Toronto
6 min

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Will Toronto's two leading AIDS service organizations become one?

BUILDING SUSPENSE. ACT's executive director Lori Lucier and board co-chair Evan Collins, along with TPWAF's interim executive director John Miller and board chair Bob Sirman, await the decision of the two organizations' memberships. Credit: Tony Fong

On Tue, Sep 14, members of the Toronto People With AIDS Foundation (TPWAF) and the AIDS Committee Of Toronto (ACT) will be casting their ballots in two separate votes to decide whether they’ll be amalgamating to form a new and, hopefully, improved AIDS service organization.



While some members fear that the project could turn into a case of the big fish eating the little fish, there’s the hope that the negotiations themselves will be an adrenaline shot to both organizations.



“One of the things that we hoped this process would do is reenergize the AIDS movement,” says Evan Collins, co-chair of ACT’s board of directors. “In my view, the passion had gone out of the AIDS movement, so by doing this and having people come out and express their passion and their commitment to their organization is a wonderful thing. We have to acknowledge that no matter which way the vote goes.”



Specifics of the would-be merger were presented at an Aug 5 meeting, held at the 519 Community Centre. Collins and Bob Sirman, co-chairs of the joint task force investigating the possibility, outlined what the new organization would look like: a single executive director and a single board overseeing the delivery of all of each organization’s programs and services – and then some.



The proposed vision statement, mission statement and values statement were presented for the new organization (see sidebar this page). It was reported that from a legal/due diligence standpoint there was nothing to prevent the two organizations from merging and that the financial risk assessment had indicated a merger would ultimately result in savings for the combined organization.



(Sadly, a proposed name was not one of the details revealed at the meeting; the combined organization is temporarily being referred to as TPWAF-ACT.)



As far as jobs and programming goes, the task force was clear about making sure certain things don’t change. “There is a protection of the full-time equivalent positions as of Apr 1, 2004,” says Sirman, who is also TPWAF’s board chair. “Whatever positions were in the organization, those staff are having their positions guaranteed. It’s not a layoff situation at all.”



“We’ve committed that we’re going to maintain all the programs and services of the two organizations,” says Collins, “and then work toward, with the cost savings, enhancing and adding on extra programs.”



Although there hasn’t been a dollar figure placed on the value of the merger, long-term savings resulting from the eliminated ED and financial officer salaries, shared administrative costs, etc are thought to far outweigh initial costs associated with the merger. The task force found that a conservative estimate would allow for at least three new full-time equivalent frontline service providers to be hired with the current levels of funding.



“I think they made a lot of promises at the meeting,” says Janet Rowe, executive director of Voices Of Positive Women. “‘We’re going to increase staff, we’re going to not cut programs….’ Those are almost election promises. What I haven’t seen is how are [they] going to do that. Exactly what will that look like?”



Collins agrees that there’s still a lot to be hammered out. “I think a vision, mission and values statement is a really good start. But then there will have to be a more formal needs assessment and strategic plan put in place that will allow the specifics of the programs and services and the organizational structure to unfold,” says Collins. “We’ve committed to making improvements but we can’t commit to what that will exactly look like without having the mandate to go forward.”



Another concern for Rowe is the role of people with HIV and AIDS (PHAs) in the new agency. “HIV-positive people should be at the forefront of [the organization] and it should be a goal that you set very clear targets in terms of your staffing and volunteer base,” she says.



Sirman responds that the very first of the values set out for the new organization is the “commitment to involvement of people living with HIV/AIDS.” He says by-laws shouldn’t concern specifics such as hiring practices.



“Neither of these organizations [ACT or TPWAF] has had a legal requirement to date for their staff to be PHAs and yet both of them have a long and proud history. It has to do with values. It doesn’t have to do with legal guidelines, I don’t think.”



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The possibility that TPWAF and ACT amalgamate was first raised in the fall of 2002 when both groups were negotiating the renewal of their respective leases at 399 Church St, the office building they share at the corner of Church and Carlton. At that time, TPWAF’s board suggested that the two groups look into ways that they could collaborate. They designated a joint task force to look into the possibilities. Last January, after preliminary consultations with stakeholders and the consideration of various collaborative models, a decision was made to study amalgamation in particular.



There are mixed feelings as to whether a combined organization will be able to maintain ACT and TPWAF’s respective strengths while minimizing their weaknesses.



ACT is the largest AIDS service organization in Canada with a 2003/’04 budget of almost $2,800,000, 41 staff members and more than 1,800 clients. It runs programs aimed at reducing HIV-infection rates including public education campaigns and community outreach, as well as providing direct support to PHAs.



On the other hand, TPWAF is more of a grassroots organization that focusses on practical support to PHAs, including financial planning, help signing up for Ontario’s Trillium Drug Plan and wellness initiatives like massage therapy. With a 2003 budget of $1,344,561, it has 18 employees and more than 6,000 clients.



One of the primary concerns is that ACT, the larger and wealthier of the two agencies, will dominate when it comes to setting the joint agenda.



“I’m anti-merger,” says TPWAF volunteer K Theory Jhanes. “That opinion is not going to change. I do not want the organizations to merge. If that is the best result for the clients and the organizations, great. I’m there for the clients [but] I won’t be happy working for such a large organization. I very much like the hands-on, homey feel that we have at our organization.”



But Sirman is confident that’s not going to happen. “I think that PWA has an extremely strong culture and it delivers far more direct services than ACT. Some of the scale of ACT has to do with… its very strong, successful development arm and its very successful public communications campaign for prevention and public education. That’s not going to swallow up the programs of actually serving people who are PHAs. I don’t see that at all.”



Sirman is more concerned with how TPWAF could keep up on its own. “The community is not standing still,” says Sirman. “The number of clients that we’re trying to serve is growing faster than the resources that we have. So we’ve got to find a way to get this message out with new energy.”



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To be eligible to vote on Tue, Sep 14, voters must have been members of either or both organizations for at least 30 days (which means if you join now you won’t be getting a ballot). Proxy voting is available (one proxy will be sent out to each voting member 10 days before the decision; they have to be back by 5pm the day before the meeting).



The joint meeting will take place at The 519, but voting itself will be separate. On Tue, Sep 14, members will register and receive their ballots. There will then be a presentation, a question and answer period, and then the resolution will be read. Although the actual wording of the question hasn’t yet been decided, the question itself is clear: yes or no to amalgamation.



The proposal needs the support of two-thirds of the members from each agency in order to pass. If it passes, both boards will sign the agreement to merge and the new organization would come into being on the first day of October.



Anyone who is a member of either TPWAF or ACT will automatically be a member of the new agency. A transitional board of directors would look after things for the first year and would consist of 15 members, five from each organization, who have already been named, plus an additional five more to be recruited by these. Four of the 10 predetermined board members are out as HIV-positive.



Other changes, says Sirman, such as streamlining of IT systems, will happen gradually over the next year or so.



“I think the clients will benefit in two potential ways,” says Collins. “There’ll be ultimately more services and more frontline staff, and secondly clients will benefit because we will go through this change exercise and, from top to bottom, evaluate how we deliver services and ask ourselves whether there are ways we can do it differently.”



On the other hand, if the nays win, each organization will carry on with the work they’ve been doing for the past 20 years. But even if they aren’t destined to merge, the process of considering the amalgamation is expected to have a positive outcome.



“It’s almost certain that there will be a closer working relationship in the future even if the vote is no because there has been so much communication both at the staff and board level between these two organizations, much more than in the past,” says Sirman. “It’s almost certain that there would be some kind of positive benefit coming from that, but what new relationships might exist I couldn’t say.”