PARTNER SPOTLIGHT: Meet Maria Phelan of the Robert Carr Fund

FCAA recently sat down with Maria Phelan, Fund Director of the Robert Carr Fund, which will celebrate its 10-year anniversary at this year’s International AIDS Conference. Read on to learn about the history of the Fund and why it prioritizes funding the core costs of global and regional networks.

Can you tell us about the history of the Robert Carr Fund?

The Fund was launched at the 2012 International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C., so the upcoming AIDS conference in Montreal will be an important  celebratory moment for us.

RCF was founded jointly by civil society and donors including  the government of Norway, PEPFAR, the U.K., and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as strategic support from UNAIDS and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Since it’s inception the Government of the Netherlands joined the pool.  These founders understood the critical role regional and global civil society and community-led networks played in the HIV response. They also understood the value of sustainable core funding to ensure that such networks could continue their work. They came together to offer a different type of funding – core, long-term, flexible – that could close the gap and ensure civils society networks could survive and thrive.

The Fund was named after Dr. Robert Carr, a scholar and activist who worked tirelessly for human rights and an end to HIV in his native Caribbean region and globally. He was well known for his intersectional approach to bringing communities together across critical issues, like access to healthcare and ending restrictive policies.

Between 2012 and 2021 RCF has allocated almost USD 90,000,000 to regional and global civil society and community-led networks. We fund core costs, such as salaries or rent, and we’re highly flexible. The idea is that networks that have their core needs covered are better able to organize and mobilize communities as they see fit.

Can you tell us about the work that regional networks do and why they’re so important in the HIV response?

They do a number of valuable things: They bring communities together. They mobilize for change. They produce strategic data and information around the HIV response that supplements and sometimes challenges data collected by governments. They also do advocacy and community mobilization at the regional level; this is critical because  networks can advocate for vulnerable populations in countries where it may be physically and politically dangerous to organize nationally. Furthermore, networks often play an intermediary function and can conduit funds quickly to communities on the ground.  

The Russian invasion of Ukraine provides an important example of regional networks in action. The networks worked extremely quickly to mobilize resources, provide strategic information, and worked with humanitarian aid organizations to direct commodities and aid. They have also been working to support those who have left the country to ensure they don’t have to experience an interruption of HIV services.

This is a perfect example of why it’s so important to invest in organizational core costs. Such investments enable organizations to move quickly and effectively, which is imperative in a crisis situation. Robert Carr Fund has been making these types of investments for a decade—trying to ensure regional organizations stay flexible, resilient, and strong.

What’s the importance of intermediary and community-rooted and -led funding?

RCF is a pooled fund, an intermediary fund, and a participatory fund—so we cover a few different areas. Being a pooled fund allows us to do more than what an individual donor could on their own, such as having the ability to fund smaller groups, or unregistered organizations.          

We also fund through consortia, which means we can fund even more networks if they come together. This allows new networks to join forces with more established regional and global networks to access funding. It also helps us reach communities that are particularly underfunded, such as prisoners.

We’re also a participatory grantmaker, which means the communities most impacted by HIV recommend where funds should be directed; that allows us to shift the power and the decision-making to the communities themselves. Our decade of experience shows us that participatory grantmaking is impactful and makes sense.

In FCAA’s latest strategic plan, we highlight the importance of “HIV-informed grantmaking” in addressing the deeply ingrained injustices that the epidemic is symptomatic of. What does HIV-informed grantmaking mean to you?

Within our own strategic plan, we remain  centered on the HIV response and continue our focus on inadequately served populations. We support rights-based approaches, acknowledging that inadequately served populations have other needs, which are not centered on HIV but which influence how the HIV epidemic affects them. That being said, we take an intersectional approach, and the networks supported by RCF are also intersectional in their approach. In addition to HIV, they focus on the human rights, ending restrictive laws and policies, domestic resource mobilization, and wider health concerns, like viral hepatitis, TB, and COVID.

I really like the language of “HIV informed” and think it’s so helpful. I believe it gives us as an important opportunity to demonstrate the lessons learned in the HIV response and to showcase the importance of communities at the center of the response to HIV and other areas of policy and practice. Today, we can showcase so many interesting results that sit at the intersection of HIV. For example, regional networks are doing excellent work around gender recognition in the trans community in Latin America. It’s all HIV informed and HIV related, but it also has a wider impact—that’s important and something we should definitely be showcasing more.

Are there any upcoming milestones or programs that the Fund is excited for this year?

We just started a new grant round, so we have a whole new group of grantees for the next three years. We were also very happy to receive an additional $10 million grant from PEPFAR, in collaboration with UNAIDS, to examine the impact of COVID-19 on HIV programs. It’s a really exciting opportunity, not only to learn more about the pandemic’s impact, but also to showcase what a community-led response at the intersection of COVID and HIV looks like.

Of course, I’m also excited for our 10-year anniversary celebration, which will start at the conference in Montreal and continue through World AIDS Day. We will be showcasing our funding model, how we do business, how we do our participatory grantmaking, and some of our results from the last 10 years of investment.

We will kick off this celebration with a satellite event on Friday 29th July at 07.45 at the AIDS2022 conference. We hope to see you there!