4 min

Coup d’état at AIDS Vancouver

New directors cut ties to AIDS BC Foundation

Credit: Photo courtesy AIDS BC Foundation

The storm raging through the AIDS community is gathering force. Two weeks ago, a take-over on AIDS Vancouver’s board of directors rocked this city’s oldest AIDS service organization and resulted in an immediate and profound change in course.

Just three days later, AIDS Vancouver cut its ties to its much-criticized fundraising affiliate, the new AIDS BC Foundation (ABCF).

The ABCF has been the source of tremendous concern in the AIDS community ever since it opened for business in August. Many people say the ABCF has been misrepresenting itself as a sector-wide fundraiser when it is really just an arm of AIDS Vancouver.

Until now, AIDS Vancouver has not only been the ABCF’s sole client; it also provided the seed money for the foundation’s creation, held three seats on its board of directors and is named as the ABCF’s beneficiary in the event that it folds.

But Thomas Esakin, the ABCF’s executive director, told Xtra West last month that the two organizations are separate entities and that the ABCF’s long-term goals include serving the entire AIDS sector, not just AIDS Vancouver.

The sector was not convinced. Neither, apparently, were the majority of staff and directors at AIDS Vancouver itself.

At its Nov 26 board meeting, AIDS Vancouver dissolved its old board of directors and put an interim one in its place. Media liaison Rick Barnes won’t say much more than that. He will only confirm that the move was unplanned. But he won’t say why it occurred nor what exactly took place.

Alan Fetherstonhaugh, chair of the ABCF’s board of trustees, is more forthcoming. “There has been a coup d’état,” he says bluntly. “The staff [at AIDS Vancouver] was against the creation of the foundation.”

AIDS Vancouver caved into the community’s pressure and pulled out, adds a Dec 3 press release from the ABCF.

On Nov 29, with new directors in place, AIDS Vancouver sent a “cease and desist” letter to the ABCF, pulling the plug on its one-year contract with the foundation eight months early.

Barnes won’t say what exactly is in the letter, but he will confirm that it terminated AIDS Vancouver’s relationship with the ABCF. “We do not want them raising money or representing our agency in any shape or fashion.”

Valerie Atyeo, executive director at AIDS Vancouver, has very little to add. She says she can’t discuss the specific grounds for terminating the contract prematurely because there are confidential, legal issues at stake.

Fetherstonhaugh says AIDS Vancouver has failed to demonstrate just cause for breaking its contract with the ABCF. He alleges that the real issue lies with statistical irregularities at AIDS Vancouver that ABCF employees may have been preparing to disclose. The ABCF is considering legal action against AIDS Vancouver, he adds.

Neither Barnes nor Atyeo returned Xtra West’s follow-up calls, so they never got a chance to respond to Fetherstonhaugh’s accusations.

Wherever the truth lies regarding the reasons for severing the contract, the question remains: can the ABCF survive without the support and patronage of its sole client and creator, AIDS Vancouver?

Early indicators suggest that the answer is no.

The day after the ABCF received word of its severed contract, its media liaison changed her voicemail. “Unfortunately, effective Nov 30, the AIDS BC Foundation is no longer operational,” Lara Skibinski’s message told callers for a couple of days, before the voicemail box was removed from service altogether. “Should you wish further information please contact Valerie Atyeo.”

After weeks of spokespeople for both organizations denying that AIDS Vancouver controls the ABCF, Skibinski’s instruction to call Atyeo reinforced some critics’ perception that the ABCF is not a separate entity, after all.

That’s not true, retorts Atyeo. The ABCF is a separate organization, she says, adding that it is “very improper” of Skibinski to direct inquiries about the ABCF to AIDS Vancouver.

Atyeo claims that she is no more knowledgeable about the ABCF’s activities than those of the rest of BC’s AIDS groups.

Fetherstonhaugh is not so sure. When asked if he thinks the two agencies really are separate, he replies, “yes and no.”

He points to AIDS Vancouver’s three reserved seats on the ABCF’s board of trustees, for starters. (Though with the changes to AIDS Vancouver’s board, including its new chair and treasurer, the ABCF just lost two of its three AIDS Vancouver trustees, since they no longer fulfill the foundation’s bylaws. That means the ABCF is now down to the minimum number of board members, three, required to function legally under the BC Society Act.)

Legally, the two organizations are separate, Fetherstonhaugh continues, but practically there is a significant amount of overlap.

Not only was AIDS Vancouver, until now, the ABCF’s sole client; it also provided the seed money for the foundation’s creation and shared office space with the foundation on W10th St.

Moreover, the ABCF also relied on AIDS Vancouver’s accounting services, including its payroll services, and used its office equipment and furniture, Fetherstonhaugh continues.

And that’s not all.

Fetherstonhaugh says AIDS Vancouver not only got three reserved seats on the ABCF’s board of trustees-it appointed the rest of the trustees, too.

He should know. He says he was asked earlier this year by the old AIDS Vancouver board to sit on the ABCF’s board as an outside representative. “The original [ABCF] board members were approved by the board of AIDS Vancouver,” Fetherstonhaugh says.

Since Barnes and Atyeo would not return Xtra West’s follow-up calls, they could not respond to these allegations, either.

As for AIDS Vancouver getting the ABCF’s assets in the event that the foundation folds, Fetherstonhaugh says that’s kind of a moot point right now. The ABCF has no assets, he explains. All it owns are a couple of pens and pencils. “Everything else [already] belongs to AIDS Vancouver.”

Whether the two organizations are separate or not, the acting chair of the BC Persons with AIDS Society says he’s just glad the ABCF is folding.

It’s a big relief, says Malsah, who only goes by one name. But his relief remains tempered with caution.

The ABCF can’t just disappear, Fetherstonhaugh confirms. It is a registered society, with loose ends to resolve.

That means the foundation could still be resurrected, Malsah warns. “We need to keep an eye on it.”

Eric Ages, administrator of the Pacific AIDS Network, says Malsah’s cautious relief seems to be pervasive within the AIDS community right now. The ABCF “caused an enormous amount of anxiety,” he says.

Malsah may be willing to put some of that anxiety behind him soon. He says some of his faith has already been restored in AIDS Vancouver by the organization’s recent actions.

“A resignation by an entire board is quite an event,” Malsah says. “They tried to stop the Frankenstein.”