Deloris Dickson has run her business for more than 40 years. Virtually all of her 100 employees are women. More than a few of those women, including Dickson herself, have struggled through the trauma of breast cancer with their mothers, sisters and daughters.
So when Dickson asked her employees if they would join her in donating their time and energy to a benefit for the National Breast Cancer Coalition, the women enthusiastically agreed to give the receipts from an entire day's work to the charity.
But the charity wanted nothing to do with Dickson or her employees.
Dickson's business is Club 55, a Southeast Washington nightspot where women dance in the nude.
"Please be advise that I have spoken the representative of our board and unfortunately we are unable to be a recipient of the funds raised by your event," wrote Nicole Marshall, a development associate for the coalition, in an e-mail to Dickson. "The board is made up of some conservatives and they feel the event may cause questions from our network."
Dickson, incensed, called the coalition. "You've got to be kidding me," Dickson said. "This business is all women, and we deal with cancer every day. My daughter, my partner's sisters, my aunt and nieces, two employees' mothers -- all of them had cancer and they want to help. Sure, the women are exotic dancers. So what? It's a job, a better job than selling drugs."
Dickson says she got no response. She wrote to the coalition. Again, no response.
She and her staff charged ahead with their benefit, which they staged a couple of weeks ago, raising more than $5,000 from more than 125 attendees. Which they promptly donated to Children's Hospital for cancer research, except for a $1,000 gift to the Mautner Project, which supports lesbians suffering from cancer.
"African American women are disproportionately affected by breast cancer, and this was an event at a club that appeals to African Americans," said Valerie Asher, a Silver Spring physician who attended the benefit because Dickson is a patient and friend of several people in her office. "They bumped and ground and showed some skin, but it was toned down. They had a silicone dummy so you could feel what lumps feel like, and they had educational brochures.
"It's just wrong and moralizing for this organization to turn down this money. This is people doing what they do best for a good cause. Nothing illegal happened."
I asked Marshall to elaborate on her e-mail, but she refused to speak to me because "as far as communications- wise, our communications director would handle any questions."
The spokesman, Leslie Thomsen, said the e-mail to Dickson "was a miscommunication. That was not an accurate representation of our position." I asked why Marshall would have written about opposition on the charity's board if that were not true, and Thomsen replied, "She's a fairly low-level staffer, and I honestly don't know. It should have been reviewed at a higher level."
Thomsen said the charity -- which in 2002 raised more than $6 million and spent almost $4 million, primarily to lobby the government for breast cancer research -- never made a formal decision on the Club 55 donation because "we didn't understand the nature of the event, so Deloris offered to send us a videotape of what they'd be doing, and we never received the video."
"What a lame excuse," Dickson said. "I told them exactly what we did -- I didn't mince words." Dickson says she saw no reason to send the tape after receiving the kiss-off e-mail.
Thomsen says the coalition tries to avoid crass marketing schemes. The coalition has turned down some offers of clothing tie-ins that seemed inappropriate, but, she said, "I can't think of a special event we've turned down." The charity holds fundraisers including a New York dinner with musical acts and a Los Angeles cabaret with prominent actors and singers.
Back at Club 55, the dancers are "on cloud nine," Dickson says. "They did a good thing, and I'm not ashamed of any part of it." The dancers plan to do it again next year, with the receipts going to another cancer charity -- one that cares more about a cure than about its corporate image.
Join me at noon today
for "Potomac Confidential" at