Keeping Up the Momentum: Funding Rises Again for LGBTQ Causes, Especially Down South

What is the good news in LGBTQ philanthropy these days, and where do challenges remain? It turns out that despite the oppressive political climate—or in response to it—there is a lot to be optimistic about in the funding world. Giving for LGBTQ causes increased again in 2017, for the fifth year in a row.

For members of the LGBTQ community, allies, service providers and funders, this is a difficult era, but one in which hope persists, according to Funders for LGBTQ Issues President Ben Francisco Maulbeck and Vice President of Research and Communications Lyle Matthew Kan, who shared insights on their latest funding analysis with Inside Philanthropy.

A few years ago, in the wake of the 2015 marriage equality victory, many advocates feared there would be a falloff in support for LGBTQ communities. That didn’t happen. Funders for LGBTQ Issues’ 2016 report showed foundation funding on the rise. The 2017 study shows that this trend continued, with funding from U.S. foundations reaching a record-breaking $185.7 million in 2017. While LGBTQ issues actually received $202.3 million the year before, the response to the Pulse Nightclub massacre in Orlando accounted for about $30 million. Because this portion was essentially disaster-relief funding, it is not included in most of the group’s funding comparisons.

Kan tells us that while funding has seen a “meaningful” increase, it is still “slightly shy of the $200 million goal,” which Funders for LGBTQ Issues set in its 2015 strategic plan. With the Pulse giving excluded, funding rose 6 percent in 2017—a similar growth rate to recent years. The top five funders overall were the Arcus and Ford foundations, Gilead Sciences, the Gill Foundation and Open Society Foundations—all long-term supporters of these causes. A very notable jump in the 2017 report was that giving increased the most in the South, an area of historic underinvestment, while the Midwest and Mountain States remain areas of need. This falls in line with a larger recent increase of philanthropic activity in the South.

LGBTQ Giving Trends

When he discusses LGBTQ funding, Maulbeck focuses a lot on the South, a region that’s been a major focus of the affinity group’s work lately. He identifies it as the area of greatest recent funding success, and attributes this, in part, to his organization’s ongoing Out in the South initiative. In 2012, $4.8 million in foundation funding was devoted to these LGBTQ communities and, by 2016, that number more than tripled, at nearly $18 million. In 2017, the South became the most funded area for the first time since the group began tracking, receiving more than $22 million. The South came in just above the Northeast, where funding actually dropped after 2016. New York and California were once again the top funded states in 2017.

Maulbeck says the growth in the South was due to Out in the South and “a growing number of national and Southern funders recognizing that the South is, and always has been, a site of inspiring resistance and movement-building for social change.” Maulbeck mentions the fight against anti-LGBTQ bills as one area of focus in this region.

He also sees the South as an ongoing area of challenge and uncertainty, describing the funding there as “uneven.” Only five of 14 Southern states have surpassed $1 million in LGBTQ funding, although the current increase is highly dependent on a small number of funders, many based outside the region. Arkansas, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Virginia and West Virginia receive LGBTQ funding that ranges from $0 to less than $300,000, which Maulbeck describes as “not nearly enough to resource the movement infrastructure for an entire state.”

Meanwhile, the Midwest and mountain states remain areas of concern. While LGBTQ funding in these regions increased in 2017, they currently have the lowest amount of resources. The Midwest receives the smallest amount of LGBTQ-related funding per LGBTQ adult.

Maulbeck says that this and other data highlight the limits of LGBTQ philanthropy. “The small cadre of LGBTQ funders just don’t have the collective resources to support the many needs of our communities across the country at any kind of scale.” This is why the affinity group is always looking to engage more funders, especially “at the local level, who are closest to the ground and can offer more sustainable resources for LGBTQ grassroots groups.”

Community foundations have been more embracing of LGBTQ causes over time as progressive, accepting attitudes become more mainstream. In 2017, these foundations saw the greatest increase among funding sectors, nearly doubling 2016 amounts. Funders for LGBTQ Issues reports that significant growth in donor-advised giving is one reason for this jump.

Public foundation funding stayed at a similar rate between 2016 and 2017, while funding from private foundations—the biggest givers—increased.

Corporate foundation grantmaking also rose in 2017. Gilead Sciences, ViiV Healthcare, Wells Fargo and Google all notably upped their LGBTQ funding. And funding by U.S. foundations for LGBTQ issues outside the country continues to grow—it set a record for grantmaking for the second year in a row.

Another triumphant stat from the recent report is that giving to U.S. trans communities reached a new high of $22.6 million in 2017. Along with Out in the South, Grantmakers United for Trans Communities (GUTC) is another one of this network’s signature programs; they both seem to be having an impact.

Despite the overall growth in foundation giving and the many important services this funding supports, people who are LGBTQ still face numerous challenges in the U.S. and beyond. For example, violence against these communities in on the rise in many places, including in the U.S. The absence of legal protections and the introduction of new policies that exclude, oppress and/or punish LGBTQ people is ongoing in America. Most states lack explicit laws prohibiting LGBTQ discrimination across sectors like employment and housing, and new bills citing religion as justification to discriminate keep popping up. While rights for these communities slowly continue to become more common and established globally, there are still about 70 countries where this identity is considered illegal. At Funding Forward 2019, Maulbeck was careful to point out that progress is “not the same as victory.”

An Affinity Group Looks Forward

Funders for LGBTQ Issues has about 80 members. It’s more than doubled its staff and more than tripled its revenue in the last few years, and it recently released a new strategic plan. The 2019 Funding Forward was its ninth annual conference and covered topics including immigration, bisexual health, religious freedom, LGBTQ representation in philanthropy, conversion therapy and Native American Two Spirit communities. It is the second year for the Pride in Philanthropy Awards, and the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice—a top 10 funder in 2017—won the 2019 OUT for Impact Award. Cindy Rizzo of the Arcus Foundation won the Reed Erickson Award for Trailblazing Leadership.

The organization also offers trainings customized for funders’ interests and location, and Maulbeck gave us a few examples. “[One] funder with a focus on economic opportunity was astounded by the data we shared on the disproportionate poverty faced by LGBTQ communities.” He adds that after the training, the funder awarded its first LGBTQ grant to advance economic opportunity. “[Another] undertook a training specifically on trans issues, and is now in the process of reviewing its internal policies to be more trans-inclusive.” He explains that adjusting employee hiring forms to be more intentionally inclusive of gender identities is one way to do this.

Maulbeck also shares a story of a recent training for the board of a family foundation that was given after a family member came out as transgender. He described the family’s love and support for their relative as “palpable and moving.” They were disturbed by the lack of funding for trans communities, “but also felt like they had an opportunity for tremendous impact on an issue that means so much to them personally… In a time when the divisiveness in our country can feel overwhelming, seeing a family grow and learn and give together for equality and justice was nothing short of inspiring.” Next to all the financial data, policy battles and strategic agendas, zeroing in on unique encounters illuminates the powerful impact philanthropic affinity groups can have.

“I look to you: my colleagues, my friends, my chosen family in philanthropy and beyond. I see all that you and we are doing, and my optimism is recharged,” Maulbeck wrote in a letter accompanying the new strategic plan. His address at Funding Forward 2019 conveyed a similarly motivating message, centering on the power of community: “Let’s not count on just one philanthropic leader—let’s build a movement of LGBTQ superheroes... together, we can save each other.”