May 19, 2013

As Wedding Bells Ring, Charities Seek Support From Newly Visible Same-Sex Couples

Some donors say they have been put off by a lack of sensitivity by some nonprofits.

Courtesy of The Minneapolis Foundation

Mark Hiemenz and Charlie Rounds created the Mark and Charlie's Gay Lesbian Fund for Moral Values at the Minneapolis Foundation, which features the couple on its Web site.

Editor’s update: The Supreme Court on June 26 struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, which said that marriage had to be between a man and a woman, and declined to take up a challenge to California’s Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage. Gay marriage is now recognized in 12 states and the District of Columbia. And under the new law, gay marriages that are recognized in states must also be recognized by the federal government.

Stephen Phelps, a fundraiser in St. Louis, has been with his partner for 27 years, doesn’t have kids, and supports the Human Rights Campaign and several local theater groups.

He and his partner are the perfect targets for donor solicitation. But Mr. Phelps is frustrated that no other charity has courted them.

“As a development officer, why in the hell aren’t you calling me?” he asks. “We’re out there. No matter who you are, you are missing an opportunity if you’re not reaching out to this diverse group because gay men have money and lots of it. Lord Dorothy, we’ve got money.”

Gaining support from same-sex couples, like Mr. Phelps and his partner, is increasingly becoming a priority for many charities.

Census figures show that such couples are more likely than their straight counterparts to live in two-income households, without dependent children—and with a higher median income when both partners work. In other words, they may have the extra cash to give to charities, even as so many other sources have contracted.

One sign of the group’s philanthropic power: This month, Bolder Giving and Razoo, an online fundraising site, ran the first “GiveOUT Day,” a 24-hour give-a-thon that raised $560,000, from nearly 5,500 donors, for groups nationwide that serve lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender causes. Next year’s goal is $1-million, says Jason Franklin, Bolder Giving’s leader.

Finding Donors

With same-sex marriage now legal in 12 states and the District of Columbia—and the Supreme Court expected to rule on two legal cases involving gay couples next month—LGBT couples have never been more visible.

But discovering these donors still takes some time. Some groups are purchasing or renting lists from LGBT organizations or fundraising consulting companies. Others are using social media to identify who in their database might be gay.

Mr. Phelps, director of development at Doorways, a charity that provides housing to people with HIV/AIDS, has used social media to identify donors who are gay and is keeping track of them.

Indeed, over the years, through conversations as well as social media, he’s discovered that about 40 percent of his charity’s donors are LGBT.

Says Mr. Phelps, “It’s amazing what we can glean from Facebook.”

Rookie Mistakes

But even though it’s easier than ever to find same-sex couples, who may be in a position to give generously, some organizations are still flummoxed about where to start.

Some groups are also making rookie mistakes—for example, failing to use proper courtesy titles (“Mr. and Mr.” or “Ms. and Ms.”) because their database software isn’t up-to-date. So, some are taking a slow approach, inviting gay donors to give them tips on how to better serve them and identify the issues most important to them.

Charities that do seek gay dollars, though, should be careful about even having an “approach,” say some fundraisers.

“The thing I’ve learned about this community is that it means a lot to LGBT people to feel like somebody is speaking to them in a meaningful and authentic way, and that they’re acknowledging who they are and celebrating who they are,” says Jen Meyers, director of development at Family Equality Council, a group that seeks to protect the rights of LGBT parents and their kids.

“I don’t think it requires a different strategy,” she adds. “I think it requires some cultural competency on the part of the organizations.”

Costly Quote Marks

Charlie Rounds says he doesn’t expect every nonprofit to know all the answers when it comes to fundraising among same-sex couples. But, he says, those couples need to force change by speaking up when things don’t work well.

Mr. Rounds, who made his fortune as a partner in a tour operator aimed at LGBT customers, says he and his fiancé Mark Hiemenz have given away 60 percent of their net worth.

Today, the men conduct their philanthropy though a donor-advised fund at the Minneapolis Foundation. But, Mr. Rounds says, they’ve done their share of showing charities how to treat them.

In 2005, the Planned Parenthood affiliate in St. Paul sought to highlight in its newsletter gifts the couple had been making since 1998.

A draft of the article “referred to Mark as my husband,” Mr. Rounds says, his preferred way of identifying Mr. Hiemenz. But when the charity’s board saw the draft, members were “not comfortable using the word 'husband,’” Mr. Rounds says he was told by a chief fundraiser for the group.

Mr. Rounds balked, telling the fundraiser: “I will not have you demeaning my relationship.”

In the end, the group put “husband” in quotes in the article. Despite the slight, the couple continued to support the charity for another five years.

At the Minneapolis Foundation, Mr. Rounds’s and Mr. Hiemenz’s philanthropy is featured on the organization’s Web site. And their donor-advised fund is called the “Mark and Charlie’s Gay Lesbian Fund for Moral Values.”

The out-and-proud name, Mr. Rounds says, is “vitally important to me and to non-LGBT organizations, because if people don’t see us as giving back to mainstream organizations, then we’re not seen as part of the community.”

Making Changes

The UJA-Federation of New York discovered a year ago just how significant a part of its community of potential donors gay people are.

The group started an LGBT advisory group early this year after its latest survey, which is conducted every 10 years, found that 5 percent of Jewish families in New York had an LGBT member.

“It affirmed empirically what we knew anecdotally,” says Reuben Romirowsky, vice president of the affinity division of UJA-Federation of New York. “It’s really a no-brainer, in terms of how do we align our values with a segment of the community that is very strong philanthropically.”

But the group has been moving slowly and methodically, to avoid making missteps in courting gay supporters.

In January, it began inviting LGBT donors to help the federation understand their concerns and suggest ways the organization could better serve them.

The federation has consulted about 70 such donors so far, says Mr. Romirowsky, who adds that he was told explicitly by some donors, “If you really want to have us for the long term, your organization has to behave differently as well.”

As a result, the federation is hiring more LGBT staff members, making sure its grant recipients have nondiscriminatory policies, holding an educational series on LGBT issues, and preparing to celebrate Gay Pride month in June.

The group isn’t worried about alienating other donors by becoming more LGBT-friendly.

“There was a time when that was a big deal,” Mr. Romirowsky says. “But it’s such a nonissue for younger people. The older group has said it’s overdue.”

Plus, he says, the effort has been universally supported inside the organization; staff members have told the charity’s leaders that they have relatives who are LGBT. “Everyone wants to play a role in how to make this work,” he says.

Special Events

Some organizations, like the Rubin Museum of Art, have spent years wooing gay donors—focusing on young people who may become tomorrow’s affluent married couples.

Reaching out to gay people is part of its overall outreach effort over the past half-dozen years to encourage more people to visit the New York museum and subsequently to support it as members, says Cynthia Guyer, director of external affairs.

Part of its approach includes programs with gay themes. For instance, the museum, which features Himalayan art, has held a series of programs called “Out in the Himalayas.” It has also hosted events with LGBT cultural leaders, such as the comedian and actress Sandra Bernhard and the actor Alan Cumming.

“We try to get people who are known in their field, who have a following,” Ms. Guyer says.

Ms. Guyer thinks the effort is paying off in increasing the number of museum members. And in another sign that its cultivation has made a difference: It recently got its first inquiry to rent space at its facility for a same-sex wedding.

Seeking Bequests

Some nonprofits, especially those that serve gay people, are seizing the opportunity to persuade older gay couples to leave them money in their estates.

“We have probably one of the most robust planned-giving programs for LGBT donors around,” says John Westfall-Kwong, director of development at Lambda Legal, a legal-advocacy nonprofit.

The group has a planned-giving director, and it provides estate-planning tools on its Web site. Last year, Lambda got $6-million in bequests.

The Human Rights Campaign, a gay-rights advocacy group, also offers an informational guide about planned giving on its Web site. So far, the group says it has 800 supporters who have included the charity in their estate plans.

Christopher Speron, the group’s chief fundraiser, says he and his colleagues have been hearing heartwarming stories from people making bequests, who are living through an “extraordinary period of history.”

“For those folks,” he says, “leaving behind a legacy for the next generation is really important for them.”

Same-Sex vs. Opposite-Sex Couples: a Demographic Snapshot

Same-Sex Couples

  • 82% of members of same-sex couples are employed
  • $94,000
    median household income of same-sex couples with both partners employed
  • 19.4% of same-sex couples have children under age 18 living at home

Opposite-Sex Couples

  • 69% of members of opposite-sex couples are employed
  • $86,000
    median household income of opposite-sex couples with both partners employed
  • 43.5% of opposite-sex couples have children under age 18 living at home

Note: Figures are from 2011.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau and the Williams Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles

Send an e-mail to Raymund Flandez.