After a Gay Rights Victory, A New Challenge for Grant Makers

It 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.
07/09/2013 01:16 pm ET Updated Sep 08, 2013

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 the decision came on the heels of another Supreme Court decision dealing an unconscionable blow to voting rights, the Court's decision on same-sex marriage will long be known as one of the most significant and historic civil rights victories in our lifetimes.

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 grassroots nonprofit organizations to provide refuge for LGBT individuals and families suffering from hostility and to fight flagrant discrimination and homophobia.

In Philadelphia, the reputed city of brotherly love, where I resided in the 1970's, the first LGBT organizations in that city opened their doors. They included the Eromin Center -- an acronym for erotic minorities -- that provided mental health services, CALM -- the acronym for Custody for Lesbian Mothers -- that 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 and Roses Community Fund) provided support to these organizations. Yet, such grants were few in numbers nationwide. Most organizations managed to survive solely on individual donations.

In the mid-1970's, a small handful of out foundation professionals including Terry Lawler, Katherine Acey and me came together at a meeting of the Network of Change-Oriented Foundation 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 3,078 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 multi-funder 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 efficacy and impact of such work. Efforts included public education, research, polling, message development, grassroots and grass tops mobilization and coalition-building activities. Paul DiDonato, 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, notes, "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, notes, "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 Foundation, 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 at the Baruch College School of Public Affairs in New York City, and a frequent contributor to PhilanTopic. A shorter version of this article appeared on the Chronicle of Philanthropy website.