Resourcing Harm Reduction Blog Series: AIDS United

Recently, FCAA released a data spotlight illustrating the intersection of HIV and people who inject drugs (PWID). Given that PWID are 22 times more likely to acquire HIV than the rest of the global population, we felt that it was important to understand where private philanthropy was supporting harm reduction programs. As we worked with partners to analyze the data, it was clear that the numbers tell only one part of the story. We wanted to dig deeper, to understand what challenges grant makers and recipients are facing in funding and implementing these programs.

As part of this important conversation, we are proud to feature the following blog from a leading expert in financing for harm reduction: Paola Barahona of AIDS United.

Learn more about this blog series and other entries.


How did your organization begin/enter into funding harm reduction work?

AIDS United’s mission is to end the HIV epidemic in the United States. We do this through strategic grantmaking, technical and capacity building assistance, and policy and advocacy. In 1999, the organization (then called the National AIDS Fund) launched the first Syringe Access Initiative to help prevent new cases of HIV. It did this by funding harm reduction organizations to distribute sterile syringes to people who inject drugs.

A few years later, in 2004, a group of private funders came together to form the Syringe Access Fund to bring visibility to syringe access and to serve as a vehicle for increasing private investment in syringe exchanges. Founding partners that still contribute to that effort include the Elton John AIDS Foundation, Levi Strauss Foundation, and AIDS United. Current partners also include Open Society Foundations and the H. van Ameringen Fund. The Syringe Access Fund was originally housed at the Tides Foundation and has been with AIDS United since 2009.


What challenges have you faced in funding harm reduction work? How have you navigated those challenges?

Prior to 2018, only established syringe services programs could receive funding from the Syringe Access Fund. As the opioid crisis spread, and more states began legalizing syringe services, AIDS United and the Syringe Access Fund partners noticed an increase in the number of start-up programs applying for funding. Beginning in the last round of the Syringe Access Fund, start-up programs became eligible for funding. This has enabled us to fund promising new programs in areas where services are needed.


What is the most effective strategy, tool, piece of data, or resource that you have used to successfully overcome a barrier to funding harm reduction work?

Supporting every aspect of a harm reduction organization, which AIDS United is uniquely positioned to do. Our grantmaking initiative provides funding to support advocacy and direct services; our capacity building team is able to support organizational development; and our policy team is available to work with organizations on local, state, and national policy/advocacy efforts. We routinely employ all of these tools to support harm reduction work across the country.


Are there other ways your organization has been able to take part in the response without directly funding harm reduction work (i.e. convenings, advocacy, etc.)?

In addition to supporting community-based organizations with financial investments, AIDS United believes it is equally important to provide technical assistance and management tools for organizations to effectively respond to the epidemic. We deploy our staff and/or teams of technical assistance consultants to provide customized and appropriate support to communities around the country. Our CDC-funded capacity building team approaches its work with a high priority on service to harm reduction organizations.

AIDS United has a history of partnering with research and academic institutions, producing books, publications, and scholarly articles. Harm reduction research partnerships between AIDS United and the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health are building on this history.


What is your biggest success story as a funder of harm reduction work?

Our biggest success story is making harm reduction a core of all the work that we do at AIDS United. Recent highlights of AIDS United’s Harm Reduction policy work include:

  • Our June 2016 Statement Supporting Supervised Injection Facilities was the first such statement from a national organization.
  • Until recently, AIDS United has had a grant-funded staff member – a Syringe Access Policy Organizer – working at the federal, local, and regional level to support mobilization and education to increase awareness and legislative support for syringe services programs.
  • Since 2017, AIDSWatch has included syringe access messaging and policy recommendations in their meetings with Congressional offices as a result of our formal coordination and organization.
  • AIDS United is a leader on the steering committee of the Coalition for Syringe Access, a group of national organizations working on syringe access and harm reduction policies.