Firelight Foundation Strikes at HIV/AIDS from the Ground Up

While great strides have been made in recent years in the war against HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa, much of that work has been top-down, brought about by international organizations importing medicines, physicians, and treatment models. The Firelight Foundation in Santa Cruz, California, is one of a handful of funders willing to underwrite the work of small, grassroots, community-based organizations addressing the needs of young people orphaned or infected by HIV/AIDS. 

Firelight's executive director, Peter Laugharn, explained that Firelight's approach grew organically when the impact of the pandemic was first apparent in Africa: "We saw programs flood the region, almost all of which were based in Western Europe or North America. But we didn't see much that was sustainable, or at least understandable to the communities these programs were trying to reach. We realized that the best solutions would inevitably rise up from the communities themselves."

The foundation makes small grants, usually for less than $10,000, to indigenous organizations, some with modest budgets and even more modest infrastructures. Working with low overheads in repressed economies, Firelight's grantees stretch these small grants to create results that are both impressive and sustainable. One group in Zambia, for example, is able to provide mobile HIV testing and diagnostic services to an entire province lacking any medical facilities. Another partner in Zimbabwe has used Firelight's grant to house 200 AIDS orphans in family-style configurations headed by grandparents who themselves have lost children to HIV.

Related: Firelight Foundation: Grants for Global Health

"Most traditional funders find it risky to support groups they cannot readily monitor or whose program models are really very basic," said Laugharn. "I think in the end, though, we need to trust the communities themselves to find the right solutions that work within their social and cultural contexts. Any solutions we try to impose from outside are less likely to be embraced, and so are less likely to be sustainable."

Firelight reflects a growing trend among international donors to direct their funds to "bottom-up" programs. Intermediary grantmakers such as the Global Fund for Women, Global Greengrants, and American Jewish World Service have fueled this evolution through clearly defined granting guidelines emphasizing small but effective community organizations that have garnered increasing attention in philanthropic circles. And now larger grantmakers such as the MacArthur Foundation and the McKnight Foundation are exploring ways to develop programs of support for indigenous community organizations within their areas of interest.

Clearly there is a need for massive programs that pump financial and medical resources into areas afflicted by HIV/AIDS. The work of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for example, has had an immense effect in mitigating the impact of the disease, reducing infection rates, and educating an entire generation about prevention. But this broad-brush work is increasingly complemented by the less-visible efforts of community-based groups that rebuild lives one at a time with minimal resources and maximal care and compassion.