News and analysis
November 03, 2014

Donors to Gay Causes Consider Their Next Steps


Freedom to Marry and other groups are using messages like this to communicate that, despite recent legal victories on same-sex marriage, the movement has a long way to go.

The Arcus Foundation’s latest effort in support of gay and lesbian issues began with an ominous question: "Is there a future for the LGBTQ movement?"

The tagline speaks to a bubbling uncertainty among the movement’s philanthropic vanguard. After a number of legal victories on same-sex marriage, where should longtime supporters put their money now? And will today’s triumphs make tomorrow’s donors think the struggle for gay equality has already been won?

"It’s basically what I spend my days and nights thinking about," says Kevin Jennings, executive director of the Arcus Foundation. "I’m worried that now that marriage equality has come, people will say, ‘Look, they don’t need us anymore.’"

In an attempt to chart a new course for the movement and keep its momentum, the Arcus Foundation launched its My2024 campaign in early October. The 10-day effort asked gays, lesbians, and their allies to articulate what they hope the movement will have accomplished by 2024.

Most submissions had little, if anything, to do with marriage.

"In 2024, I will be free to speak about my life and concerns without always self-censoring," began one.

"In 2024 I will be free to hopefully have the courage to tell my mother I’m bisexual without her disowning me," said another.

"In 2024, we will take action for 267,000 undocumented LGBTQ to reach full liberation from the deportation machine," said a third.

This diversity of responses underscores the challenge facing the movement's leaders.

In Search of a Unifying Issue

Marriage equality has proven a powerful catalyst and unifying force. It helped bring millions of dollars and untold attention to a movement that was once on the philanthropic fringes. But with same-sex marriage now legal in most states after the Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal on the issue, leaders are starting to recalibrate.

"We need to ask our community where we should focus next," says Mr. Jennings. "What should be our north star?"

Foundations are looking at a number of issues. Many point to employment discrimination and the looming possibility of laws designed to carve religious exemptions in existing legislation. There’s also talk of focusing on regions of the country and world where legal progress has been elusive. The Human Rights Campaign, for instance, started an effort earlier this year focused on Southern states, while the Gill Foundation is pouring a reported $25-million into efforts based largely in conservative-leaning pockets of the U.S. Others suggest focusing on countries like Russia and Uganda, where gays are subject to repressive policies.

Still others predict a more fundamental shift. Instead of focusing on legal rights, some believe the movement should orient itself toward the "lived experience" of gays, which includes a constellation of issues like bullying, assault, homelessness among youths, the treatment of transgender people, obstacles facing people of color, and retirement options for older men and women.

"With lived experience, it’s a different way of thinking about what constitutes success," says Andrew Lane, executive director of the Johnson Family Foundation, which gives grants nationally to gay causes.

Such solutions may also require collaboration with other funding networks, like those working on anti-poverty or youth-empowerment campaigns. "It’s a wonderful thing from a philanthropic perspective," says Luna Yasui, the program officer responsible for the Ford Foundation’s work on such issues. "It really challenges us to think beyond our silo."

Uncertain Funding Ahead

More than likely, no single issue will inherit the elevated place marriage equality has assumed among movement organizers and funders.

"I don’t think there’s any way to understate the extent to which marriage has been a galvanizing force in this movement," says Mr. Lane. "When and if that goes away, there certainly is a possibility that resources will become more diffuse."

In 2003, one year before Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage, LGBT issues received $32.1-million from U.S. foundations according to a study by Funders for LGBTQ Issues. In 2012 that number stood at $121.4-million.

Forty-three percent of the $121.4-million went to civil-rights work, according to the survey. That was more than double the amount that went to health-related issues, the next-highest category of giving. Within civil-rights work, marriage equality received the most money, accounting for 11 percent of all giving to gay issues.

To be sure, the rise of same-sex marriage as a national issue doesn’t entirely account for the exponential growth in giving to gay issues over the last decade. But it’s clear the fight for civil rights and legal equality has emerged as a pillar of philanthropic activity, and grant makers have "profound" concerns over the intensity and direction of giving to other LGBT issues, according to Matt Foreman, senior program director for Gay and Immigrant Rights at the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund.

"Where we’re going to go, how we’re going to get over the finish line, and what the vision is for the LGBT community over the next 20 years has been the topic of a lot of discussion over the past year," says Mr. Foreman.

In early October, he and representatives from the Ford Foundation and Overbrook Foundation convened in New York to discuss their mutual surprise at the Supreme Court’s nondecision and set strategy about future giving. All three foundations are core members of the Civil Marriage Collaborative, a philanthropic partnership focused on funding state-level marriage campaigns.

Mr. Foreman says the major issue to emerge from the New York meeting was the threat of religious exemptions and their power to dilute existing nondiscrimination legislation. Indeed, the still-small, tightknit group of LGBT grant makers see exemptions as the next major legal fight that will require philanthropic support.

"It’s definitely something a lot of us have been talking about," says Ben Maulbeck, president of Funders for LGBTQ Issues. "As momentum has been on our side, we’re hearing more and more from opponents of LGBT rights that somehow us marrying violates their religious freedom."

After Legal Equality

Shifting money from marriage into anti-discrimination work figures to be a logical next step for foundations that have so far focused on civil-rights work. Longer term, the question for foundations may be whether the major grantees on civil rights follow the movement into what Mr. Lane at the Johnson Family Foundation call its "post-legal equality" phase.

The Overbrook Foundation, for one, does not plan to take up the lived experience of gays as a major giving platform.

"My expectation is that the foundation will remain committed to its overarching program focus, which is human and civil rights," says Stephen Foster, the foundation’s chief executive.

He emphasizes, however, that the push toward legal equality is far from over and that his foundation does not plan to scale back any time soon.

Other foundations, particularly those in states where same-sex marriage is legal, find themselves in a holding pattern. The Jay and Rose Phillips Family Foundation of Minnesota typically awards $50,000 to $100,000 each year to LGBT issues, according to executive director Patrick Troska. He says that number is toward the "lower end" right now, in part because there is no longer any reason to support marriage-equality efforts after the state legislature legalized same-sex marriage in 2013. One of the foundation’s primary benefactors, Project 515, no longer even exists.

"There was so much energy put into the marriage fight that there’s a bit of fatigue right now," Mr. Troska says. "Now we’re trying to engage them around some pretty messy issues."

Those issues include transgender rights, homeless gay youths, and bullying. Mr. Troska says his foundation is testing the waters in those areas but also hanging back a bit to see which issues draw the most focus. "There isn’t real clarity around what the main strategy is next," he says.

The Arcus Foundation, meanwhile, is pushing forward on all fronts. Mr. Jennings, the executive director, says his foundation began preparing for a "day after marriage" in 2012. Arcus is among the largest U.S. grant makers for international work on gay issues. The foundation also wants to focus on LGBT youths and people of color and transgender people.

"It’s OK to take a few different paths," Mr. Jennings says.

Indeed the foundation’s My2024 campaign seemed to embrace this spirit of exploration.

"Is there a future for the LGBTQ movement," the tagline says. "No. There are thousands of futures."

Send an e-mail to Avi Wolfman-Arent.