From AIDS to Covid-19: What Grant Makers Can Learn
By Michael Seltzer
This article appeared initially on the online site of The Chronicle of Philanthropy on June 19 and is reprinted here with permission.
When it comes to determining a response to Covid-19, foundation and corporate grant makers can look to another recent global pandemic for guidance: the AIDS crisis. The two viruses are different in significant ways, such as mode of transmission and pace of the pandemic. However, much can be gleaned from close to 35 years of AIDS grant making.
With both pandemics, nations around the globe were caught off guard. They knew little about the virus, transmission and prevention strategies. After the first reported cases of AIDS on June 5, 1981, government stood on the sidelines despite the severity of the disease and the growing number of deaths. It wasn’t until six years later that President Ronald Reagan appointed a commission on AIDS to create a roadmap for government policy.
Similarly, President Trump predicted early on that the number of coronavirus cases would quickly drop to zero, and his administration failed to invest adequately in testing and personal protective equipment for health care workers.
Foundations and corporations were also slow to act in their initial response to HIV/AIDS, believing that government was better equipped to provide immediate relief and underwrite the costs of such a severe national and global challenge. We know, of course, that the perspective of foundations and corporations changed over the years as the huge loss of life from AIDS became clear.
As we celebrate Pride Month, it’s important to note that much of that change also coincided with growing public acceptance of the LGBTQ community and same-sex marriage. Just this past week, a majority-conservative Supreme Court ruled in favor of protections for gay and transgender workers.
The last four decades have taught us a lot about the crucial role donors play in a public-health crisis. As we have seen with Covid-19, government response is often insufficient, especially when it comes to helping vulnerable populations hurt most in a pandemic. With AIDS as a guide, here’s what we should keep in mind in the months and years ahead as we respond to the ongoing consequences of today’s pandemic:
Marginalized people will be further marginalized. When health crises occur, there is a rush to blame those who are at greatest risk. In the case of Covid-19, people of color have disproportionately succumbed to the virus, provoking accusations that they are somehow at fault. In reality, factors such as the lack of adequate and accessible health care and other resources leave them more vulnerable. In 2018, Black people also had the highest rate of HIV/AIDS infection (39 percent), followed by Latinos (16 percent).
Additionally, infected individuals often face scapegoating and even violence during pandemics. Those most affected by AIDS, the so-called 4-Hs (homosexuals, hemophiliacs, Haitians and heroin addicts), were widely stigmatized. Likewise, during the Covid-19 crisis, Americans of Asian descent have been ridiculed and attacked across the country, with violent incidents against them up 300 percent in New York City alone since January.
Nonprofit organizations with limited and strained resources will be expected to pick up the slack. When government, corporate, and foundation leaders failed to act quickly enough during the AIDS crisis, community-based nonprofit organizations became the unacknowledged first responders. With limited financial resources, these groups were stretched thin by the overwhelming numbers of individuals seeking assistance.
Viruses create more than medical and health emergencies. They test the nation’s limited safety net, forcing nonprofit organizations to quickly mobilize and provide essential services to those who are both infected and affected.
For example, Covid-19 has led to a dramatic upsurge in cases of intimate-partner violence, leading to increased demand on women’s shelters. Supportive housing organizations are overwhelmed by the challenges confronting homeless populations during the pandemic. Work-force training agencies are facing record demands for assistance as the ranks of the unemployed reach historic highs. And with higher unemployment comes greater food insecurity, creating severe strains on food banks.
Sadly, the season when nonprofits generate critically needed unrestricted revenues coincided with the emergence of Covid-19 and the loss of funds from canceled galas, fundraisers and other events. This left these groups with even fewer resources to respond to the virus.
When the immediate crisis ends, the aftereffects will linger for years. Meeting the need for direct relief, such as medical care and equipment, is only the first step toward recovery. The impact on housing, education and employment will last for many years. Although some may think AIDS has fizzled away, close to 1.7 million people worldwide, including 40,000 Americans, were diagnosed with HIV in 2018. That same year, an estimated 770,000 people across the globe died from AIDS-related illnesses.
Today, numerous local nonprofits are still active in prevention, health care and advocacy efforts. Multiyear funding commitments are necessary to address the long-term consequences of Covid-19. Donors need to be particularly attuned to the mental-health challenges of those both infected and affected by the virus. They can last for decades.
One-size-fits-all communication strategies will fail during a health crisis. Messages about prevention must be tailored to different at-risk groups and communities. There is no silver-bullet approach. People are more likely to turn to their most trusted neighborhood institutions—churches, synagogues, mosques, settlement houses and other community organizations—for lifesaving information. For example, in Harlem in the 1980s, beauty parlors and barber shops were the go-to places to spread the word about condom use to slow the transmission of AIDS.
Collaboration with other donors is critical. In the early 1980s, foundation and corporate giving officers formed Funders Concerned About AIDS as an affinity group of the Council on Foundations. Its mission was simple: to galvanize the philanthropic response to the AIDS pandemic. In 1983, five private and community foundations, such as the New York Community Trust, made AIDS-related grants totaling $216,000. By 2018, numerous foundations had followed in their footsteps, and giving increased to $651 million. The group’s work continues today.
Organizations engaged in policy making and advocacy need support. Efforts by federal, state, and local governments to minimize the threats to the public from Covid-19 echo attitudes during the AIDS crisis. Some state legislatures introduced legislation that ran counter to scientific fact and the views of public-health experts. Foundations responded by funding organizations that monitored the introduction of such legislation and mobilized advocates and elected officials to counter those efforts.
AIDS was a monumental tragedy during its peak years and continues to be a threat today around the globe. But the commitment and conviction of nonprofit leaders, advocates, grant makers, businesses and, finally, government officials fueled remarkable strides in treatment, faster approval of clinical trials for promising drugs, and critical prevention-education measures.
If we come together again as we did back then, we can manage this latest pandemic and emerge a stronger and more equitable nation.
Michael Seltzer, a member of LAFF’s executive committee and head of its New York chapter, was the founding executive director of Funders Concerned About AIDS and is currently a distinguished lecturer at Baruch College’s Austin W. Marxe School of Public and International Affairs in New York City.