Inside Philanthropy - The Firelight Foundation’s HIV/AIDS Grantmaking: Three Takeaways

Originally published by Inside Philanthropy, written by Sue-Lynn Moses

Global funding for HIV/AIDS causes, both on the governmental and nongovernmental level, has suffered some rather serious blows in recent years. It’s not all bad news here, as viable treatment options have improved and become more affordable, access to treatment has increased globally, AIDS related deaths are decreasing, and the number of children under five dying from HIV has declined. However, a huge monkey wrench in all of this forward progress is the fact that the overall rate of new HIV infections—while decreasing globally—isn’t falling fast enough.

This isn’t old news, and it hasn’t exactly set the HIV/AIDS funding world on fire. But big groups like amfAR and Gates are moving money at a relatively steady pace to support all manner of HIV/AIDS related projects from mounting major global awareness campaigns to investing hundreds of millions of dollars to find a cure.

Though their work may be overshadowed by the behemoth funders in this space, smaller funders like the California-based Firelight Foundation are also doing their part here—often by mounting a multipronged attack on the grassroots level. Here are some key takeaways about Firelights HIV/AIDS grantmaking.

Children area top priority.

At Firelight, children aren’t only a top priority in terms of its HIV/AIDS funding, they are top priority foundation wide. It’s important to note here that the foundation doesn’t ignore everyone else affected by HIV/AIDS, and states on its website that it’s focused on “creating conditions in which children, youth, and families who are at risk, living with or affected by HIV can thrive.” It’s just that across all of its giving programs, which include Health, Education, Resilience, and Livelihoods, kids take precedence.

Grassroots groups are a funding favorites.

Firelight is a modest funder and doesn’t award grants anywhere near the level of Gates or amfAR. Given the size disparity, that’s no surprise. Here’s the thing, though: grassroots groups can be incredibly effective with those modest grant funds—and Firelight is aware of that fact. This is evidenced in the foundation’s affinity for backing community-led outfits. Peter Laugharn, the foundation’s former executive director (now president of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation once explained: “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."

It doesn’t shy away from risk.

This sometimes comes with the territory when supporting small, grassroots groups with limited resources and small budgets—which doesn’t often leave room for monitoring and research activities. Firelight is willing to take what may be viewed by others as risky bets in its HIV/AIDS grantmaking by backing groups with unproven or basic strategic approaches. That being said, Firelight conducts its due diligence when selecting grantees. Meaning, it won’t throw its support behind an organization that looks good on paper but doesn’t have the leadership, community support, and a solid strategy (even if it’s basic) to back it up.