An Explosion of Giving for Gay Advocacy

  • Public-Policy Reform
  • 1970

In 1970, RESIST, a Massachusetts-based funder that had supported draft resistance and opposition to the Vietnam War, awarded what is believed to be the first foundation grant to a gay and lesbian organization. The precise amount given to the Gay Liberation Front, a short-lived political group, is lost to history, but the gift marked the birth of a new field of philanthropy. As recently as 1986, giving to gay and lesbian causes was still tiny ($772,000 that year) but it proceeded to grow explosively—to $11 million in 1998, $49 million in 2004, and $129 million in 2013.

During the 1980s, the overwhelming majority of gay philanthropy involved health services, in response to the spread of HIV and AIDS. First there was donor funding for direct medical care at clinics. Then came a giant advocacy push for more government spending—which rose meteorically from $8 million (1982) to $30 billion (2014) at the federal level alone.

With radical groups like ACT UP and Queer Nation using protests to gain political traction, discrimination and “human rights” issues soon moved to the fore. Philanthropic giving became increasingly oriented toward public policy. Groups like the National LGBTQ Task Force (organizing), GLAAD (advocacy), PFLAG (support groups), Lambda Legal (litigation), and Human Rights Campaign (advocacy and lobbying) began to rake in tens of millions of dollars in contributions. During the decade starting in 2004, promotion of gay marriage became a dominant issue, with nonprofits like Freedom to Marry receiving multimillions for action campaigns.

In 2013, more than half of all philanthropic donations to gay causes came either from foundations wholly focused on gay issues (37 percent) or anonymous givers (12 percent). Of the remaining gifts, 44 percent came from multi-issue foundations, and 7 percent from corporations. The top funders that year (after the $17 million given anonymously) were the Arcus ($17 million), Ford ($15 million), Gill ($8 million), and Haas ($6 million) foundations.

The vast portion of this philanthropy is directed toward advocacy, litigation, media campaigns, political organizing, and other policy-related work. Only 11 percent of gay-related giving from 1970 to 2010 went for direct services to gay populations.

In the past decade, about 800 institutions and thousands of individual donors have given nearly a billion dollars to gay causes. With more than nine tenths of gay-oriented giving having emerged within the last decade and a half, this new field is likely to continue to mushroom in the future.

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