Red Eye Day: Facing a Loss as Comic Relief Moves Away from AIDS Funding

We jokingly called it Red Eye Day – the day we heard that Comic Relief, the funder famous for its Red Nose Day events in the UK, and more recently in the US, decided that HIV was no longer a priority funding issue, although current HIV grants and contracts are being honoured. It’s been 17 years since Comic Relief launched a dedicated HIV programme, and even longer since it began funding related work. We, your authors, have a personal connection. For almost twenty years we have been grantees, advisors, an employee, and a consultant leading and supporting Comic Relief’s HIV work. We have also sat on the sofa with our kids watching famous people bring a human face to a terrifying and complex global epidemic. We want to celebrate the support, mourn its passing, and reflect on the implications for private HIV philanthropy.

Celebrating the Support

There’s so much to be proud of, much of it documented in an impact study produced in 2012[1]. Reviewing 10 years of HIV funding, 90 grants to organisations in 18 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, totaling £44 million, the study showed Comic Relief found its niche in supporting civil society responses, especially community-based organisations. Its flexibility and interest in learning meant it was one of the earlier funders of approaches which grew to have a significant impact, such as Stepping Stones and Memory Books. Its strategy to invest in the leadership of people living with HIV, and a commitment to a close relationship with partners, saw strong support flowing to, among others, the International Community of Women living with HIV and Treatment Action Campaign in South Africa. Comic Relief took risks, funding things other donors wouldn’t, supporting organisations that were volatile and vulnerable, but essential to effective action that made a difference.

Those of us who work in ‘desk-jobs’ in development know that it is rare to ever learn about the impact of our work on ‘real people’. Kate Harrison tells a story from when she was managing Comic Relief’s HIV funding in 2010. She met a woman with HIV in Eastern Uganda, running a successful vegetable stall in the market. What was your first connection with the community-based organisation we were funding, she wondered? “Ah, that was back in 1999, when I went to a workshop on Memory Books for women with HIV. At that time I was so ashamed of my status and no one would speak to me. People would never have bought vegetables from me in those days. But after that training I was able to tell my family and stand up to the gossiping. Without them I would not be here.’ Ah, Kate thought, that was funded by Comic Relief! The ripple effect of funding spreads, and in that moment, she had the chance to witness one positive wave.

Some might argue that Comic Relief’s public messaging was more important than the funding. Its reliance on fund-raising from the UK public and its partnership with the BBC combined with the creativity of film writer and director Richard Curtis, the co-founder and vice chair of Comic Relief,  led to wonderful, persuasive partnerships and developed content which reached millions of viewers. An unpublished study suggested that almost half the UK public learn most of what they know about Africa from watching Red Nose Day. That’s rather worrying when you think about it, and we could fill another article with our thoughts on the risks and downsides of over-simplified messaging. But, nonetheless, there are so many powerful films to choose from: this 2008 film of Annie Lennox meeting Avelile, a little girl with HIV getting support from Treatment Action Campaign is just one inspiring example.

Mourning the Passing

We mourn the ending of Comic Relief’s focus on HIV partly because of the potential of these films to move hearts and minds. Public support can have a huge influence on larger funders, especially national governments. For almost 20 years, Comic Relief reminded the UK public that AIDS has a human face and isn’t over; that it’s affecting millions of people and that those people are often the very ones leading the fight. Comic Relief and Red Nose Day, for all their oversimplification, created a sense of solidarity and connection across thousands of miles, to move ordinary households to donate to causes they would never normally think about.

Comic Relief also helped to show how a small funder can have a big influence; for example joining a £10 million partnership with the Elton John AIDS Foundation and other funders to create new approaches to supporting orphans and vulnerable children in Malawi; or leading the European Funders Group on HIV, which later became part of Funders Concerned about AIDS.

Reflecting on the Implications

What does this mean for the future? For one thing, it is part of a very unfortunate trend. Other funders, too, have decided that HIV is no longer a priority funding issue. Yet the epidemic remains a huge public health threat. An article by Avert comes with a stark warning from Linda Gail Bekker, the President of the International AIDS Society:

The medical advances that have transformed HIV treatment have yet to alter the stark reality for young people, particularly in low to middle-income countries, such as those in sub-Saharan Africa, and young people within key populations. While AIDS related deaths have halved in children since 2010, they have only fallen by 5% in adolescents.  AIDS, in other words, is far from over – especially for young people.

Even though private philanthropy accounts for only 2% of global funding for HIV, private foundations can be hugely influential. They can take risks, support leadership and advocacy, share information and learning, influence the public agenda and agitate for action. Private Foundations can still make a huge difference, especially if they collaborate, join interest groups like Funders Concerned about AIDS, and use their flexibility and agility to move quickly to respond to the ever-adapting epidemic. Although Comic Relief’s HIV funding has ended, its legacy lives on: the communities it supported, the leaders it helped to foster, the hearts and minds it helped to engage.


About the Authors:

  • Kate Harrison is Head of Programme Funding at Avert, an organisation dedicated to increasing knowledge and understanding about HIV and AIDS
  • Sarah Middleton-Lee is an independent consultant focusing on gender, rights and participation.


[1]Impact Study: Comic Relief’s People Affected by HIV and AIDS Programme 2001-2011”; May 2012, Jose Sluijs-Doyle and Sarah Middleton-Lee for IDLS partners Ltd.