People can come up with invaluable ways to help the underserved, but if they can’t find the funding, nothing happens.
Still others can possess invaluable financial resources to help those in need, but if they can’t find the proper avenues, nothing happens.
Think of Stuart Burden as a matchmaker. For years, he’s been making sure those with visions for helping in the AIDS pandemic meet those with the financial resources to bring those visions to life. The results have made a difference. The effort has been heroic.
Burden has almost two decades of experience in international grant-making, community affairs and government affairs. Currently, he serves as director for the Americas and Europe within the Worldwide Community Affairs Department of Levi Strauss & Co. and the Levi Strauss Foundation. As such, he is responsible for the strategic direction of the company’s philanthropic and external relationship-building activities in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Europe and South America. In addition, he coordinates the funding for Levi’s HIV/AIDS programs worldwide and manages a special grant-making initiative in the Philippines and South Africa. All of which is to say Burden is a matchmaker the world over and has been a force in the pandemic for quite some time.
In the Eighties, while doing an internship at the New York Foundation, a financial officer became ill with AIDS and took permanent leave. Burden filled in, and an awareness and a career were born. Later, while working at the Ford Foundation, he was part of a team considering its first philanthropic response to the nascent health crisis.
“At the time we didn’t fund diseases and health issues,” notes Burden. “It was an anxious period. There was a sense something should be done, but they didn’t know how to respond.”
Burden helped the foundation navigate this new terrain with common sense and compassion, using the same logic then as he uses now.
“Some people want to compartmentalize HIV as health issue, but it impacts everything: housing, education, family, people working. I try to help foundations understand that [dealing with AIDS] is unavoidable and we need to be prepared because this will continue to happen and organizations have a responsibility.”
A graduate of Stanford University, Burden speaks fluent Portuguese, as well as modest Spanish. Prior to Levi Strauss & Co., he worked for the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the New York Foundation, and at Citibank. During his eleven years at Macarthur, he was chairman of the of the foundation’s Africa Task Group—the coordinating body for all grant-making in Africa (dealing with education, human rights, HIV/AIDS, and peace and security issues). Burden also spent several years focusing on reproductive health and rights (including HIV prevention).
In addition, Burden has consulted for several organizations, including Bristol-Myers Squibb and the Open Society Institute, and has served on several Boards. Currently, he sits on the board of Project Inform, an HIV/AIDS organization, and is a member of the Northern California Committee of Human Rights Watch. From April 2000 to January 2003, Stuart served on the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS in both the Clinton and Bush administrations.
To put it succinctly, Burden has turned his passion into action. Perhaps this explains why he isn’t content with the “write a check and we’re done” approach from those with resources, and why Burden and Levi are a perfect match in and of themselves. In 1985, the Levi Strauss Foundation became one of the first corporate foundations to address the AIDS epidemic, and since then has given over $25 million in grants to fund AIDS education and prevention programs.
“We try to lead by example,” Burden says of the company’s efforts. “We show other foundations that you don’t have to be in pharmaceuticals or healthcare to be involved. There are things you can do. We don’t lecture to them. We just say here’s what we’re doing. Anything you see that want to try, we’ll help you adopt.”
Burden admits that “keeping attention focused on the disease is a constant struggle,” but he remains ready for the challenge.
“We’re helping organizations see a role for themselves and they begin to think new and differently. Someone might say, ‘This is not a human rights issue’, but then I say, ‘Let’s understand the human rights side of HIV.’ Or, ‘This is not a youth issue’ and I say, ‘Let’s understand youth rights as they relate to HIV. I can attach HIV to any issue you put up.”
One issue Burden and Levi haven’t shied away from is needle exchanges. In 2004, the Levi Strauss Foundation, Tides Foundation and the National AIDS Fund launched a multi-year, grant-making collaboration—the Syringe Access Fund—to support the prevention of HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C and other blood-borne diseases through increased access to sterile syringes. The program exists in five states (California, Florida, New Jersey, New York and Texas) and the District of Columbia—all areas severely impacted by the pandemic.
“I was concerned about the backlash,” admits Burden, “But we went to the board, had conversations about the downsides and they were committed. We’ve done a couple of things purely out of principle and a sense of justice and it’s worked out just fine.”
Something else that’s working out just fine: Burden’s matchmaking skills.
“I have a passion for connecting people with great ideas to the funding they need. I get to see people doing amazing work and it inspires me. People ask, isn’t that depressing? But working on HIV helps uncluttered your life from what isn’t important.”
After dealing with the pandemic for nearly two decades, Burden has a clear idea about what is and isn’t important.
“We have not given HIV/AIDS the attention it deserves. We have got to take care of our community. With all we’ve been through historically, we can get past this, too. There are champions out there and I’m so impressed with what I see them doing.”
To see another champion, Burden need look no further than his own mirror.