After a Gay Rights Victory, a New Challenge for Grantmakers

Wednesday, July 10, 2013
by Michael Seltzer, Trustee, EMpower-The Emerging Markets Foundation, and past President, Philanthropy New York
Two days before the 44th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots that occurred on the streets of my own neighborhood, Greenwich Village, the Supreme Court found that the Defense of Marriage Act violates the Constitution of the United States and that marriage equality is the law in those states where same-sex marriage is legal. While this decision came on the heels of another Supreme Court decision dealing a unconscionable blow to voting rights, the Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage will long be known as one of the most significant and historic civil rights victories in our lifetime.
It also marks a time for philanthropy to reflect on its power to further social justice — nonprofits, with the support of foundations, paved the way for this decision, but now donors have much more work to do to help assure full equality for all.
Out of the Shadows
It was just four decades ago when Stonewall ignited the birth of hundreds of grassroots nonprofit organizations to provide refuge for LGBT individuals and families suffering from hostility and to fight flagrant discrimination and homophobia.
When I resided in Philadelphia, the reputed city of brotherly love, in the 1970s, the city’s first LGBT organizations opened their doors. They included the Eromin Center (an acronym for erotic minorities), which provided mental health services; CALM (Custody for Lesbian Mothers), which assisted women who were caught in legal battles to retain custody of their children; and the Gay Activists Alliance.
A small handful of foundations, including The Philadelphia Foundation, the van Ameringen Foundation and the People’s Fund (now known as the Bread & Roses Community Fund), provided support to these organizations. Yet, such grants were few in number nationwide. Most organizations managed to survive solely on individual donations.
In the mid-1970s, a small handful of out foundation professionals — including Terry Lawler, Katherine Acey and myself — came together at a meeting of the Network of Change-Oriented Foundations to form the Working Group for Funding Lesbian and Gay Issues to redress this glaring absence of foundations in the civil rights struggle of LGBT communities.
Fortunately, foundations have traveled a long road since those early days. In 1987, The Paul Rapoport Foundation broke ground when it opened its doors as the first private endowed foundation focusing on LGBT issues. Other private foundations like the Gill Foundation, based in Denver, soon expanded their ranks. In 2000, the Arcus Foundation was founded to promote lesbian and gay equality worldwide. Public LGBT foundations also played a critical role as early supporters of local critically important efforts.
According to Funders for LGBTQ Issues, in 2011, close to 400 foundations had awarded 3,728 grants totaling $123 million to projects and organizations focusing on LGBT issues across the United States and around the world.
Embracing Same-Sex Marriage
Some of these funders focused on promoting same-sex marriage. The Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund, based in San Francisco, awarded the first grant in support of freedom-to-marry efforts in 2001.
Other funders formed partnerships to maximize their impact. By 2013, the foundations that are part of the Civil Marriage Collaborative — among them the Open Society Institute — had invested close to $17 million, making it one of the leading sources of support for 501(c)3 nonprofit organizations working on marriage equality. It supported grantees in a total of 20 states and the District of Columbia. As a result, grantees were able to develop and execute innovative, multi-pronged public education efforts using the latest research and evaluations on the efficacy and impact of such work. Efforts included public education, research, polling, message development, grassroots and grass tops mobilization and coalition-building activities. Paul Di Donato, Program Officer and Director of the Civil Marriage Collaborative, notes that “foundations have been instrumental in funding increasingly cutting-edge public education efforts to advance the debate on marriage equality and change hearts and minds on this critical issue of fairness, justice and equality.”
Ben Francisco Maulbeck, President of Funders for LGBTQ Issues, also notes that “the philanthropic community played an essential role in all that we have won and in all the work that lies ahead.”
Fortunately, other players have started to support equality efforts. Last November, the Ford Foundation, the nation’s second largest foundation, announced a 10-year, $50 million initiative to secure equal rights and protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals.
Surina Khan, Director of the foundation’s gender rights and equality program, said, “We believe that LGBT rights are fundamental civil rights. We have chosen to fund statewide and national efforts to improve the lives of LGBT people, promoting greater inclusion, acceptance and respect for LGBT people — and indeed for all people.”
The Road Ahead
In spite of the Supreme Court’s momentous decision, there is an even greater need for foundation leadership ahead. Much work remains to be done. Twenty-nine states, for example, do not protect lesbian, gay or bisexual workers from employment discrimination based on sexual orientation. And, of course, 37 states have not yet made same-sex marriage legal.
J. Bob Alotta, Executive Director of the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice, notes that the work to secure civil rights is far from completed: “We are funding in 43 states and 81 countries, and have learned that we must not draw neat lines around decades or movements and say, ‘Done.’ Our work is not done. We are erasing the torture of our ancestors, the toil of our predecessors, and our best imaginable selves if we do not rise up immediately and demand justice. We have no choice but to physically stand where the law now refuses to go. But I am so, so proud of all of the people who have brought this day to fruition. I also, deeply, believe in tomorrow.”
Michael Seltzer is a Distinguished Lecturer and an affiliated faculty member of Baruch College’s Center for Nonprofit Strategy and Management and a Trustee of EMpower-The Emerging Markets Foundation. Previously, he served as the President of the New York Regional Association of Grantmakers (now known as Philanthropy New York), and as the program officer at the Ford Foundation in charge of advancing organized philanthropy worldwide. He also served at the New School University as a Senior Fellow and Acting Chair of its Masters in Nonprofit Management Program. Currently, he is a regular contributor to PhilanTopic, the blog of the Foundation Center, and a member of the National Advisory Committee of GreatNonprofits. He consults with numerous foundations and nonprofits in the United States and around the globe.
(A shorter version of this piece appeared in The Chronicle of Philanthropy on July 1, 2013.)
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