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Ineke Mushovic Headshot

LGBT Movement Makes Major Advances, But Are They Sustainable?

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Last week was the kind of week that doesn't come around often. But when it does, it's a game-changer. In the space of eight hours the Obama administration announced that it would no longer defend the so-called "Defense of Marriage Act" in court, calling it unconstitutional; the Maryland Senate advanced a bill that would allow gay couples to marry (with the measure now awaiting House action); and Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie signed that state's recently passed civil union bill into law.

We've had a number of such moments in recent years: when Lawrence v. Texas struck down all sodomy laws in 2003; celebrating the first legal marriages of gay and lesbian couples in Massachusetts in 2004; passage of an LGBT-inclusive federal hate crime law in 2009; and the Don't Ask, Don't Tell repeal vote last year. All these pivotal moments were laid on a foundation of decades of hard work and are a reminder that steady efforts yield progress. We need strong movement organizations to be there, year in and year out, building, sustaining and sometimes reigniting momentum in the pursuit of equal treatment for all Americans.

Yet make no mistake: these are challenging times for LGBT organizations. Today the Movement Advancement Project (MAP) is releasing the results of an in-depth analysis of the financial health of 39 leading organizations in the national LGBT advocacy movement (representing 69 percent of the budgets of all LGBT social advocacy groups). The "2010 LGBT Movement Report," shows that these organizations reported a 20 percent revenue decline from 2008 ($202.7 million) to 2009 ($161.3 million), and further reductions of another 18 percent in their 2010 budgets ($135.4 million).

Yet the economic downturn has not stopped these organizations from advancing equality for LGBT people, or from continuing to show strong signs of financial health and operating efficiency. Despite the challenging fundraising climate, only 12 percent of all combined revenue was spent on fundraising, exceeding the standards of charity watchdogs such as the American Institute of Philanthropy and the Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance. While some groups had to scale back programs and take other steps to reduce expenses, the result is financial and operational stability. LGBT movement groups have adequate cash reserves, sufficient funds to cover their current expense obligations, and solid net assets, which suggest institutional durability. Their financial health remains strong.

Given the opportunities and challenges of this movement moment, however, these groups' financial health and base of support could be--and need to be--stronger. MAP analysis shows that fewer than 4 percent of all LGBT adults in the U.S. are donating $35 or more to these organizations. At the same time, just the top 10 anti-LGBT organizations--groups like Focus on the Family, Family Research Council, American Family Association and the National Organization for Marriage--spent $333.1 million in 2009. That amounts to twice the 2009 expenses of all 39 participating LGBT organizations combined ($165.6 million).

And anti-LGBT activists are not slowing down. For example, they are trying to eliminate marriage for same-sex couples in Iowa, New Hampshire and Washington, D.C., and they're trying to pass or introduce anti-marriage amendments in Indiana, and North Carolina. As has been the case following every significant advance the LGBT movement has made, anti-LGBT organizations are responding aggressively to reverse our progress.

In the face of opponents' threats, we will need to sustain and defend the progress, not only of the past week, but of the past few years. In addition to the federal hate crime law and in-progress repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell, LGBT advocates have recently secured marriage in Connecticut, Iowa, New Hampshire, Vermont and Washington, D.C.; civil unions or domestic partnerships in Hawaii, Illinois, Nevada, Oregon and Washington State; LGBT-inclusive anti-bullying laws in Illinois, North Carolina, New Hampshire, New Jersey and New York; and a growing number of federal administrative successes.

It can be easy to take these successes and the organizations and advocates who helped make them happen, for granted--particularly when recent headlines seem so hopeful. But with falling LGBT organizational revenue and renewed opponent activity, this would be a mistake.

Given the tiny portion of LGBT adults who give $35 or more to a national LGBT organization, it's worth asking: What could we achieve if 25 percent of LGBT adults gave? Or 50 percent? Or if each LGBT person who gives convinced a straight ally to do the same?

There are over 550 LGBT non-profits nationwide including the 39 organizations listed in the MAP report. No matter what a person's interest--local, state, federal; advocacy, litigation, public education, services, arts and culture--there is a group doing essential work in that field.

Amid the current fiscal challenges, the ability of LGBT movement organizations to seize emerging opportunities and defend hard-won progress is critical. How far and fast our movement can go in the months and years to come depends not just on the legal, political and cultural climate, but also on the resources we can bring to the table and the willingness of the LGBT community and its allies to support this work.