It’s hardly news that the Bush administration has cut funding to domestic HIV programs. Or that many of the grants it does offer require AIDS service organizations (ASOs) to endorse politically charged programs, like abstinence-only education. (Abstinence-based programs are slated for a nearly 25% federal raise in 2007.) So where can dissenting orgs turn? Courting the private sector can seem like a risky business: Some local companies would rather sponsor the high school gym addition than a stigmatized AIDS group. However, corporations donate more than $50 million to fighting domestic HIV annually, and Jay S. Mendell, author of Black Sheep Fundraising, the hot new money bible for marginalized causes, has a plan. First, he says, craft a snazzy pitch. “Talk about how heroic the clients are and how hard they are struggling against adversity and how donations can help,” he says. “Oftentimes, companies or donors don’t want to be directly associated with the problem or have their name on anything. Offer them incentives, anything, even if it’s just free tickets to a fundraiser.”

This may sound simplistic. But for Kathie Hiers, it proved a million-dollar baby. AIDS Alabama, the state’s largest ASO, has lost essential government grants to abstinence-focused organizations; when Hiers took over four years ago, it wasn’t exactly whistling Dixie. Hiers hit the streets, organizing fundraisers and groping deep pockets. She networked with the Rotary Club, the United Way and local universities to get ideas for donors. Then she did the hustle. “I joke that I am a whore for AIDS because I’ll use whatever tools I have to get the most money. I need to serve my clients,” she says, adding that she often emphasizes the organization’s role in helping women and children to dispel stigma. “I find that corporate America is pretty good-hearted. If you show them a program that gets results, you’ll get their support.” Carolyn Roby, VP of the Wells Fargo Foundation—which gave $1.5 million to domestic AIDS causes in 2003—says stigma does not factor in funding decisions: “We determine the most pressing needs in each community. Our engagement and interest make a real difference.”

Up north, despite a reputation for in-your-face activism, New York City’s Housing Works relies heavily on private donations. One of the nation’s best privately funded ASOs, it has an annual budget of $41 million. The organization’s Robert Cordero, VP of development and government relations, says it raises the funds without compromising its rowdy mission. The group finds companies that have given to similar causes and “shows them concrete outcomes about providing services and about engaging in direct action that changes policies,” Cordero says.

Hiers, who operates on only $5 million a year and has far fewer potential donors to chose from in Alabama, says, “You may go to 100 businesses and get only ten to donate, but you build on that every year. Government money brings strings, and I want the freedom.” Let it ring.    

Jay S. Mendell, author of Black Sheep Fundraising ($16;, recommends that ASOs diversify their budget portfolio with private funds. Here’s how to get them:

  • Don’t bully companies into changing their ideas about HIV. Just tell them how they can help.
  • Offer them something in return, like a large mention in a newsletter or a room dedication.
  • Put a face on the disease by sharing your clients’ stories.