Human Rights Campaign

  • Public-Policy Reform
  • 1980

The Human Rights Campaign began its life in 1980 as a PAC—a mechanism for funneling campaign donations to elect gay-friendly politicians. In 1982 the organization distributed $140,000 to 118 congressional candidates. Four decades later, HRC was the largest gay-advocacy group in the country, and electoral campaigning was still a huge part of its purpose. In the 2012 Presidential campaign year, HRC raised or contributed more than $20 million to influence referenda on same-sex marriage, elect pro-gay members of Congress, and re-elect Barack Obama.

In 1995, when HRC was a $6 million organization with both 501(c)(3) advocacy and 501(c)(4) political action arms, it reorganized—adding new family projects and work projects, and expanding all research, communications, and public-relations efforts. The nonprofit grew rapidly into a $57 million-per-year operation by 2014. Major donors now supply 22 percent of its income; smaller individual contributions total 38 percent; bequests come to 5 percent; and investments, merchandise, and special events provide a quarter of the group’s revenue.

The Human Rights Campaign operates a sophisticated and effective lobbying effort in Washington, D.C. It recruits attorneys from major law firms to provide pro bono litigation services. And it has worked hard to make allies among other activist groups on the political left so it can later call in chits for its priorities.

HRC has also assiduously cultivated the entertainment industry. Producers, writers, actors, musicians, and others have been honored at dinners, given awards, and involved in marketing efforts. This has yielded not only many celebrity endorsements and financial contributions, but also television story lines that have brought gay-friendly ideas and characters into the living rooms of everyday Americans over two decades—which the organization has found invaluable to its political and policy advocacy.