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An In-Depth Look at Elton’s Foundation
Posted by editor_usa

Tuesday 26
December 2006 @ 17:26

Elton says he is motivated to raise money by those who ”don’t get a fair crack at the wheel.”

He adds that if he can do anything to alter that scenario, ”as long as I live, I’m willing to do that.”

These thoughts and others are behind his involvement in HIV/AIDS issues, are depicted in this reprint of the November 9, 2006 edition of The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

Charity on a Grand Scale

The rock star Elton John raises millions of dollars to fight AIDS

by Grant Williams

Elton made his name as a rock superstar, and earned international celebrity, by wearing outrageous costumes on stage and releasing a string of massively popular hit records that became pop-music classics.

As a philanthropist, however, his approach has been much more sober. Although he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1998 for his contributions to charity, the Elton John AIDS Foundation, which has organisations in the United States and Britain, has quietly raised nearly $120 million and has supported programs in 55 countries.

“There are other people in my business Bono, for example who are great, who go around and talk to heads of state. But I haven’t got the gift of gab,” says Elton. “I’m easier making the money, doing the funds, going ’round, and just keeping my head below the parapet.”

Sir Elton’s organisation strives to support innovative education programs to prevent HIV/AIDS and fight prejudice against people with the disease, while also helping people with HIV/AIDS.

Unusual Approach

The group is unconventional in many respects. It has been willing to bless emerging groups that have otherwise struggled to win financial support, and it has given money to help people often overlooked by mainstream philanthropy, such as gay men and women in rural America and truckers in India.

In South Africa, it has provided money for a program that encourages “traditional healers” who use old-style African remedies (sometimes combined with Western medicines) to spot symptoms of HIV/AIDS and refer people to clinics.

While the group’s expenditures pale in comparison with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and many others, philanthropic observers say the Elton John AIDS Foundation has carved out a crucial role.

“The Gates money tends to be used for major scientific innovations and to drive the search for a vaccine, to undertake massive programs of prevention, whereas the Elton John money is used at the grass roots on the ground, which most dramatically affects the lives people lead in fact, keeps people alive,” says Stephen Lewis, the United Nations special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa. “Both approaches are required.”

Former President Bill Clinton, whose foundation has received money from Elton’s organisation to help stop the spread of AIDS among children in Kenya, says the musician “brings fame, credibility, and impact,” to the battle against AIDS, providing “attention and resources to an issue that has long been in desperate need of both. In addition, Elton brings a wealth of compassion to the struggle.”

Creative Fund Raiser

The Elton John Foundation is fueled mainly by contributions that he plays a key role in raising himself.

The 59-year-old pours his creativity into his fund raising, hosting celebrity-filled galas full of glitz and glamour, and last year offered himself in the Neiman Marcus holiday catalog, promising to perform for 90 minutes for anyone willing to provide $1.5-million to the foundation.

While many of the foundation’s fund-raising events are expensive to stage, such as its annual party during the Academy Awards, Elton says he makes a point of getting corporate donors and wealthy people to underwrite the costs so that the organization can keep most of the proceeds.

Sir Elton is himself a donor to the organisation, writing checks and directing revenue from recordings and concerts. He has not said publicly how much money his gifts amount to.

In addition to supporting the Elton John AIDS Foundation, the pianist contributes to a variety of charities, works with Amnesty International, and performs 30 benefit concerts each year for his foundation and other organizations.

In a 90-minute interview detailing his thoughts about philanthropy and fund raising, Elton says the principles guiding his work boil down to: “We keep it small, we keep it tight, and we keep it fun. We make sure that we are honest and that we are willing to listen to where things should be changing, the mood of where the funding should go, trying to be a little adventurous.”

Making Up for Lost Time

The musician attributes the inspiration for his philanthropic work, in large part, to the April 1990 death of Ryan White, a teenager with AIDS who received national attention for his efforts to explain the nature of HIV/AIDS to the public and to fight discrimination against people with the deadly disease.

He says the shock of Ryan’s death prompted him to rethink his drug-fueled way of life.

“It made me realize that my life was in such a terrible way. I thought: I’ve wasted so much of my life.”

While he had worked with other celebrities to raise money for AIDS causes previously,  Elton says he realized then that he “should have been at the forefront of the AIDS issue.”

He adds: “Getting sober on July 29, 1990 is when my life began, when I was 43.”

In 1992 he created the Elton John AIDS Foundation.

“I was trying to make up for lost time, to atone for my selfishness,” he says. “I started to do the work that I was supposed to do, and I will be doing it until I die.”

As contributions began to pour in, the U.S. charity “realized we’d either have to run our own programs, which is expensive, or piggyback with another organization’s process that was already working effectively,” says John Scott, the first executive director of the group.

The Elton John charity chose to collaborate with the National AIDS Fund, in Washington, because it would bear no direct costs and because its grants would be matched.

Using money from the Elton John AIDS Foundation, as well as from companies, other foundations, and other sources, the National AIDS Fund supports programs to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS and provide care for people with the disease through nearly 400 organizations in 25 states and Washington, D.C.

The National AIDS Fund relies on 29 local advisory groups in large and small cities, which are typically consortia of philanthropic, business, and local leaders, to decide which organizations should get money.

The advisory groups generally choose both organizations that are long-established and new organizations tackling HIV/AIDS with novel approaches.

Before the advisory groups can pass money from the National AIDS Fund to the organizations, the advisory groups must raise money from local donors to match the original grants two-for-one, which has the effect of tripling the initial grants from the Elton John Foundation and other grant makers.

Janice Nicklas, director of the Tulsa Community AIDS Partnership, says that getting this money through the National AIDS Fund “opens doors for us to private philanthropy,” including family and corporate foundations, because it lends credibility to their cause. Previously, she says, “a lot of local people felt AIDS and HIV were just too risky, but this has helped local funders come forward to us and stand on the line trying to promote health in Tulsa.”

The Tulsa Community AIDS Partnership received $44,000 in 2005 through the National AIDS Fund and raised another $93,000 from local sources. The money has financed an HIV-prevention program for men and women in prison, and another such program (which also includes testing for HIV) for African-American, Hispanic, and American Indian women.

The Elton John AIDS Foundation now funnels about 50 percent of its revenue through the National AIDS Fund and spends the rest on programs it selects in the United States, as well as in Canada, Mexico, and other countries.

Sir Elton’s decision to enlist the help of the National AIDS Foundation has earned praise from many observers who say his foundation was prescient in seeing the advantage of working with others.

“He was smart to get resources in the hands of people who did a very good job already instead of reinventing the wheel, which has happened too often,” observes Mathilde Krim, a pioneering AIDS scientist who is the founding co-chair of Amfar, the American Foundation for AIDS Research.

At the time Elton started his foundation, “unfortunately it was not uncommon for celebrity foundations to be misguided and not understand that grant making itself requires professional expertise,” says Michael S. Seltzer, a philanthropic adviser who was founding executive director of Funders Concerned About AIDS.

By carefully seeking help to handle much of the grant making, says Mr. Seltzer, Sir Elton “clearly set a new bar for celebrity-initiated foundations.”

Fifteen Years

As it enters its 15th year, the EJAF in the United States is at something of a turning point. Mr. Scott, who built the organization from the ground up with Sir Elton over 12 years, retired as executive director last year while remaining on its board. Building on Mr. Scott’s success, the new leader, Scott P. Campbell, a veteran AIDS fund raiser, has helped the American organization increase its revenue from $6.8-million last year to an estimated $11-million this year.

With the additional money, the Elton John fund’s U.S. organization plans to spend more on new programs, including financing HIV/AIDS prevention efforts in Southern states, which represent about one-third of the nation’s population but account for 46 percent of the estimated number of new AIDS cases. Another focus will be on aiding prison inmates who have HIV/AIDS, as well as people who were recently released from jail. And the foundation is giving money to Advocates for Youth, a Washington charity, to be used in part to encourage young people to lobby policy makers to oppose abstinence-only sex education.

The  EJ organisation in the United States is also beginning to play a higher-profile role in the world of AIDS philanthropy, working with the Ford and Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundations to help broadcasters in the Caribbean educate people about HIV/AIDS and promote tolerance toward people with the illness, and the Levi Strauss, Irene Diamond, and Tides foundations on needle-exchange programs in the United States.

Influencing Public Policy

Beyond helping AIDS charities get the resources they need, Sir Elton has made a point of using his celebrity to influence public policy and encourage other wealthy people to give money to organizations battling the disease.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, says Elton’s testimony at a key Senate committee hearing in 2002 was a major reason the chamber approved an increase in government funds for AIDS programs around the world.

“He made a huge difference to the committee that day because his long-term commitment to this battle gave him the real credibility it takes to make a great witness for any cause,” says Mr. Kennedy.

Sir Elton’s power of celebrity offers other advantages as well.

David Furnish, who is his partner and a member of the foundation’s Board of Directors, says, “Both Elton and I really spend a lot of our time making donors aware of the difference their support is having and helping them understand the AIDS problem as it changes.”

Mr. Furnish, a film producer, says the ability to raise money has been one of the benefits of fame. “Elton and I have a certain level of profile: People in the media often refer to us as sort of the most famous gay couple in the world,” he says with a laugh. “And it does give you a platform. You want to take that and do something worthwhile and good with it. And that means you are able to, on a public level, create greater awareness for the cause.”

1,115 Projects

In Britain, the Elton John AIDS Foundation is one of the largest independent grant-making charities supporting projects that focus on the disease.

Last year, it worked with other grant makers to provide a national hardship fund to help people with HIV/AIDS who are poor or otherwise neglected.

Over the years, the British group has supported 1,115 projects in more than 55 countries.

It currently spends 79 percent of its budget outside of Britain and backs projects in sub-Saharan Africa, Brazil, Cambodia, the Indian subcontinent, Mexico, Russia, and Ukraine.

In the past year, it has collaborated with the William Jefferson Clinton Foundation in a new pediatric antiretroviral drug program that reached 3,000 children in Kenya.

The foundation also provided funds to the Indian Community Welfare Organization to help women whose husbands have died of AIDS and may themselves be infected, and given money for the care and support of children with HIV/AIDS at an orphanage in Moscow.

“Year on year, we essentially moved away from supporting large international NGO’s to independently funding projects at the grass-roots level,” says Anne Aslett, the Elton John foundation’s international development director in Britain.

Ultimately, the impact of the British foundation’s work is twofold, says Robert Key, executive director of the Elton John AIDS Foundation in Britain. “It’s not just a matter of a grants portfolio,” he says. “It is also about the visibility of someone in Elton’s position standing up and questioning and talking about the issues that face a lot of different communities.”

The approach of Sir Elton’s British organization has won the group much praise. Edwin Cameron, a judge on South Africa’s Supreme Court of Appeal who was the first top official of that country to acknowledge that he has HIV/AIDS, says, “The foundation has been willing to make grants on sometimes relatively skimpy documentation, which is the right thing to do. They are rigorous with their procedures. But if they have faith in an organization and its backers, they go with it. And that’s what you’ve got to do if you hold the purse strings: You’ve got to commit yourself.”

Lean Staffing

Both the American and British offices of the Elton John AIDS Foundation continue to have small staffs: The U.S. office has four employees; the British office has nine. And Elton says he intends to keep it that way. “We will aim to raise more money, but we don’t want to get any bigger,” he says. “Otherwise, how can you keep your eye on the ball? You can’t.”

He adds: “I don’t want [staff] people driving around in Mercedes and having marble offices. It’s not the point of doing it. If I am going to go out there and work hard for the money, then I want to get the most out of the money.”

Throughout the years, Elton also has insisted that his organization move its money out the door each year, holding back nothing for an endowment.

“We get most of the money out there because there is no point in sitting on it,” he says. “You raise it, you get it out there. And if we need more, then I’ll go out and do another two concerts. I don’t see the point of having a nest egg. We’re a charity, for God’s sake. People are dying and needing help now.”

 Elton says his openness to new ideas and approaches a trait he has developed as a performer is what will help keep him energized through what he now sees as charitable work that will last his entire life.

“The fact that I’ve been around so long and that I’m still willing to be enthusiastic about my music to try and change, to do different things; I’m not stale in that respect, I’m full of optimism as far as my music goes enables me to be full of optimism as far as my philanthropy goes,” he says.

People who work closely with Sir Elton say they have little doubt that the musician will continue to do all he can to fight AIDS.

“He has never wavered or gone on to the next fashionable thing to do,” says Sandra L. Thurman, who was President Clinton’s top adviser on AIDS.

Says Richard Holbrooke, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and president of the Global Business Coalition on HIV/AIDS: “Some celebrities get involved with charity only for their own image, or to clean up their own image. Others do it out of personal connection or commitment or conviction. Elton John is clearly in the latter group. This is not some kind of PR campaign; it’s compassionate and organic to who he is.”




History: The vocalist created the Elton John AIDS Foundation in the United States in 1992 and in Great Britain in 1993.

Purpose: to support HIV/AIDS prevention and education programs, as well as programs that provide direct care and other services for people living with HIV/AIDS.

Finances: The organization has raised nearly $120-million since 1992.

Key officials: Sir Elton, chairman; Scott P. Campbell, executive director in the United States; Robert Key, executive director in Great Britain.