR, a few board member resignations and the call for Cole to step aside. Last year four dissidents — Arlen Andelson, Vin Roberti, Jonathan Canno and Mervyn Silverman — shared their concern with the district attorney’s office about the $600,000 transfer to “a recipient outside the organization despite the clear objections of the executive management team and without the knowledge of the entire voting members of the board.” Then in November, a 60-person group of people living with HIV, advocates, allies, funders and policy and service professionals called for Cole’s removal or resignation.
Questioned about the controversy last month, Cole pointed to how during his 30-year tenure of being involved with the group, amfAR’s annual revenues tripled to more than $50 million and launched the greatest expansion of the foundation’s grant-making with its $100 million investment strategy in support of its “Countdown to a Cure for AIDS Initiative.”
“I have proudly served on the board of amfAR for 30 years, including 13 [sic] years as its chair. In that time, we have pioneered research and medical breakthroughs in the fight against HIV and AIDS, raising hundreds of millions of dollars to fund life-saving work,” Cole said in a statement to WWD last month. “I will not and cannot abandon amfAR — the overwhelming majority of the board, the staff, and the community — at this critical time, because of a transaction that was agreed to by all responsible parties and determined to be legal, ethical, and in service of amfAR’s mission.”
Compounding the unease at the group had been the fact that six or so board members’ terms were up for renewal, including a few of the dissidents and of Cole himself. Imposing term limits – one of the recommendations outlined by Schneiderman to amfAR – and future two-party shared revenue transactions are issues the board was said to be working on. Designating an independent committee to investigate and resolve whistleblower complaints was another recommendation.
For its tax year ended Sept. 30, 2016, amfAR had $58.8 million in contributions and grants, compared to $56.2 million for the prior tax year.
In 2016, one million people died of AIDS-related illnesses and 36.7 million people were living globally with HIV, according to the nonprofit UNAIDS. It is not yet known when the Trump administration replacements will be named for the Presidential Advisory Council on AIDS/HIV.
While some board members viewed the Weinstein-amfAR deal as murky, others considered it to be a business decision that served amfAR’s mission. But fallout from the controversy had dented contributions, although the degree to which is not known. Some donors such as Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS vowed to hold off on pledging until the Cannes-sparked matter was resolved.
More than a passion project, some say amfAR had been Cole’s main cause. He was first asked to join the board in 1987, two years after he created an ad campaign that addressed the AIDS crisis. Taking action because it seemed the right thing to do, the designer was said to be driven by the reality that people were dying and nobody was talking about it.