INTERVIEW: The Elton John AIDS Foundation

Elton John Aids Foundation

Sir Elton John greeting guests.

Anne Aslett, director of the Elton John AIDS Foundation, speaks to Billionaire about the mission to eradicate AIDS for good.

The Elton John AIDS Foundation (EJAF) is considered one of the most successful and innovative private foundations today. When it was set up in the early 1990s by Sir Elton John, he pledged to the Hollywood community that he would hold an HIV/AIDS fundraising event every year until a cure had been found. Since then it has raised more than US$350 million to support prevention, treatment and support for victims of AIDS and HIV. Today, the bulk of funds still come from high-profile events such as the Academy Awards Viewing Party and the White Tie and Tiara Ball, backed by a glittering roster of patrons, including Elizabeth Hurley, Annie Lennox, Sting, Arpad Busson and Boris Becker.

Billionaire speaks to Anne Aslett, executive director of the Elton John AIDS Foundation.

Billionaire: What is it that makes the EJAF different to other foundations?
Anne Aslett: EJAF is a unique mix: we are a small operation so can be flexible and nimble in responding to new developments in the AIDS epidemic, but because of our founder and the advocacy work we do, we have very significant influence and access to policymakers, political leaders and international donors.

What specific achievements can the foundation point to that it is most proud of?
The foundation was one of the first charities to support HIV treatment for children in Africa. Our initial £500,000 grant to put 3,000 children on ARV medicine in central Kenya proved it could be done and helped catalyse much bigger support through UNITAID to expand paediatric ARV treatment. Since that grant in 2005, treatment coverage for children living with HIV has gone from less than one percent to 49 percent — an extraordinary expansion, saving hundreds of thousands of children’s lives. I’m also proud of the foundation’s track record in championing the groups who are most vulnerable to HIV but often the easiest to ignore: sex workers, drug users and the LGBT community. These are people for whom life is already incredibly difficult as they are often shamed and reviled by society. A current example of our work in this area would be the We The Brave campaign: the first ever national HIV information, testing and treatment campaign on the African continent for LGBT, in partnership with the South African Ministry of Health.

How has fundraising adapted over recent years?
The rise of philanthropists such as Bill and Melinda Gates has highlighted the use of evidence and data as the basis for development. This means that business principles can be as critical to funding a programme as ethics. At the foundation, we have developed alongside this trend, working hard to establish tools that track and measure what we do, at what cost, and sharing that with donors. By measuring the impact of what we do, we can quantify how we are contributing to the big global goal of ending AIDS.

What future initiatives are you working on?
We have just joined forces with the US government on a fund to support the LGBT community in 10 countries where homosexuality is illegal. In these instances, LGBT people are up to 20 times more vulnerable to HIV and less likely to get the right treatment. We want to stop them getting infected, and running the risk of passing HIV on to others. In the UK, we have just funded work within one of the busiest London hospitals, which also has the highest HIV catchment area in Europe. Our support has created a new service that will see hundreds of people, who are currently being missed through the system, being identified and treated for HIV, while saving the NHS millions.

How much are Elton John and David Furnish involved these days, and the other patrons?
Elton and David are more involved than ever. Elton has met with three heads of state over the past year and David has led panels with more than 20 business leaders for which he was nominated in the FT’s OUTstanding LGBT business leaders list. Both Elton and David will be travelling to Africa this year to see some of our work in the field again. David Walliams, who is a patron of the foundation, will be hosting the Woodside Gallery Dinner this week. Graham Norton, one of our trustees, represented the foundation at Life Ball in Vienna, which awarded €250,000 towards our work. Annie Lennox, Victoria Beckham and Lord Waheed Alli have all donated their time to visiting projects, meeting with beneficiaries and donors and keeping the HIV fight on the public agenda.

Can you talk about some recent collaborations with other high-profile celebrities?
In May we launched a new partnership with Lady Gaga — a fabulous clothing collection for young people called Love Bravery, which is currently available at Macy’s stores across the US and online. AIDS is the second-leading cause of death for young people aged 10-19 years around the world. Part of the funds raised from Love Bravery will be used by the foundation to support adolescents needing treatment for HIV.

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