A Conversation with Tom Viola and Funders Concerned About AIDS

As longtime supporter of Funders Concerned About AIDS, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS is proud to share this post from FCAA’s 30th anniversary blog series. Funders Concerned About AIDS mobilizes the leadership, ideas and resources of funders. Its blog series is highlighting organizations that have been on the front lines of funding the fight since its earliest days. The installment features a conversation with Tom Viola, our executive director.

“HIV/AIDS has always created or reinforced economic hardship. It magnifies issues of poverty, absence of decent, affordable health care, lack of job opportunity, homelessness, hunger and a fraying network of resources.”
 

How did Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS originally join the fight against HIV and AIDS?

In 1988, with many of its own members facing dire circumstances, the Council of Actors’ Equity, the union for actors and stage managers, set out to fight HIV and AIDS within its own community. Equity Fights AIDS was created as a committee of Actors’ Equity. The group was tasked with mobilizing the unique abilities of the entertainment industry to address the suffering of individuals affected by the epidemic by funding the support offered by the then new AIDS Initiative program of The Actors Fund. At the same time — shortly after the death of director and choreographer, Michael Bennett, from AIDS — a group of producers joined together to establish Broadway Cares, mobilizing funds and providing grants to then fledgling and often struggling AIDS service organizations in New York City and other large urban areas – some of the locations that were heaviest hit by the epidemic.

At the insistence of Broadway Cares’ then executive director, Rodger McFarlane, the two organizations chose not to compete. Instead, we traded and shared turf for maximum impact. We worked closely for four years; so much so that by the time Rodger and I proposed a merger in 1992, many people thought we were, in fact, one and the same. Equity Fights AIDS and Broadway Cares merged, officially becoming a new 501C3, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, and assuming the grant making missions of both entities: ongoing support for the social service programs of The Actors Fund and allocating resources across the country though the National Grants Program.
 

What and whom does Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS fund?

Since 1988, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS has awarded more than $190 million in grants to more than 450 AIDS and family service organizations through its National Grants Program. It is also the largest single funder of The Actors Fund, the social service agency that acts as the employee assistance program of the entertainment industry.

In 2016 alone, $5.6 million was awarded to The Actors’ Fund with an additional $6.6 million given through the National Grants Program in all 50 states, Washington, DC and Puerto Rico. These grants are awarded through three distinct grant rounds each year:
 

  • Through the food service and meal delivery programs, more than $1.9 million to 117 providers was awarded in January.
  • Our second round, awarded in March, goes to health clinics, the largest urban AIDS service providers, and national advocacy organizations. This year, we provided $880,000 in grants to 42 agencies.
  • June is our largest round of funding. Grants are awarded across four categories: direct services, emergency assistance, harm reduction and quality of life programs. In 2017, $2.1 million was awarded to 302 agencies and those checks are going out right now.

 

Many of the organizations funded across the country by BC/EFA have expanded their missions to include not only people with AIDS, but those with other debilitating illnesses. So, our support reaches more deeply into many neighborhoods and communities – inner city, urban, rural and suburban. Through these grants, BC/EFA promotes public support through education, fighting stigma, promoting testing and connection to treatment, and building awareness. Full service, I’d say!
 

What are the biggest challenges you see facing the fight right now?

The challenge is keeping people engaged when they feel like HIV/AIDS is no longer an issue. We know, of course, that is not the case. But the idea of AIDS exceptionalism, which drove the desire to do something in the late 80s and into the 90s, has changed. Today, HIV/AIDS is seen as one of many contributing factors that allow people to become isolated, disadvantaged or left behind. We have to expand outreach beyond a singular issue.

If you think about the challenge of stigma, that, too, has morphed over time. When we first started fundraising in the theatre community, it was a tragic concern. As in many populations, people in our theatrical family and community were dying horrible deaths all around us. At the same time, people were facing terrific opposition, a lack of services, and institutionalized hatred from the government, church and others who might have had the ability and resources to respond. Thankfully, in many ways that has changed. But, today, we are facing a more insidious stigma, particularly in communities of color and even in the gay community itself. Quiet, callous disdain persists and people are still crippled by shame.

In addition, the linkages between AIDS and poverty have become more entrenched. The disease has become part of the overall fabric of living with a lack of services and resources – being disconnected from the rest of the community, vulnerable to addiction, and experiencing job loss. Issues related to health care are significantly challenged and the current Republican administration and Congress are dismantling social services.
 

How has expanding the mission of your organization impacted the way you reach out to your stakeholders?

Even in the early days, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS structured our “ask” not as a public service announcement, but as an opportunity for people to do something kind, embodying a generosity of spirit. We offer both the folks making “an appeal” and those responding to it a way to express gratitude for, and share some of their good fortune. We offer them the ability to reach others who are ignored or without access to the same resources, influence and power.

We also feel a responsibility to reflect the emotional state of our stakeholders, Broadway and the American theatre community. So, we keep our ear to the ground as to what the theatre community wants; what it is engaged or emotionally moved by at any one time. It might, for instance, be responding to a natural disaster, social justice concerns or any number of issues that fall outside the AIDS foundation of our mission.

If we made grants strictly to AIDS-oriented organizations — if we hadn’t expanded our mission beyond that — we wouldn’t continue to be effective. By expanding our grant-making reach to others, our ability to fundraise has grown in a way that maintains our historic dedication to those living with HIV/AIDS and the organizations that serve them. I truly believe, without expanding Broadway Cares’ embrace, we would have stumbled and become less effective in reaching our original mission. Today, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS is committed to strengthening the entire social safety net, not just a single thread of it. We do that with a renewed dedication to the welfare of those living with HIV/AIDS.
 

What makes Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS unique as an HIV/AIDS funder?

Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS is fortunate for the support we have from many donors, particularly through our major donor program and Leadership Council, who are deeply connected to our mission. We are equally fortunate to have those who respond to our appeals, auctions and events; people who are primarily engaged by their love of Broadway and an opportunity to connect with the theatre community.

The organization is unique as a national fundraiser in that it draws upon the talents, resources and generosity of the American theatre community — from theatre owners, management and unions to celebrities, the working rank and file and, of course, fans eager to be a part of a theater experience — in ways that few other organizations can. Extraordinary support from all levels of “the business” enables Broadway Cares to raise money in fun, unique and highly effective ways.

We have to ensure that those in the theatre community, who have been so deeply and generously engaged with us as fundraisers, feel that they are a valued part of our ability to make a difference. At the same time, we must ensure that those who respond to our appeals feel valued, too. The most important two words that we say each day are not “you must,” “fight back” or “would you.” They are “thank you.”

Our strength comes from thousands upon thousands of individual acts of courage, kindness and commitment, which we can then turn into grants of $2,500 to $35,000 and more. It is the appeals to individuals — people who are responding to an actor they admire or buying a signed poster of The Phantom of the Opera, The Lion King or School of Rock – The Musical; meeting the stars of Hamilton, Dear Evan Hansen or Aladdin; bidding on a walk-on part in Kinky Boots, Wicked or Chicago — that allow us to be successful. We harness the excitement around theatre, offering an experience, an insider’s view or an event that people would not otherwise have.

The desire of all of our stakeholders to engage with us is very much based on emotion, not policy and statistics. And, if we are successful, millions of dollars are raised and hundreds of thousands of lives will be uplifted, made more safe and even saved.
 
Where can data tracking be supportive to the mission of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS?

FCAA’s resource tracking data is an extraordinary repository of information. It’s great to see a collection of data in one place that we would not otherwise be able to access. It helps me to keep BC/EFA’s board engaged with the mission and to identify what other organizations may see as trends in funding.

I especially like how the report has dug deeper into the gathered statistic and expanded the past few years. The layout and design is terrific, as well, enhancing and helping to clarify the wealth of information collected each year.

In some ways, it feels like FCAA has been a part of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS; we’ve grown alongside one another.

“…I do appreciate the work that FCAA does in reporting and verifying the grant making we all are doing. It’s very important for people – fundraisers and donors alike – to understand where all this money goes and how it’s put to work, and that it’s indeed having an impact.” – Tom Viola

Learn about Broadway Cares’ National Grants Program