Porter Novelli

This week we had the pleasure of hosting our second “Room With a View” event series for marketing and communications leaders titled “The Evolution of HIV/AIDS CSR” featuring Paurvi Bhatt of Levi Strauss & Company, Craig Cichy of Entertainment Industry Foundation (formerly director, MAC AIDS Fund) and Phangisile Mtshali of Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation.

Transforming  HIV/AIDS is in Porter Novelli’s DNA and an area of passion for our global health care group – from our early work with USAID to support the first international, integrated response to the epidemic to our current work with the CDC, which has helped to increase HIV testing rates among high-risk African American populations.  We are very proud that have had an unbroken chain of work in HIV/AIDS for almost as long as this agency has existed.   My own experience began  at another agency on the day that ACT UP took over the New York Stock Exchange.  Our client made the only available drug at that time to treat AIDS.  I was asked to go down to the march and report back.  About two weeks after that protest, the price of AZT dropped precipitously and health care companies were changed forever – both in how they hear the patient’s voice and in how they viewed themselves and their roles as corporate citizens.

In a world where corporate responsibility programs have become the price of doing business, what can other business leaders learn from the rich history of HIV/AIDS CSR programs? Our panel summed it up in five key takeaways:

1.       Focus on Local Impact:

Through its Secure the Future initiative, BMS Foundation pioneered community-based approaches to fighting the AIDS pandemic, recognizing early that progress would not be possible unless government, NGO and corporate leaders worked together to build new healthcare infrastructure and put forth a local response sensitive to cultural norms.  They knew that most of the funding would go to large urban centers – they decided to go where the need was greatest and where other funding was not likely to find its way there.  This focus on community is pulled through today in all their CSR efforts.

2.       Evolve: The Levi Strauss Foundation was the first U.S. corporate foundation to address the HIV/AIDS epidemic based on the concerns of their employees. Leadership responded with help where the epidemic needed it most 30 years ago – in San Francisco. However, as the company changed and grew globally, their workforce was not as engaged or aware of the company’s HIV initiatives. In 2006, Levi’s made a commitment to their global workforce by ensuring that all HIV services were covered through their health care plans and that employees were educated about the company’s policies and history with HIV/AIDS. The BMS Foundation also changed strategies as they grew and evolved in several ways.  First, they focused on a more limited number of countries where they felt they could have the greatest impact.  At the same time, they began incorporating innovative means of monitoring and evaluation into their community-based programs to learn how to maximize the impact in the local villages they worked in.    They also began to help train potential grantees to successfully map out and submit their program ideas so that they continued to see innovative ways they could improve their services.

3.       Be Bold: MAC AIDS Fund changed its funding process into a competitive, RFP-based process focused on programs that were provocative and different to ensure they were helping those who were most underserved, such as women-focused prevention and needle-exchange programs. MAC also chose partnerships with celebrities who were unafraid to discuss taboo or challenging topics in the media, which helped make the cause relatable to its customers

4.      Be consistent and authentic: CSR programming should be well-integrated into the business strategy and an organic part of a company’s mission and heritage. Some brands support several causes without an attempt to focus on a CSR trend and without a long-term goal oriented to create change, and this can diffuse employee commitment. Rally both internal and external stakeholders to your cause by committing deeply to one or two issues.  All speakers discussed the impact that the programs had on their company morale and the impact that volunteers from their companies had made upon the programs they supported.

5.       Incorporate first-hand experience where possible: Engage company leadership and rank-and-file employees to support the issue passionately and wholeheartedly; whether it be taking leadership to the trenches to see the impact of their work,  delivering statistics that convey the paramount importance of the need for change internally and externally or offering activities where board members and employees can interact with grantees to understand the impact their work has made. “No PPT presentation can compare to saying to a senior leader, ‘take off your shoes, we’re going to cross the river to see our health center,’” said Mtshali. Human connections and personal stories go a long way toward demonstrating the need for the work.

CSR efforts in HIV/AIDS have played a significant role in increasing public support for those living with the disease and reducing stigma. There are still great challenges ahead, particularly surrounding access for the underserved, but the recent FDA approvals of Truvada for HIV prevention and at-home testing kits are further evidence that we’re on the cusp of a new day in the epidemic in the United States. With the AIDS 2012 Conference in Washington, DC next week, we are hopeful that the important CSR efforts put forth by leaders like those on our panel will continue to inspire change at home and abroad, and serve as models for other causes.