Feature story

A look inside The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation

26 January 2015

During the 36th meeting of the UNAIDS Programme Coordinating Board, held in December 2014 in Geneva, Switzerland, unaids.org spoke to Joel Goldman, the Managing Director of The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation (ETAF), about how HIV programmes funded by private foundations are contributing to ending the AIDS epidemic, the work done by ETAF and the future of the AIDS response.

What is the goal of The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation?

ETAF is a nonprofit organization established by Elizabeth Taylor in 1991 to raise awareness and funds to respond to AIDS and to grant assistance to people living with HIV. Today, we support AIDS organizations in the United States of America and around the world—33 countries to date—which deliver direct care and services to people and/or provide HIV prevention education. ETAF has donated more than US$ 15 million in funding thus far.

What makes The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation unique?

Before she died, Elizabeth Taylor made provisions for her estate to cover all of ETAF’s operating expenses. This means that when people donate to our organization, 100% of every dollar goes directly to caring for people living with HIV and towards funding HIV prevention programmes. In addition, Ms Taylor deemed that 25% of all likeness and image royalties from her estate go to ETAF. So when someone buys an Elizabeth Taylor fragrance, like White Diamonds, or buys from the Elizabeth Taylor jewellery collection on QVC, they are also doing good and contributing to the response to AIDS.

How has the foundation evolved since its creation? And where do you see it going in the future?

Elizabeth Taylor co-founded amfAR in 1985 as a means for researchers to discover treatments and ultimately find a cure for AIDS. As HIV-positive people began to live longer, she also wanted to find direct ways to care and nurture people living with HIV. Since she faced many personal medical issues throughout her lifetime, she recognized the importance of access to medical care, housing, nutritious food and support as a way to fight illness. In 1991, Ms Taylor founded ETAF.

Through ETAF, she funded HIV prevention programmes on sex education, needle exchange, access to condoms, etc. No matter how publically unpopular the topic, she moved it forward. Ms Taylor was one of the fiercest advocates in Washington, DC, and on the global political stage for these and many other issues, including human rights for people living with HIV. Elizabeth Taylor remained at the helm of ETAF until she passed away in 2011.

As we move forward in this legacy era, ETAF is still dedicated to Ms Taylor’s vision of care, education and prevention. In November 2014, our Trustees and Advisory Board members reaffirmed our founder’s original mission and will focus current funding with three priorities in mind: marginalized populations, advocacy and innovation.

What do you think are today’s greatest challenges to an effective response to AIDS? And where can ETAF have the biggest impact?

The biggest challenge in the response to AIDS is the complacency that exists around the issue today, especially among young people. This is evident by the fact that the adolescent death rate from AIDS-related illnesses has risen by 50% over the last decade.

Although she is no longer with us, Elizabeth Taylor’s reputation and brand still retain the cache to partner with the right celebrities, the most effective organizations and foundations, the best corporations and strategic global leaders, like UNAIDS. There are also future marketing campaigns and programmes in the works that will reignite the conversation and heighten awareness for HIV education and prevention among the most vulnerable people.

Is there a particular project funded by the foundation that touched you personally or that you are most proud of?

I am most proud of the Global AIDS Interfaith Alliance (GAIA) / Elizabeth Taylor Mobile Health Clinics in Malawi. Ms Taylor recognized that chronic lack of access to health care is the biggest barrier in the battle against HIV in Africa. She said, “If people cannot get to health care, why can’t we get health care to the people?” In 2008, ETAF partnered with GAIA in creating mobile health clinics that provide HIV testing and prevention programmes to the most affected regions of Malawi. Every day of the week, our seven clinics rotate to a new location. Last year, an average of 1000 patients were treated each day, with 40% of them being children under the age of five.

For 2015, we are proud to acknowledge an important milestone in the Elizabeth Taylor mobile health clinic programme: every one of the 900 000 residents in Malawi’s Phalombe and Mulanje districts now lives within a one hour’s walk to life sustaining health-care services. This is a great achievement, especially given the challenging road infrastructure of the country.

On a personal level, I was diagnosed HIV-positive 23 years ago at a time when few HIV prevention programmes existed. So the projects that touch me most are those that promote HIV prevention among young people. When ETAF funds initiatives like the University of California, Los Angeles, Sex Squad to expand its education programme to high schools and colleges in the Southern region of the United States of America, or Grassroot Soccer to complement our mobile health clinics in Malawi, I am personally excited by these thoughtful, innovative and effective approaches reaching young people.

What do you think is the role of foundations in today’s global health landscape?

Foundations can fill the gaps in which some governmental agencies cannot work. Many private and family foundations have the ability to be flexible and fund innovation at a quicker rate. I was inspired by the UNAIDS Programme Coordinating Board’s bold declaration to end AIDS by 2030. However, many speakers said that the world would need to do business differently in order to achieve this objective. This is where foundations can play a role. If we band together in support of UNAIDS’ message on all fronts, while simultaneously pouring our collaborative efforts into developing and funding projects that bring us closer to this goal, our collective muscle can propel us forward.

Elizabeth Taylor brought AIDS out of the shadows and into the national and global spotlight. Now, it is up to us to take up her mantle, keep up the momentum I witnessed in Geneva, and eliminate this disease. Now is the time, especially when ending the AIDS epidemic is just beyond our grasp.