Let’s say a fabulously wealthy software mogul decided to open a charitable foundation in your town and then began doling out millions of dollars to cash-strapped community organizations. Chances are the townspeople would hail him as a hero, give him a key to the city, throw a parade in his honor, or at least give him a certificate of merit.
Unless, of course, the mogul happens to be Timothy E. Gill. In 1994, the founder of desktop publishing pioneer Quark, Inc., launched the Gill Foundation, a charity dedicated to the pursuit of equality for gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender individuals in Colorado Springs, Colorado—a community known for its deeply religious, conservative values. The foundation’s goal was to fight discrimination by making grants to both gay and mainstream organizations, thereby increasing the visibility and prestige of the homosexual community.
Six years later, Tim Gill is still waiting for his parade. The foundation’s tactics have come under fire from residents who chafe at what they see as Gill’s blatant attempts to buy support for its cause. Others have accused the charity of exerting inappropriate influence over its grantees by requiring them to change their mission statements to forbid discrimination against homosexuals.
“In order for them to win a foothold here, they have to buy their way in, because money is all they have,” says Steve Kenney, community-relations representative for Focus on the Family, a conservative pro-family organization based in Colorado Springs.
Even Gill’s critics, however, concede that the strategy is working. In its first year, the foundation literally couldn’t give its money away to groups that worried about being associated with a gay charity. This year, Gill expects to donate about $800,000 to 75 organizations in El Paso County, home of Colorado Springs. The foundation points with pride to the results of a 1999 University of Colorado survey, funded by Gill, showing that most gays and lesbians feel “more accepted” in Colorado Springs than they did a few years ago.
“Definitely, there was initially some resistance on the part of nonprofits. People needed convincing,” says Jan Brennan, program officer of Gill’s Gay and Lesbian Fund for Colorado. “We had some whose boards and staffs didn’t feel confident about receiving money from a gay and lesbian fund. We saw some hesitation and concern: ‘Is this for real? Do they have any ulterior motives?’ But we’ve definitely established ourselves as legitimate,” she says.
Will Perkins, a former leader of Colorado for Family Values, which placed Amendment 2, the anti-gay rights initiative, on the 1992 state ballot, agrees that Gill has changed some people’s minds about homosexuality.
“What the Gill Foundation is attempting to do—and they’ve been quite successful at it—is to buy legitimacy for the homosexual lifestyle,” says Perkins, who owns a car dealership in Colorado Springs. “They’ve put a lot of money in the Springs area, and part of the deal is to neutralize public opinion on homosexual behavior, and it’s been working.”
Perkins can take inadvertent credit for bringing the Gill Foundation to Colorado Springs. The passage of Amendment 2 turned Tim Gill from an openly gay but politically inactive “computer geek” to an outspoken advocate for gay rights. His first move was to pledge $1 million to educate Colorado voters about homosexuality and discrimination. Two years later, he founded the Gill Foundation.
He chose Colorado Springs in part because the foundation’s executive director lived there, but also because the town of 320,000, as the home of Colorado for Family Values, was seen as the catalyst for Amendment 2. The initiative, which banned homosexuals from receiving protected status under civil-rights laws, was the first—and remains the only—such measure to win statewide passage. It was struck down by the United States Supreme Court in 1996.
“Clearly there’s a recognition on our part that this is a symbolic presence,” says the Gill Fund’s Jan Brennan. “We’re certainly not out to oppose anyone. But El Paso County is a challenge, and our presence here plays a symbolic role.”
The Gill Foundation recently moved its main headquarters to Denver, where it oversees grants to gay and non-gay organizations nationwide. The foundation made $3.4 million in such grants last year. Its subsidiary, the Gay and Lesbian Fund for Colorado, which remains in Colorado Springs, exclusively funds groups in Colorado and El Paso County, with this year’s $1.54 million in grants split almost evenly between El Paso and the rest of the state.
In El Paso County, the Gay and Lesbian Fund has made grants to a wide range of county-based organizations, including Easter Seals, the American Lung Association, the Urban League, the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and the Girl Scouts. Before receiving a grant, groups must agree to add homosexuals to the anti-discrimination clause of their mission statements, and credit the fund publicly in their materials.
That insistence on changing nonprofits’ mission statements has led to accusations that Gill’s impulses are political, not philanthropic. “I’ve never met Mr. Gill—I’m sure he’s a bright, charming guy,” says Perkins. “But ordinarily, when you give money, you don’t discuss the mission statement. If you don’t like it, you just don’t give them any money.”
To Brennan, however, the mission-statement hurdle is a no-brainer. “Why would we give money to an organization that can turn around and fire us?” she asks.
Kenney says Gill is wielding its funding clout to push a social and political agenda on organizations that may not share the foundation’s views, but are too financially shaky to resist the prospect of a $50,000 grant.
“They’re trying to influence human-services providers to promote the gay–lesbian agenda,” says Kenney. “They’re going places where money is tight and there’s no faith basis or moral code. Or maybe they did have a moral code once, but it’s been diluted because they’re so desperate.”
Kenney believes that at the top of Gill’s agenda is convincingColorado Springs residents that homosexuality is an acceptable lifestyle. Once accomplished, it becomes easier to win voters over on a host of related political goals, such as adding homosexuals to hate-crimes laws, allowing same-sex couples to adopt children, and legalizing gay marriage.
“The danger is in the whole attack on family values, healthy lifestyles—basically, the whole foundation our country is based on,” says Kenney. “The whole agenda has been to normalize the homosexual lifestyle when in fact it’s not a normal thing.”
If Gill can meet its objectives in Colorado Springs, which boasts the nation’s largest concentration of religious nonprofits, the foundation can probably do it anywhere. “They’ve done such a good job normalizing their lifestyle that people [in Colorado Springs] are now asking, ‘What’s wrong with that?’” says Kenney.
Katherine Pease, executive director of the Gill Foundation, makes no apologies for using charitable grants as a catalyst for social change. “The fact of the matter is, in American democracy, money talks, period, whether it’s conservative money or gay money,” she says. “There’s no partisanship about that.”
One look at the foundation’s new Denver digs and it’s clear that Gill isn’t having any trouble paying the light bill. Located in a converted brick warehouse in trendy lower downtown, the office is walking distance from Coors Field, a sure sign of prosperity by Denver standards. The foundation’s suites are sleek and modern, while the mostly young staff of 35 looks as though it was hired off the set of a Gap commercial.
Except for Pease, who’s all business in a blue suit, heels and gold earrings. Hired in 1995 as the foundation’s first professional staffer, she as much as anyone has helped mold Gill into a model of the new philanthropy, a charity determined to do more for its clients than simply write checks.
Through its OutGiving Project, Gill helps train its grantees in the fine art of funding development, grant-writing, and networking. Gill also hosts regional and national donor conferences across the nation in an effort to draw software moguls, dot.com millionaires, and others with new wealth into the philanthropic community.
“Our motto is, ‘We not only teach people how to fish—we also teach them how to stock the pond,’” quips Pease.
That emphasis represents a major shift from gay-based philanthropy of the 1980s, when the vast majority of giving went to AIDS and HIV-related causes. For the past decade, the increasing role of the federal government in AIDS research, coupled with the success of immunity-enhancing drug therapies, has allowed foundations like Gill to look beyond the epidemic. Last year, for example, just 23 percent of Gill’s grant-making went to AIDS and HIV.
What that means is “the lesbian and gay community has been able to step up and look at the depth and breadth of gay–lesbian issues,” says Pease, namely those involving social acceptance, political influence, and legal rights.
With that in mind, Gill is trying to repeat its success in Colorado Springs. The foundation is now choosing each year nine non-urban communities—those with populations of fewer than 1.5 million—on which to focus its largesse. Like Colorado Springs, the communities are typically hard sells, located mainly in the deep South and the Rocky Mountain West; this year’s designees include Boulder, Colorado, Boise, and Des Moines.
Pouring money into places like Utah and Idaho may seem about as fruitful for a gay-rights foundation as pouring water onto desert sands, but to Pease, the more hostile the community, the better.
“That’s why we’re there—so that people in Boise don’t hit 16 and decide they have to move to San Francisco,” she says. “In small-town America, people are growing up with discrimination and that’s what we’re trying to focus [on]. We want to make sure that wherever they grow up, they’re not going to grow up fearful and be called fag, pussy, and everything else.”
For Paula Wolfe, who, as executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Utah, must have one of the world’s least enviable jobs, the grant from Gill was “crucial.” Raising money in a state dominated by the conservative Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is no mean feat: When she approaches the county and state for funding, “they say we’re part of the gay agenda and we’re trying to recruit.”
Last year, she applied for a grant from the state Department of Education to help fund her center’s AIDS and HIV education programs. “It was denied after someone sent a copy of [the video] ‘The Gay Agenda’ to every member of the state board of education,” she recalled. “Those are the kinds of things we struggle with.”
Her $15,000 grant from the Gill Foundation has helped buy the center a measure of credibility within the community. Recently, the city asked her to train the Salt Lake City police on hate crimes, she says, marking “the first time we as a [gay] community have worked with the police department.”
“In small rural communities where homosexuality is stigmatized, the Gill Foundation is a godsend,” concluded Wolfe.
Echoing those sentiments is Denise Stinson, coordinator for the Association for Children for Enforcement of Child Support (ACES). When the group formed its Colorado Springs chapter three years ago, volunteers were working from their kitchen tables on home computers. The group couldn’t afford basic services like printing, and its credibility with the county was nil.
Last year, Gill’s Gay and Lesbian Fund for Colorado became the first to finance the group with a grant of $7,500, followed by another $7,500 this year. It doesn’t sound like much, “but it’s a tremendous amount of money to us,” says Stinson.
She bought a computer, printer, and fax machine, and sent the group’s executive committee to Gill-sponsored training sessions on organization, fundraising, legal advice, and grant-writing. With the money and knowledge has come power, she says.
“Our first year without the Gill Foundation, we were viewed as a few grumpy women who wanted your money,” says Stinson. “Now the county looks at us as a well-organized, grass-roots organization with clear goals. They’ve referred to us as ‘the child-support experts.’ We’re often called by local TV for our expertise. It’s a big jump from grumpy old women.”
The decision to accept Gill funding has “probably rubbed some people the wrong way,” she acknowledged. “But we have people here telling us that if we’d stayed married, we wouldn’t have these child-support issues. So that rubs them the wrong way. We’re used to rubbing people the wrong way.”
Occasionally, a Gill grant results in an uproar, as it did earlier this year when the Gay and Lesbian Fund for Colorado gave $10,000 to help fund the Colorado Music Fest’s July 4 show in Pueblo. The Music Fest received about two dozen irate calls from locals objecting to the fund’s participation, according to the Pueblo Chieftain.
The complaints prompted Chieftain Lifestyle editor Marvin Read to defend the fund in a column. “Only one judgment is possible: Gosh, GLFC folks, thanks. Is there anything we can do for you in return? Like maybe open up our minds and hearts?” he wrote.
The Gill Foundation is the largest and wealthiest charity of its kind, but it’s by no means the only one: There are another 13 foundations promoting equality for gays, says Pease. And that worries Robert Knight, who tracks the homosexual-rights movement from the Family Research Council’s Washington, D.C. headquarters.
While Gill has spent $18 million since its inception on trying to change the hearts and minds of the American people on homosexuality, there has been little in the way of resistance from conservative foundations, many of which are leery of being labeled “hate-mongers” or “intolerant,” he says.
“Unfortunately, I don’t see a like-minded effort on the pro-family side,” says Knight. “This has become a David–Goliath effort, with only a handful of pro-family foundations weighing in against more than $100 million each year being spent for the sole purpose of gay activism.”
If the Gill Foundation is making those on the right uncomfortable, Pease says, that’s probably a good sign. “Are they concerned on the right? Well, I think they should be concerned, because a lot of people are dedicated to fighting for equality,” says Pease. “Our families are under siege and you’ll have people who will fight for basic dignity, and that’s a powerful thing.”
But Pease disagrees that gay-rights foundations like Gill have the upper hand, politically or financially. “Our friends down Interstate 25 at Focus [on the Family] have an annual budget of $125 million. That’s just one group,” she notes. “On our side, we’re seeing $100 million going to the gay–lesbian movement.”
Then there are the churches. “He [Knight] has organized religion on his side,” says Pease. “Some of us are giving and giving in great amounts, but it’s paltry next to what the Christian Coalition does.”
The difference is that while Gill is focused almost exclusively on promoting gay rights, groups like the Christian Coalition tend to spread their energy across a host of issues. Indeed, many Christians are reluctant to speak out against homosexuality, given that their charge is to love one another, says Kenney.
“For a conservative organization to counter them [gay-rights advocates] it could easily be looked at as inhumane,” says Kenney. “There’s nobody on the Christian conservative side who wants to take them on because these people are already hurting.”
Those at the Gill Foundation have undoubtedly been called worse, but until they’re viewed as normal people living an acceptable lifestyle—or until Tim Gill runs out of cash—the battle to ply their money on skeptical small-towners is likely to continue apace. “We have really come a long way. We’re making progress,” says Pease. “But we have a long way to go.”
Valerie Richardson is a contributing editor to Philanthropy.