The Foundation and AIDS

Behind the Curve but Leading the Way

The emergence of AIDS in the early 1980s challenged many of the tenets of grantmaking that characterized the Foundation's approach of that period, particularly its reluctance to focus on specific diseases. By the mid 1980s, the dimensions of the AIDS crisis, the lack of leadership from government and the philanthropic community, the potential impact of the disease on the nation's hospitals, and the urging of leading public health experts across the country led the Foundation to rethink its position. In 1986, the Foundation announced the first of its programs aimed at mobilizing resources and public opinion to combat AIDS.

The initial program followed a preferred Foundation approach to grantmaking: find a model of service delivery that looked promising—in this case it was the San Francisco model—and then test it at a number of other locations in the hope that the federal government would adopt and expand it. The Foundation subsequently funded an open-ended nationwide program seeking innovative ways of preventing HIV/AIDS (especially in low-income communities, where most AIDS patients contracted the disease through substance abuse), a public television series, and many individual projects.

Despite its initial reluctance to enter the field, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation became the largest source of philanthropic funds devoted to AIDS prevention during the late 1980s, and became known for its work on AIDS. The Foundation's first president, David Rogers, was named vice-chairman of the National Commission on AIDS in 1989 after leaving the Foundation.

In this chapter, Ethan Bronner, the education editor of The New York Times, chronicles the way in which the Foundation responded to the AIDS crisis. It is a story of how one foundation dealt with an area of high sensitivity and, in the author's words, "how AIDS changed the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation [and] also, in an important sense, how AIDS changed the country."