Bob Elkins cut his teeth in business as a banker, working on loans in Hong Kong for international shipping firms and oil drillers and then helping companies buy and sell each other on Wall Street.
Not the most likely résumé for the new boss of the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Southern Nevada.
But Elkins knows the LGBT community well, and the board of directors is betting he can lead the nonprofit in a healthier era, past its history of limited fundraising and shabby facilities.
Elkins, who worked in the tech industry for years after his time in finance, joined the Las Vegas group as its CEO in September, about five months after it moved into its newly renovated, stand-alone headquarters on Maryland Parkway near Charleston Boulevard.
Before moving downtown, the group, known simply as the Center, was in a struggling strip mall on Sahara Avenue, just steps from the Green Door sex club and Hawks Gym, a “discreet” club and spa for gay and bisexual men.
The Center’s annual fundraising totals ranged between $151,000 and $346,000 from 2007 through 2010, federal tax returns show. However, funding jumped with the campaign to transform a vacant paint-supply store into the new headquarters.
The renovation cost about $2.5 million, according to Elkins, although the group secured about $4.2 million in pledges.
The 16,000-square-foot building has a cafe, a library, computers, an event hall that holds up to 600 people, exam rooms for HIV testing, and a youth center. Donors include Ultimate Fighting Championship, the Caesars Foundation and Boyd Gaming Corp.
Elkins, who is HIV-positive, lived in Southern California and was director of business development for AT&T Interactive before he moved to Las Vegas last spring. He moved here when his partner, Mark Hoyer, was hired as the head of hair and makeup for Cirque du Soleil’s “Zarkana” show at the Aria.
Before his current job, Elkins’ only full-time work in the nonprofit sector was in the early 1990s, when he was director of development for a few years for Project Inform, a San Francisco-based advocacy group for HIV and hepatitis C treatment and prevention.
The 56-year-old Maryland native recently spoke with VEGAS INC about his new job, the Center's old offices and being outed in college. Edited excerpts:
Las Vegas nonprofits got nailed during the recession with sharp declines in government funding and individual donations. The economy is improving, but it’s still shaky. How do you make sure you’re in the black and have a strong stream of donors?
I work with my board on fundraising, with the staff to keep costs contained, and we see what we can do to collaborate with other agencies. There’s a bit of a history in the LGBTQ nonprofit community where folks don’t necessarily play well with each other — there’s competition for funds and a lot of drama. It’s not productive. I think one of the reasons the board wanted me is I don’t have that history.
When you moved to Las Vegas, did you think about going back to corporate America?
That’s what I planned to do, absolutely — ideally in Internet technology. I had several friends with (slot-machine maker) IGT, and I had some interviews there. It wasn’t until somebody sent this opening to me, and I came down here and thought this was really great. I had never run a nonprofit before; I had been a development director, but I had never run a group.
Is that what you did in San Francisco?
I was doing fundraising there, and I was also the finance director. At that time, it was the height of the AIDS epidemic. If you’ve seen the movie “Dallas Buyers Club,” that’s exactly what was happening. The two founders of our organization were actually making runs to Mexico to get treatment drugs.
How have you had to get medication for your HIV, and how does that experience help you run the Center?
I tested positive in ’87. There were no drugs really out there until ’89 with AZT. I went on AZT and it made me horribly sick. I did what was prescribed, 600 milligrams a day, but then cut it in half. My friends who were doing 600 milligrams are all dead; it destroyed their bone marrow, so they couldn’t produce the white blood cells they needed to fight the infection. I’ve been virtually undetectable for more than 15 years. There are a lot of folks who are open about being HIV-positive. I think that was something that attracted the board to me, that I was willing to share my story and try to be a mentor and a model to other folks.
What changes is the group getting because of the new headquarters?
The level and type of donor who is now interested in the Center has changed remarkably. We’re getting bigger donations and more from the straight and allied communities. The old place was not somewhere that most people would want to walk into, even if you were gay or lesbian. It was a scary place.
Did you ever go there?
No. I’ve heard from staff about it, and I kind of consider myself blessed to have not seen what that was all about. It was really, really very bad.
There’s talk that real estate developers might create a "gayborhood" in downtown Las Vegas, similar to the Castro district in San Francisco. What kind of economic or cultural changes could that bring?
It would mostly give folks here a place to go. One of our challenges is that LGBT folks are widely dispersed across the valley. We’re trying to find out what’s going to bring people in — what we have seen is that lectures, performances and our arts and culture series bring in people we otherwise wouldn’t see.
Before you were CEO, the Center named UFC its corporation of the year. The Culinary Union has been trying to organize UFC sister company Station Casinos, and the union sent a letter urging you guys to not support UFC. Are you still getting pressure from the Culinary?
We aren’t; that pretty much dissipated with the actual honorarium last October. The unionization was a matter that we had absolutely nothing to do with, but there was also criticism, somewhat dated, about misogynistic comments from UFC. It was actually those comments that brought UFC executive Lawrence Epstein to the Center, saying his group needed help internally to make sure there’s no anti-trans or homophobic culture there. We worked with them, got them involved in the capital campaign, and when I started here, they said they wanted to do more. They put together the "Protect Yourself At All Times" HIV-awareness campaign with UFC fighters. They went to Chicago and did a whole media event. It had some LGBT homeless youths, and UFC fighters taught them MMA moves. It also promoted getting tested; there were some city council members there, and somebody got tested on camera. To me, they are very concerned about and financially invested in a really important issue. I went on their website and saw some comments from UFC fans that were really quite disgusting, but I think it takes a brave management team to step up and do what’s right, even if it may be contradictory to the culture of their audience.
Can you talk about the news article that widely outed you as gay when you were in college? It seemed like a witch hunt.
It was a witch hunt, very much so. I was a freshman at the University of Virginia and wanted to be a dorm counselor. I had some friends who were dorm counselors, and they said I’d have to be open and honest about being gay. So I went through the interviews as an openly gay man and was chosen. I came back for my sophomore year, and three weeks into the term, I got a call from a friend of mine who worked for the student newspaper and said my story had just gone out over the Associated Press national wires. I said, "What do you mean, my story?" Someone had mentioned to the university president that the gay student union president was also an R.A. I was in the only all-male dorm on campus, too, so people were really quite upset about that. I called my parents and ... they were not very pleased — I was out at the time, but not to them. It was a sort of kangaroo court at school — they brought me before three administrators, three students and three faculty members. I had an attorney representing me. They brought all the residents of my hall to "testify." Most of the guys on my hall were OK with it. What eventually kept me in my position is that the Black Student Alliance spoke out on my behalf. My parents cut me off financially, but fortunately there was a very nice man who worked at the school, a closeted gay man who paid my tuition for another three semesters. In my junior year, I was elected co-chair of the entire resident staff program, and at that point, my parents saw I was not disgracing the family name, so they started paying my tuition again. It was a very unusual four years in college.