Yesterday's Dread Disease Is Still Today's Top Priority for This Foundation

Let’s do a little time travel, shall we? Let’s go back to the early nineties: New Kids on the Block and Michael Jackson on the radio, eyeglasses the size of windshields, leotards and neon shoelaces, Bill Clinton for President, and the AIDS crisis.

Is it coming back to you now? AIDS was a death sentence. As people all over the world, including celebrities, succumbed to the disease, the medical community scrambled to understand the viruses’ mechanism, and to create treatments. In the early years, practically nothing could be done.

“On so many levels, people were taking whatever kinds of treatments they could,” says Scott Campbell, Executive Director of the Elton John AIDS Foundation, which stepped into the fray in 1992. There was a huge urgency to do something

But with the introduction of protease inhibitors in 1995 and 1996, AIDS mortality in the developed world plummeted—and the urgency for finding a cure evaporated with it. “You see a huge drop in AIDS as issue in the media, and with it, a drop in contributions across the board,” says Campbell. Beyond a declining overall death toll, one reason for the retreat of AIDS from the public eye was the lack of prominent cases.

But while the public moved on to other issues, and some funders also lost interest in AIDS (particularly in rich countries), the Elton Johns AIDS foundation stayed on the issue, plugging along doing the gritty, unglamorous work needed to prevent new AIDS infections.

Gritty is the operative word. New HIV infections have receded to the periphery of American life, to the most underprivileged, marginalized populations. New cases happen in prisons, and in brothels, and among those who inject drugs. It’s at the point, says Campbell, when the AIDS issue is inextricably tied to other societal issues like poverty and racial inequality. “The problems are intersectional,” says Campbell. “If [your organization] says it’s interested in poverty but you’re not talking about HIV, then I don’t think you’re that interested in poverty, you know?”

Breaking barriers and getting funders to consider contributing to winning the AIDS war is all part of a good day’s work for Campbell. And it’s that "bootstraps" quality that gives EJAF a level of empathy that isn’t always obvious at bigger foundations. “At the end of the day, EJAF is not an endowed foundation. We’re only as successful as the amount of funds we can raise each year,” says Campbell. “That keeps us in touch with the challenges that all these people are facing.”

EJAF has raised more than $300 million for HIV/AIDS work over the past 22 years, and gives out about $7 million in grants to more than 120 organizations every year, with a big focus in the U.S. and the Caribbean. 

Not along ago, the EJAF announced $1 million to $1.5 million in grants available within the LGBTQ Community Initiative, which seeks to bring together LGBTQ organizations working to confront the AIDS crisis.

Up to $75,000 is available for local, state, or regional work, and up to $300,000 is available for national-scale projects through this program. Though a June 12 deadline was initially set, EJAF says the program is still open to accepting LOIs.