4 min

Just a cash grab?

New AIDS foundation charged with misrepresenting itself

Credit: Robin Perelle

There’s an uproar raging through the AIDS community. At its heart lies a new fundraising foundation that some people say is misrepresenting itself in order to siphon money away from the majority of BC’s AIDS groups-and into the coffers of its creator, AIDS Vancouver.

The new AIDS BC Foundation (ABCF) describes itself as a collaborative fundraiser modeled after the United Way, which raises money for a variety of charities then redistributes the wealth. But a number of AIDS groups in BC say that image doesn’t apply here.

That image is a lie, charges Glen Hillson, chair of BC’s Persons with AIDS Society (BCPWA).

It’s not a joint effort at all, he says. It “exists solely for the purpose of raising money for AIDS Vancouver.”

The ABCF’s executive director denies the charge. The foundation plans to serve every AIDS organization in BC, Thomas Esakin says. Just because AIDS Vancouver provided the seed money for the new foundation, doesn’t mean the ABCF will focus solely on its creator.

A look at the ABCF’s constitution suggests otherwise. Among its chief purposes: to promote, “through grants and other financial assistance, programs for the diagnosis, control, treatment and care of AIDS… undertaken by the Vancouver AIDS Society.”

There’s more to the ABCF than that, Esakin insists. The ABCF is launching two separate fundraising streams, he explains. One is for paying clients, including AIDS Vancouver, who can afford to hire the foundation for its fundraising services. The other is a sector-wide endowment fund-but that project won’t be launched until 2004 and its beneficiaries have yet to be determined.

Right now, AIDS Vancouver is not only the ABCF’s creator, but its sole client, as well.

Esakin has high hopes for the endowment fund, though. He says it will likely raise more money for the AIDS sector as a whole than the existing AIDS groups could ever raise working independently.

Private donors prefer one-stop shopping, Esakin explains. They tend to give more money to one big group representing a lot of little groups, than to 60 little groups each asking on their own. “It’s purely about trying to raise the most money possible” to benefit everyone in this age of shrinking government funds, he says.

Hillson doesn’t buy it. And he’s not alone. Eric Ages, the administrator of the Pacific AIDS Network (PAN), says at least a third of the network’s 59 members are very concerned about the new foundation, too.

“[The ABCF] is a thinly veiled attempt by AIDS Vancouver to corner the market on fundraising across the province,” Hillson maintains. “It’s pure, unmitigated greed.”

That’s not true, argues Stephen Smith, a director at AIDS Vancouver. “It’s definitely not AIDS Vancouver’s intention to take money away from the rest of the sector,” he says.

It’s not the foundation’s intention, either, Esakin says. The foundation is not just an arm of AIDS Vancouver; it is “a separate, stand-alone entity.”

Hillson is far from convinced. What about AIDS Vancouver’s three reserved seats on the ABCF’s board of directors? he asks. No other group holds that privilege.

The ABCF’s constitution reserves three out of seven seats on its board of directors for AIDS Vancouver’s chair, treasurer and one other representative.

Why not just rename the ABCF the AIDS Vancouver Foundation? Ages asks, echoing a suggestion made by several PAN members.

Smith insists that the AIDS Vancouver representatives on the ABCF’s board don’t have enough power to set the foundation’s agenda. It’s just three out of seven seats, he says, that’s not a majority. “AIDS Vancouver is not actually running the foundation.”

When asked why it was necessary to reserve the three seats in the first place, Smith says AIDS Vancouver knew it would be a major client of the foundation so it wanted to “protect its investment.”

But “they are a separate agency now,” he insists.

Three months into its existence, one seat remains vacant on the ABCF’s board. That means the AIDS Vancouver representatives actually hold three out of six seats, or 50 percent of the vote.

“Technically, legally, that’s still a minority position,” Esakin says.

Hillson is hardly reassured. AIDS Vancouver is running that show, he maintains. And that means it has a lot of power to decide important things such as how the foundation represents itself to potential donors and who will get money from the endowment fund once it’s up and running.

Hillson is also concerned about the section of the foundation’s constitution which leaves all its assets to AIDS Vancouver (or its successors) in the event that it folds.

Esakin says that’s because AIDS Vancouver provided all the start-up money for the foundation. If the ABCF folds tomorrow, that’s AIDS Vancouver’s money, he explains.

But once the endowment fund exists, it would be inappropriate to leave all that money to AIDS Vancouver, he hastens to add. The constitution will probably have to be changed once the endowment fund gets some money, he speculates.

Many PAN members remain leery. Ages says their distrust stems partly from the lack of consultation surrounding the ABCF’s creation. Despite all its claims of collaboration, “the foundation arrived on the landscape without any consultation at all with our members,” he says.

“If this is the way this agency collaborates then its future work does not bode very well,” Ages continues.

Smith admits that the consultation process was flawed. “I think people have valid concerns about not being consulted,” he says. “We made some mistakes. We didn’t clearly communicate our intentions with our community partners.”

When asked why AIDS Vancouver didn’t make a greater effort to consult the other groups in the sector, Smith says “there was a sense of urgency because of cuts coming through the health care system.”

Hillson remains unconvinced. “I believe this to be the most divisive event to have occurred in the BC AIDS movement in years,” he says.

Esakin disagrees. If anything, the foundation is getting back to the movement’s roots of community and collaboration, he says.

The other AIDS groups are just too accustomed to competing for resources to see the potential here to raise more money for everyone, he maintains. “This is just the maturing of the AIDS sector in British Columbia,” Esakin says.