Elton John has often flown beyond our stratosphere, whether riding the recently released biopic that earned $25.7 million in its opening weekend in the U.S. or the 40-year rock-star career that is the basis of the movie. In between the Rocketman currently in theaters and the “Rocket Man” featured on 1972’s Honky Château, John has soared to new philanthropic heights with what he calls “one of the most precious things” in his and husband David Furnish’s lives: the Elton John AIDS Foundation (EJAF).
The New York and United Kingdom branches of EJAF disbursed a combined $19.7 million in 2017 and ranked fifth among global funders of HIV/AIDS philanthropy in the most recent analysis by the nonprofit Funders Concerned About AIDS (FCAA). And EJAF’s funding levels continue to climb while, overall, donor interest and commitment to HIV/AIDS advocacy sputters .
“It’s a very, very important player — and not just because they’re one of the biggest overall, but because the areas they focus on are areas that are often under-resourced by other funders,” said FCAA executive director John Barnes, noting the attention EJAF has devoted to black gay and bisexual men, transgender women, and those dealing with substance abuse. “They’ve been a leader in all of these vanguard areas and really made it safe for other funders to go there.” However, EJAF’s long, long flight has given it a gravitational pull that affects HIV/AIDS nonprofits across the globe, so when it tweaks its operations, the impact can ripple throughout the industry and unsettle the groups it aims to help. And much change has occurred in a startlingly brief time at EJAF. In the past nine months, the organization announced its founder and namesake’s exit from the board of directors, the resignation of its longtime U.S. executive director and figurehead, Scott Campbell , the consolidation of its U.K. and U.S. organizations into a single global entity, and a delay in implementing Fund for Resilience, Equity, and Engagement (FREE) — a fund for projects by and for black gay and bisexual men and transgender women across the U.S .
“For our 25th anniversary, we went through the most extensive set of reviews,” said Anne Aslett, whose role progressed from U.K. executive director to CEO of the new global iteration of EJAF. The foundation consulted philanthropic peers and submitted to outside analyses of virtually every aspect of its operation; but the reshuffling led to a highly touted funding effort being paused and then outsourced, and uncertainty among grant applicants about the future of EJAF and their own organizations.
“There’s absolutely no retreat in terms of working in America,” Aslett said in response to fears caused by the temporary shelving of EJAF’s FREE fund, which will now be managed by AIDS United. “We were in a big series of external reviews [of] our grantmaking, fundraising, communications, governance, our finance arrangements, our logistics, and we had all agreed — including with colleagues in the U.S. — that there would be a hiatus in terms of making future decisions.”
Unclear Communication Causes Uncertainty
When Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico and residents fled for the mainland in 2017, EJAF was among the organizations financing an emergency relief fund, $15,000 of which went to Arianna’s Center, a nonprofit that works with South Florida’s Latinx transgender population. The group used the money to provide temporary housing to some displaced transgender Puerto Ricans and relocate others. They also linked clients to HIV care and English as a second language (ESL) classes.
“[EJAF representatives] looked at our program and said, “This is the type of program we are looking for, and you should consider applying for this [larger grant],” said Arianna Lint, founder of Arianna’s Center and east coast chair of the Trans-Latin@ Coalition. “They thought we were doing a lot of great work with the $15,000, and so we were given an invitation to apply again for more.”
However, as a grassroots organization with limited capacity, Lint doubted Arianna’s Center could compete with larger nonprofits, which often have full-time professional grant writers.
“We found one person who offered to write a grant proposal for free, but they could only write one,” Lint said, although the center was considering applying for a separate grant. “So we had to choose what grant we wanted to apply for. We had a good relationship with Elton John [AIDS Foundation], and so we applied for EJAF.”
In the fall of 2018, Arianna’s Center submitted a multi-year grant proposal to EJAF to continue its work and help transgender immigrants who were released from ICE custody. Several dozen other nonprofits also applied for the funds EJAF had earmarked for organizations that work with black gay and bisexual men and transgender women, but all applicants received a letter from EJAF in late 2018 informing them the initiative was being delayed.
“We wrote them in December and said we would get back with them in February,” said Mohamed Osman, grant director at EJAF.
However, the grant announcements were not made until several months later, and the official communication was unclear to Lint and leaders of several other nonprofits TheBody spoke with for this article — and attempts to gain clarity from EJAF went unanswered, Lint said. The contacts that Arianna’s Center had established with EJAF personnel are no longer with the foundation, which heightened Lint’s concerns and stress.
Both Aslett and Osman from EJAF were surprised to hear concerns about its level of communication with applicant organizations.
“We have been responding to requests for information and updating our grantees all along,” Osman said. “We have responded to every email that has come to us.”
EJAF has been less forthcoming with the media. TheBody first reached out to EJAF in January to inquire about the leadership changes, consolidation of offices, and delayed funding initiative. In several dozen emails over the course of five months, EJAF representatives repeatedly declined interview requests, saying the organization was not ready to discuss its comprehensive overhaul.
On April 23, AIDS United announced that it was going to be the partnering with EJAF to manage the FREE initiative. An AIDS United official spoke with TheBody in May after the FREE initiative was unveiled, and EJAF finally agreed to an interview as well. However, on the day the interview was to occur, EJAF canceled it after TheBody declined to submit a list of written questions.
Community Organizations Move From Worry to Enthusiasm
By the time Aslett and Osman spoke with TheBody June 5, concerns about EJAF’s operations and future were replaced by enthusiasm about the FREE initiative, which is an $11 million commitment over the next three years. About $7.6 million will be allocated to 35 nonprofits that work with black gay and bisexual men and transgender women, with the remaining funds devoted to capacity-building for the community-based organizations.
“Generally speaking, those organizations have been frequently under-resourced for a number of reasons; a lot of it has to do with structural barriers,” said Liam Cabal, director of grantmaking at AIDS United, which EJAF tapped to serve as an intermediary between itself and the community-based groups it is funding.
“Elton John AIDS Foundation wanted to find an entity that could take on all of the other aspects of this grantmaking, not just resourcing the communities through grants, but also being their point of contact, being the ones that are there connecting to the work that they do, providing additional assistance in any number of ways,” Cabal said. “What we need to do under FREE is to work with the leaders of the organization to help maybe strengthen their fiscal management processes, maybe help identify other supporters outside of HIV that might be interested in supporting their work if they were able to talk about their work in a particular way.”
Arianna’s Center was awarded a one-year grant for $100,000, an additional $3,000 to host a conference, and assistance from AIDS United with its budget and board of directors, Lint said.
“The 35 organizations will initially get a full commitment for one year, and some of them will be renewed for years two and three,” said EJAF’s Osman.
AIDS United helped finalize the list of organizations that would receive FREE grants and, going forward, will manage the $11-millon fund, provide technical support to recipients, and serve as a liaison between the community-based organizations and EJAF, Cabal said. Nearly all of AIDS United’s grantmaking work is as an intermediary between funders and recipients, a role it has played in valued campaigns such as the Southern HIV Impact Fund and Syringe Access Fund.
“In the philanthropic sphere, intermediaries function as a convener of larger philanthropic institutions who want to come together for something they care about and resource the communities,”
Cabal said. “The intermediary serves as kind of the hub of those resources, and understanding that the connections that intermediary has with the communities is much closer than these larger organizations.”
AIDS United has established itself as one of the more effective funding intermediaries, and its partnership with EJAF seems like a natural result of the latter’s continuing to grow while remaining “a very leanly staffed organization,” said Barnes from FCAA.
“Funders like Elton John AIDS Foundation give away so much money, and many of them fund all around the globe and just can’t be everywhere,” Barnes said. “They just can’t know every community, and so using intermediary funders is a way to kind of expand their capacity and their reach.”
“We Do Understand These Concerns”
Keeping its own operating costs to a minimum has always been a core tenet of EJAF, Aslett said. Some of its missteps during this transition period could be EJAF outgrowing its organizational structure.
“We do understand these concerns,” Aslett said about the uncertainty caused by the changes at EJAF. “I would ask people to recognize we are a tiny staff, and so our ability to cover all bases very quickly is challenged. But the flip side of that is that we’re very cost-effective in terms of what we do — and the money that we raise goes to the causes that we care about.”
The merger of EJAF’s domestic and international programs is an attempt to reduce duplication and herald EJAF’s formula to end HIV/AIDS with a single, amplified voice, Aslett said.
“There was a really urgent need for that global voice because of this weaning of [financial] support in the States, but also around the world,” Aslett said.
Some were unsure whether the global consolidation of EJAF indicated the organization was scaling back its work in the U.S., just as Elton John stepping away from the EJAF board last November signaled uncertainty about the organization’s future. However, with John embarking on a two-year musical farewell tour, he believed it was impractical for him to occupy a formal board position without being a “meaningful contributor,” Aslett said.
“He is, however, the founder, and therefore, whenever it’s logistically possible for him to attend board meetings, he does and will,” she said. “Elton founded the foundation in the States because of a deep and abiding sadness and compulsion to do something about it … none of that passion has gone away.”