Rocketclips, Inc./shutterstock
Rocketclips, Inc./shutterstock

Health inequality is a major problem in the United States. According to a 2013 report by the Centers for Disease Control, factors related to health inequities include income, education level, sex, race, ethnicity, employment status and sexual orientation, among others.

The pandemic has only served to exacerbate and draw greater attention to these inequities, bringing them to the “forefront of public health,” according to the CDC. Numerous studies have shown that the pandemic has disproportionately affected communities of color, especially Black and Latino communities, for a variety of reasons, including discrimination, healthcare access and use, occupation and housing.

With the increased focus on health equity, we’ve seen a growing trend of health advocates and funders taking a more holistic approach to health. As Inside Philanthropy has covered recently, foundations, companies and nonprofits are paying closer attention to the many societal factors—so-called social determinants of health—that intersect with healthcare and public health.

Gilead Sciences is the latest corporate grantmaker stepping up to promote health justice and equity. Gilead is a pharmaceutical company based in Foster City, California. For decades, it’s been a leader in the development and distribution of treatments for HIV and hepatitis C. More recently, it’s become known for its drug remdesivir—one of the medicines used to treat COVID-19. We’re been tracking Gilead’s prominent role in philanthropy for LGBTQ communities and HIV/AIDS, even becoming the first corporation to top the list of LGBTQ funders in 2018.

As more companies and organizations recognize the need for health equity, particularly in light of a global pandemic that has led to more than 4.4 million deaths worldwide, Gilead Sciences is now placing a stronger emphasis on health justice in its corporate philanthropy.

“I think for us, who have such a long history on anti-virals, we understood that science is just one aspect of actually solving issues,” said Korab Zuka, vice president of public affairs at Gilead. “It was really important for us to create programs from a philanthropic perspective to really be able to support communities because we knew that a lot of the time, solving the science was just one side of the puzzle.”

As such, Gilead Sciences is relaunching its philanthropic arm with a $200 million endowment to support health equity and social justice. The Gilead Foundation, which originally launched back in 2005 and took a brief hiatus in 2020, is now back with three key programs: the Creating Possible Fund, funding local community organizations, and a bolstered donation matching program.

Although there are no set numbers yet on how funding will break down between the three components, according to Keeley Wettan, senior vice president, legal, and Gilead Foundation board chair, a large portion of the endowment will go to the Creating Possible Fund.

Three components

Gilead is employing a three-pronged approach to its mission, the newest of which is the Creating Possible Fund, which will award grants to organizations that take innovative approaches to solving the complex social issues that especially impact underserved and vulnerable members of society, including LGBT youth and people of color.

“We want to really use these funds to find projects where there’s a need for folks on the margins that need access to affordable health,” said Wettan. That means working to remove the obstacles and underlying issues preventing people from accessing health care, including poverty and discrimination.

In addition to the Creating Possible Fund, Gilead is also increasing its employee donation matching program from $2,000 to $15,000 per employee. Gilead will also be donating to local community organizations where employees live and work, focusing on social service programs, including those with disaster and humanitarian relief efforts.

“We want to make sure that we also integrate Gilead with communities, because in addition to our employees being there, we also want to show that we care about the communities,” said Wettan. “The way that we do that is through additional investments.”

“For us as a company, it was important to take our job more seriously,” said Zuka. That means delivering on more than just the science aspect, but also delivering on programs through Gilead’s philanthropic work to support communities that bring solutions to patients so that they may benefit from these scientific breakthroughs.

Putting it together

The Creating Possible Fund is still in its scoping phase. As such, it’s too early to say which kinds of organizations they will support. Gilead will be looking at models that already exist and have made a difference, and consulting with expert organizations that have been involved in health justice for decades. Key to all of this, however, will be speaking with members of affected communities.

“It was important for us to create a solution that’s actually designed by the impacted communities,” said Zuka. Gilead aims to have a skeleton of what they will be funding later this year.

“Our principal goal is to make sure that we’re able to make a difference,” said Zuka. He acknowledged that in philanthropy, it usually takes a while to see that difference. As such, Gilead is looking to ensure that the foundation has longevity.

He added, “We’ve seen with all of our programs, especially those that touch on social change, you need to be persistent and relentless in your focus, and we wanted to have large enough of a corpus to really be able to do that work over time.”

At the intersection of health and social justice

As one of the leading innovators behind HIV and hepatitis C treatments, Gilead is no stranger to the struggles many individuals face when seeking healthcare. As Zuka points out, illnesses such as HIV and hepatitis C “sit in the middle of so much intersectionality, from racism to homophobia to transphobia.”

With its previous projects, Gilead first engaged with expert organizations and impacted people to understand their perspectives and suggested solutions. Gilead then used its platform and resources to add the framework and funding needed to have an impact. This model has worked well in some of Gilead’s earlier programs.

COMPASS (Commitment to Partnership in Addressing HIV/AIDS in Southern States), for example, is a response to the fact that the American South has been most affected by the HIV epidemic, with a full 54% of all new diagnoses in the U.S.

Gilead’s HIV Age Positively initiative seeks to address some of the challenges of an aging U.S. population living with HIV. According to Gilead, by 2030, more than half of all HIV patients will be over the age of 50. The program looks at whether or not our healthcare system is ready to address the issues of people who are living and aging with HIV.

Keeley noted that for HIV patients, part of the struggle is not just getting access to the medicine, but being comfortable enough to go to a doctor and ask for an HIV test. That’s yet another example of the many social factors that get in the way of people getting the healthcare they need, factors the Gilead Foundation will be tackling.

More information about the application process for both the Creating Possible Fund and the local grants will be announced later this year.