Member Spotlight: Interview with Julie Patterson of the AIDS Funding Collaborative

This November, FCAA will launch a new online Membership and Grants Directory for FCAA members. By combining membership contact information with access to our annual resource tracking data, the directory can be used as a “matchmaking” tool to help FCAA members identify grantees and funders working on similar issues. As we move toward the launch, we will be spotlighting a few of our member organizations to get our network excited for this tool. To start, we’re profiling the AIDS Funding Collaborative (AFC), led by Julie Patterson. Learn all about the important work of the AFC in the following interview:

Can you tell us about the history of the AIDS Funding Collaborative?

Cleveland has a proud history of a community-led HIV response. From the earliest days, people in the city living with HIV, and others directly affected by the epidemic, got together and organized innovative HIV programming, including pioneering safer sex education, peer support, home-based care, and syringe access services.

The AFC continues that history with the same urgency and solidarity that led many of us to come together in the 1980s. The AFC was formed in 1994 by a group of leaders affiliated with Cuyahoga County and City of Cleveland government, key foundations, leading medical and research institutions, and other local community organizations. We’ve always been a public-private partnership. Our mission since the beginning has been collective, strategic grantmaking to strengthen the community’s response to HIV/AIDS, and we enhance that by using our unique role to convene, lead, and advocate.

You are two years into your strategic plan—how is progress on your strategic priorities going?

Our strategic plan is ambitious and has challenged us to take a new look at place-based grantmaking. We are also investing in the specific neighborhoods and networks where people are most at risk for being undiagnosed, out of care, or not virally suppressed. In doing so, we have developed a new category of grantmaking, called Catalyst Grants, that prioritizes new grantees who are doing community organizing, pilot projects, and select trainings and events with people who are often missed by existing programming.

These grants have already been instrumental in supporting HIV prevention with people who are homeless, and they have reached LGBTQ+ Black youth whose school districts and after-school programming wanted to provide more HIV-related content and resources. We’ve engaged artists, educators, and community leaders living with HIV to pursue their visions and develop their capacity to do this work. 

How has this work, and the communities you serve, been impacted by COVID-19? What lessons has AFC learned from COVID-19 that it will be taking forward?

Our grantees faced challenges during the crises of 2020 but generally emerged stronger thanks to a focus on basic needs that was supported by local rapid-response philanthropic funds—spearheaded by several of our funding partners—and COVID-19 Emergency Funds from the Elton John AIDS Foundation. Our county also received federal support through Ending the HIV Epidemic (EHE) and the CARES Act.

COVID-19 has reinforced what we already know: people struggling with basic needs face increased vulnerabilities to HIV, and they often lack to stability to look after their health. When folks are isolated, when they need food and childcare support, when they need a place to stay, HIV prevention and care are on the back burner. We’ve always known this, but seeing the success of grantees who conduct HIV testing and education in the line for food banks, or who deliver condoms with diapers and toilet paper, has been a lesson in how HIV prevention and linkage to care need to integrate with other social supports in people’s lives.

As a movement, we’ve focused so long on sexual health in isolation, and we’ve seen syringe exchange as separate. This has been for good reasons—to create safe spaces and reduce stigma—but we don’t separate our lives that way. Funders are the ones who separate. And we’re trying to do our best to overcome that when we can.

Julie Patterson

In its strategic plan, AFC puts a strong focus “philanthropic funding supports intensive community-centered work.” Why is a community-centered approach so central to ending the epidemic in Greater Cleveland?

We believe in community involvement and leadership—it’s one of our core values. People living with HIV and those directly impacted are the voices we need at our table, and we strive to make the AFC Advisory Committee diverse, inclusive, and welcoming. We’ve seen the successes that have come from programs designed and implemented by community members who are passionate and closely involved. We want to foster that.

One of AFC’s core values is a commitment to racial equity. Can you talk about the intersection of HIV and racial justice? How does AFC approach the HIV response through a racial equity lens?

Racial equity is central to our approach. The HIV epidemic in Greater Cleveland disproportionately impacts Black and Brown communities, especially folks who are younger, economically vulnerable, LGBTQ+, and less connected to services. 

Just this year, three of the AFC’s grantees also received support from the Cleveland Black Futures Fund of The Cleveland Foundation, designed to support the capacity of Cleveland-based nonprofits that are both Black-led and Black-serving. This helps to strengthen the ecosystem of Black leaders and Black-serving organizations in Greater Cleveland by providing intentional resources to help grow organizational infrastructure and capacity. We couldn’t be more delighted.

We’re also partnering with Black AIDS Institute to ensure folks in our area are aware of the amazing opportunities to build Black leadership through training programs offered under the umbrella of the revitalized African American HIV University. We want to ensure that our community can build its capacity and connect with a national network of fierce Black leaders.

How has the collective of AFC grant makers been able to achieve more together than they might have as individual funders?

The funding partnership model, where resources and knowledge are leveraged for collaborative grantmaking, is the core strength upon which the AFC is built. Since 1994, the AFC has mobilized nearly $13 million in funding for the HIV response in Greater Cleveland. However, our work goes beyond mobilizing funding and collective grantmaking to include coordination, leadership, and advocacy.

One of our strategic priorities is to be a central place for collaboration among HIV funders and leaders. We do this with Advisory Committee meetings, where we share information and updates about innovative and effective approaches in the HIV response. We convene local events to provide opportunities for funders, grantees, and other community stakeholders to exchange ideas and learn from each other. We also use our collective advocacy voice on the local, state, and national levels via philanthropy-serving organizations, like FCAA, and in dialogue with key public figures and policymakers.

How do you engage grantees in terms of funding decisions and determining priorities?

The AFC grantmaking process is designed to be open, efficient, flexible, and responsive. Stakeholder engagement is a value we hold dear, and we serve on local HIV planning bodies to both enhance their capacity, as well as to continuously monitor changes in programming and community needs.

The recent federal recognition in EHE that our area has been hard hit by the HIV pandemic has been crucial. Local public health, community stakeholders, and the AFC worked collaboratively to create our Cuyahoga County Ending the HIV Epidemic (EHE) Plan in the midst of COVID-19. We’ve honored the values of the advisory council and community stakeholders who engaged in the process in several overarching strategies, such as ending systemic racism and embracing LGBTQ inclusivity and care, that will guide us for many years to come.

In FCAA’s latest strategic plan, we highlight the importance of HIV-informed grantmaking. What does that mean to you?

It’s the sense that each piece of the puzzle is important, and philanthropy is just a part of the HIV safety net. Sometimes people can get in these battles about what’s most important, but it’s really the interconnected web that helps people. It’s the medical care and support, but it’s also all of the grassroots organizations and the people living with HIV and their families, working together.

Thanks so much to Julie Patterson for being a part of this interview series! Would you like to get to know Julie, and other FCAA members, better? Become an FCAA member to gain access to the Membership and Grants Directory! Contact Sarah Hamilton to learn more.