Reflections from AIDS 2022: Why are we still talking about Core Support?

Now, hear me out. There is absolutely no question that core support (or general operating support) is essential. Any philanthropic-related resource or publication — including FCAA’s annual resource tracking report — will tell you that. It is a message that is repeated at every philanthropic meeting. By now, we are all crystal clear that these resources are critical for community-based organizations to:

  • Pay their staff
  • Have the flexibility to respond to emerging threats and new realities, such as COVID-19 and now, the Monkeypox virus
  • Protect their community and clients
  • Fund disproportionately impacted communities[1]
  • Support the issues and people that governments often can not or will not fund.

Yet, at AIDS 2022 this past July, time and time again community leaders told the world that this vital resource continues to be lacking, leaving them in peril.

If we are all in total agreement that these resources are fundamental to achieving our goals, why does this glaring gap continue to exist?

Philanthropy represents just 2% (or roughly $355 million in 2020) of global resources to address HIV in low- and middle-income countries. Even though FCAA celebrated an increase in general operating support in our most recent resource tracking report, that still only amounted to $55 million in 2020.

Clearly, philanthropy alone cannot fill the enormous need. But we can do more and do better.

It starts with listening to community.

In Montreal, FCAA had the immense honor of participating in a community listening session hosted by our newest member, MPact. It was attended by representatives from 10 global and regional networks serving key populations. The purpose of the discussion was to hear first-hand about their experiences in receiving – or, more accurately, not receiving – the funding they need. The resulting graphic recording illustrates just the surface of this conversation. 

The accompanying graphic recording is just a small reflection of the rich conversation we had in Montreal. It moves from left to right, starting with challenges in accessing and navigating funding, to examples of what type of work and partnership is desired, to finally, concrete recommendations on how to support community. I encourage you to spend time with the graphic; I know I will be referring back to it often.

Meeting participants shared that funding is not supporting their organizations in a holistic way that allows them to live sustainable lives and provide support to the communities they serve. Community members voiced they need funders to prioritize quality of life over – or, at least in equal part to – program targets. If grantees can’t pay staff or provide a safe, secure place to conduct work without fear of persecution or violence, then how can metrics of success ever be reached?

Rigid funding models are not working. Instead, organizations need flexible, long-term, stable core support. They need to be able to pivot, survive, and grow in the ways they know are best for the communities they serve.

The graphic recording also captures, among many other specific needs, a call for support for:

  • Regional networks. These entities offer a connection to the organizations serving and led by key populations, those often at the center of epidemics and related responses in their localities. Some may also have the ability to act as intermediaries to further direct and inform funding as needed. But they are rarely funded to scale. According to FCAA’s own research, the 10 organizations in attendance received – in total – $3.5 million through 25 grants from five HIV-related philanthropic organization in 2018 and 2019 combined[2]. However, in 2020– the first year of the COVID-19 epidemic – that funding plummeted to a mere $140,000 from just two funders, despite the enormous disproportionate impact of COVID and HIV on the key populations served by these networks. It is also important to note that the majority of these organizations received just 1 to 2 grants per year, and at least three organizations received no private HIV-related grants to support their work within this timeframe.  
  • Community-led research.  Fund community to lead and conduct research initiatives that will result in more accurate and context-appropriate data to fuel larger work and advocacy.
  • Organizational capacity and structure. Recognize that communities are already rich in capacity. What they lack is the appropriate resources and infrastructure needed to grow it.
  • Structural interventions. Allow for holistic approaches to help organizations address the multitude of evolving issues, epidemics, and political contexts that confront communities on a daily basis.

If this is not work your organization can currently fund, consider supporting participatory and community-rooted intermediary organizations that exist to do just this, such as the Red Umbrella Fund, the International Trans Fund or the Robert Carr Fund. Please note, there is no similar fund currently dedicated to supporting communities of people who use drugs.

I can’t deny that I left Montreal more than a little frustrated. We’ve been talking about the need to fund all of this work for so long. I was disheartened to hear, in such stark terms, that the talk has not resulted in enough action.

But this inaction is fueling us to act. This blog and graphic represent just the first chapter; this topic will continue to take center stage in FCAA’s future work. We are also excited to welcome the expertise and insight of intermediary organizations into our membership, to collaborate with them on our research, and continue to evolve our work to meet the needs of the HIV epidemic today.

In the meantime, we would love to hear from you. FCAA can’t and shouldn’t speak for community-based organizations, but we can provide a space for you to share your perspectives. Please tell us where funding has been most effective and where it’s still missing the mark. If you’re interested in sharing your story, please contact me at [email protected].

Thank you to MPact, and to the organizations that joined us in this invaluable conversation: Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers (APNSW), GATE, Global Network of Sex Worker Projects, International Network of People who Use Drugs, Ishtar MSM, Jamaican Network of Seropositives, Kenyan Sex Worker Association, Lighthouse and Rainbow Street.

I truly hope that when we all meet again in two years – hopefully in the Global South, where all our colleagues are allowed to join us – that we have begun to change this narrative in earnest.  

[1] Often referred to as key populations, FCAA’s own research definition includes gay men/men who have sex with men, people who use drugs, transgender people, sex workers, and general LGBTQ communities. We also recommend reading more on how the Robert Carr Fund defines inadequately served populations, “as populations facing a high HIV risk, mortality and/or morbidity compared to the general population, and, at the same time, facing systematic human rights violations and barriers to information and services.”

[2] This analysis, based off of the past three years of FCAA’s signature resource tracking reports, does not include public sector or government funding (including Global Fund or PEPFAR), nor does it include resources from The Robert Carr Fund, often the only source of funding for regional networks. Finally, these organizations may also receive funding that has been anonymized for safety and security reasons, and thus, is not included here.