Crafting Our Message: FCAA’s Spring Convening Helps Shape a Compelling Argument for a New Audience

“There is going to be a lot of pressure on the philanthropic sector. We can’t fill the gap. But what we can do is build some very precise, strategic investments with that in mind.” – Mitchell Warren, AVAC

This is the second blog summarizing the recent FCAA Spring Convening, which took place in late April. While the first  shared the latest intelligence on the changing political landscape in the U.S., our focus now turns to reframing the HIV/AIDS narrative to resonate with new audiences, likely less familiar with our issues.

For this undertaking, FCAA Board member and amfAR’s Vice President and Director of Public Policy, Greg Millett led a conversation among Friends of the Global Fight’s Mark Lagon, AVAC’s Mitchell Warren and longtime global health consultant, Michael Isbell.

Importantly, the panelists warned funders that there is no one-size-fits-all message that will appeal to the increasingly diverse stakeholders we need to reach. Rather, we will need to be nimble, tailoring our talking points based on the audience.

“There is no playbook for what to do. We need a strategy for a playbook full of audibles,” said Warren.

Some of the message points panelists encouraged funders to highlight include:

  • The 150 account. The majority of U.S. foreign assistance — including resources for HIV/AIDS, global health, and development — comes through the international affairs budget, also referred to as the “150 account.” What is clear now, is that whatever part of health and development you work in, funding for that work is on the chopping block, and it’s all connected. The Global Fund doesn’t succeed, for example, if support for girl’s education is cut. We must all monitor this budget line and become “150 advocates.”
  • The investment case. The return on investment is remarkable in HIV/AIDS programs. But the panel urged funders and advocates to sharpen the language as to what that looks like by using available data to tell compelling stories. Investments in HIV/AIDS have had huge outcomes. In addition, these investments are used judiciously; even with flat funding, for example, by the end of 2016 PEPFAR was supporting nearly 5 million people on antiretroviral treatment (ART), up from the 50,000 individuals who were receiving ART in sub-Saharan Africa prior to when PEPFAR began. It is incumbent upon us to connect the dots.
  • Urgency. Though “the end of AIDS” rhetoric got a bit ahead of reality, according to Isbell, he suggested that it is helpful to provide decision makers with some sense of the short window of opportunity. “If you take your foot off the gas pedal, we are going to go backwards. We will have squandered everything that we’ve spent and achieved in the past,” said Lagon.
  • What is unique about HIV/AIDS fight. Isbell suggested focusing on the most powerful messages to come from the HIV/AIDS fight. “There are very few things about which you could say ‘we changed the world.’ There is something special in HIV. It has touched people’s heart and made them think about global health and development in different ways. It has been a trailblazer in many ways in terms of how we do things globally. And it helps people to feel more connected to global issues,” he told the attendees.
  • Data. “If we are asked questions about these issues and give soft answers, that will turn Members of Congress off immediately,” warned Lagon. To that end, it is imperative that we use available data to back up our statements.  But this former Republican appointee contended that we also should not discount moral messages and framing in this atmosphere. “We shouldn’t assume that facts and evidence don’t work,” Lagon continued. “But we need to think about evocative messages.”
  • Stable management of the epidemic. If the U.S. doesn’t act, then progress against stable management of the epidemic will halt, particularly as we consider the “youth bulge”—referring to the “baby boom” experienced in some African countries because of reduced infant mortality rates as well as improvements in treating children born with HIV. This will undoubtedly impact treatment capacity, as adolescents transition from child health services to adult clinics, and as this rising population begins to reach reproductive age, even steady infection rates will result in an increased epidemic.
  • Helping the most vulnerable. This was the driving motivation for the Bush administration as it sought to address the global AIDS epidemic just over a decade ago. It is an argument that seems increasingly to resonate with all people including many people of influence in the administration and Capitol Hill, including those inclined to faith-based notions.

There were some words of caution and guidance as well:

  • Economic returns are a powerful argument if you’re talking to a finance minister of an implementing country, but not necessarily for a U.S. decision maker, suggested Isbell. Be sure to know your audience and approach the topic in a way that will resonate with them.
  • Now is a time to recalibrate and better manage expectations. Our community has a history of setting audacious goals. However, for individuals new to the HIV/AIDS world, the perception may be that many targets have been missed. Now is the time to level set and to highlight the enormous progress those audacious goals have helped to achieve
  • We need to better document the “spillover” effect of HIV spending; how this disease-specific funding is helping address a broader array of health problems “(e.g., Ebola in Nigeria). Consider ways that we can emphasize this potentially potent message, and put the markers in place to begin measuring and reporting on these successes.
  • Shaping the global narrative. In the coming months, we will have a new head of WHO, UNAIDS, and the Global Fund. We should be thinking not only about what we can do to impact Washington D.C. (the Administration) over the next month, but what we can do that will help global leaders in the next year. By taking a lead on crafting messaging, we can help shape the global narrative.

In summary, the panelists provided some actionable steps for funders as they seek to work in this new environment:

  • Know your audience;
  • Build solid, evidence-based messages;
  • Develop short and longer term strategies;
  • Fund more advocacy, which is key at this moment; and,
  • Create spaces to find and cultivate new champions, particularly those who are moderate voices.