Foundations lag in giving to LGBTQ causes

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday April 24, 2024
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Horizons Foundation President Roger Doughty, left, and Pride Foundation CEO Katie Carter. Photos: Courtesy Horizons Foundation, Pride Foundation
Horizons Foundation President Roger Doughty, left, and Pride Foundation CEO Katie Carter. Photos: Courtesy Horizons Foundation, Pride Foundation

LGBTQ issues in recent years have increasingly become a political flashpoint in school districts and statehouses across the country. Marriage equality is even making a return to the California ballot this November, 16 years after Golden State voters banned same-sex marriage via a ballot measure later overturned by federal courts but whose language remains embedded in the state constitution.

Yet, over the last decade, giving by the country's philanthropic foundations to LGBTQ causes has remained wanting. Reports have documented a spike in the amount of funds going toward LGBTQ nonprofits since 2015, but the starting point was so low that the figures can paint a misleading picture, contend philanthropic leaders from the LGBTQ community.

In 2021, for instance, foundational giving to LGBTQ causes reached $251 million, according to the most recent LGBTQ grantmaking by U.S. foundations tracking report released by Funders for LGBTQ Issues. But it represented just 0.13% of total charitable support doled out that year.

"It is an unbelievably small number. It speaks volumes to how relatively underfunded we are," said Roger Doughty, a gay man who is president of Horizons Foundation, the LGBTQ philanthropic organization that supports Bay Area nonprofits and service providers.

The one positive, noted Doughty, is the trajectory in foundational giving to LGBTQ causes has been trending upward. Between 2015 and 2019 it grew by 46%.

"At least it is going up, not down," he told the Bay Area Reporter during a recent interview.

Katie Carter, who is queer and CEO of the Pride Foundation that supports LGBTQ groups throughout the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, agreed with Doughty that the rising trend lines, while heartening to see, can give a false impression about the state of foundational giving. As the tracking report noted, for every $100 awarded by U.S. foundations in 2021, only 28 cents specifically supported LGBTQ communities and issues.

"Spoiler alert! Nothing dramatically has changed. It didn't go from 28 cents to $25. It has been pennies to a hundred dollars for years," said Carter, who recently joined the board of directors for the LGBTQ funders advocacy group. "Despite incredible efforts to bring more foundations into this space of funding LGBTQ services, it has not done much to actually shift their funding toward queer and trans communities."

The top funder of LGBTQ causes three years ago was Gilead Sciences Inc., which gave $53.3 million according to the report. It also topped the funders list in 2019 and 2020, according to the combined report for those years.

The Bay Area-based company increased its giving by $23.6 million over that three-year time frame. The maker of various HIV medications has touted for months its support of local LGBTQ nonprofits in a series of televisions ads.

"The number of foundations who appear to be stepping up their giving in significant ways is very small," noted Doughty.

Coming in second place for LGBTQ funders in 2021 was the Ford Foundation, which gave out $37.1 million. It was more than double what it had awarded in 2020 when it moved up from being in third in 2019 when it awarded $8.3 million.

The California Foundation came in third in the report for 2021 with $16.2 million in LGBTQ funds. It marked the first time it had made the list of top 10 funders.

The Wellspring Philanthropic Fund's allotment of $12.5 million placed it in fourth. Close behind in fifth place was the Gill Foundation, which awarded $12.2 million.

The remaining five funders gave between $9.8 million and $5.3 million to LGBTQ causes in 2021, per the report. Horizons Foundation, which awarded $4.8 million that year, came in 12th on the list.

The Pride Foundation was in 15th place due to its granting $3.3 million. It was a marked increase from its usual giving of more than $2 million due to the impacts agencies were feeling from the COVID crisis.

"We tripled our grant making. We found new resources and moved as much as we could as fast as we could," recalled Carter, whose foundation in late 2020 received $3 million from MacKenzie Scott, the former wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. "We didn't want to see organizations closing who had cash flow issues."

Foundational giving is largely concentrated in a handful of states, with LGBTQ awardees in California and New York receiving the bulk of the funding. Some other concerning trends contained in the most recent funders report found LGBTQ giving is "increasingly top-heavy," with the top 10 funders accounting for over 60% of the funding. The top 20 funders accounted for more than 70%, according to the report.

"It would be better to have a balance and more in the middle," said Doughty. "If you take out one of the top funders there is a gap. I wish it was different but not a lot of foundations are breaking down the door trying to make LGBTQ issues a priority."

This chart shows sources of LGBTQ funding by funder type in 2021. Image: Courtesy Funders for LGBTQ Issues  

Trans donations remain low
Giving targeted to trans communities remains low, despite the rights of trans individuals, especially youth, being targeted by a tsunami of anti-trans bills in legislatures across the country. Less than 4 cents per $100 in foundational giving went toward trans causes, according to the most recent tracking report.

"There is chronic underfunding in our communities and it has been the case for decades," said Carter, whose foundation is based in Seattle, Washington. "Following the marriage equality campaign's monumental win, an incredible amount of money left the movement at that time."

Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled same-sex marriage was a federal right in 2015, however, conservative groups and politicians have turned toward attacking not only trans people but also drag queens and venues that host drag events, especially public libraries that hold drag story hours. They have also banned LGBTQ-themed books from library shelves and restricted teachers from discussing LGBTQ topics in their classrooms.

"There has been an onslaught of anti-LGBTQ legislation at a time when money for our movement has not really been changing a lot," noted Carter.

In the region her foundation focuses on, it is one of the biggest funders of LGBTQ causes. It plans to award $2 million in grants this year.

"We are proud of that. It is a huge number for us," said Carter. "We are talking about hundreds of organizations who need resources more than we have possible."

When it comes to individual giving to LGBTQ causes, there is not as much data compared to foundational and governmental support, noted Carter. It is known that organizations in urban areas have a larger pool of donors to tap into than their more rural counterparts.

"We know a lot of it is contingent on where you live," said Carter.

Reports done by Giving USA for 2022 and 2023 found a 13% drop off in all types of giving, "which is a lot," said Doughty. The reports don't break down the data by LGBTQ funding.

"Inflation was probably a part of it because people are feeling pinched," he noted. "As large as 13% sounds, there are mitigating factors. It is not panic button time."

Studies of high-net-worth philanthropy conducted by the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy in partnership with U.S. Trust found that 6.5% of donors in 2020 said they gave to LGBTQ causes or organizations. It was up from the 4.8% of respondents who had done so in 2016.

Last May, using funding from as part of the Equitable Giving Lab, the school debuted its LGBTQ+ Index to better track charitable giving in the U.S. to LGBTQ organizations. It includes a searchable database with information on hundreds of LGBTQ agencies from across the country.

"Individual donors and institutional funders can use the research to identify gaps in existing resources and to tailor their giving based on the distinct characteristics of LGBTQ+ organizations," noted a report about the project, whose advisory council included both Carter and Doughty.

Kicking off next Wednesday, May 1, is Give OUT Day, now an annual monthlong campaign aimed at boosting donations from individuals and other sources to LGBTQ nonprofits. Horizons Foundation oversees the yearly effort, which raised $1.2 million in 2023.

As of 2023, Horizons' LGBTQ Community Endowment Fund had grown to $16.8 million, an increase of 65% since 2018. A major source of funding that Horizons receives comes from bequests and planned giving in people's wills. It has pledges totaling $145 million from such giving and aims to reach $250 million by 2026.

"That is our community's future," said Doughty, whose foundation awards at least 80% of the money it annually receives back into supporting the Bay Area LGBTQ community. "We can secure our community's future, though it won't solve everything."

In its fiscal year ending last June 30, Horizons' operating expenses were nearly $10 million with a staff of 12 people. It reported awarding 92% of those funds toward grants and programs.

Nationally, unlike with giving in other communities where the bulk of the funds pay for direct services and support artistic endeavors, more than half of the money given to LGBTQ causes is dedicated for civil rights advocacy, noted Doughty. It means there are fewer resources for direct services within the LGBTQ community.

"We know why. We are being attacked," he said, "perhaps more than ever right now."

This graphic shows local, state, and regional LGBTQ funding by region in 2021. Image: Courtesy Funders for LGBTQ Issues  

COVID impacts differ by region
With the latest tracking report covering the second year of the COVID pandemic, it found that grantmakers' support for efforts related to addressing the health crisis represented nearly 14% of overall funding to LGBTQ communities in 2021. Along the West Coast the global pandemic impacted regions differently.

With an uptick in individual giving spurred by the pandemic, Horizons was able to give out $1.5 million in emergency funds to Bay Area LGBTQ nonprofits during the onset of COVID. Few local organizations had to lay off staff, though they did reduce employee schedules as a cost-saving measure, said Doughty.

The federal government's payroll protection program was a major assist for many larger nonprofits but not as helpful to smaller ones, he added.

"I was actually surprised how relatively few organizations had to lay people off," Doughty told the B.A.R.

Sometime in 2025 Doughty is planning for his foundation to conduct a survey of local LGBTQ nonprofits to see how they are doing financially and what the trends are in both their individual and foundation support. Many are bracing to see if their budgets will be impacted this year by the fiscal decisions city and state leaders make as they contend with multimillion-dollar deficits.

"I am very concerned about that," said Doughty, particularly of the fiscal situation San Francisco faces this year.

Carter told the B.A.R. that agencies in her region saw institutional funding dip during the start of the COVID pandemic in 2020. Since then such resources have "risen a little bit," she said.

Her foundation currently employs 16 people and has an annual budget of $7 million due to being the fiscal sponsor for the next two years of the $2 million Queer Data Project based in Oregon. The statewide initiative is working to build community driven data collection efforts of the Beaver State's LGBTQ population.

"There is very little data that is about the queer community," said Carter.

One troubling trend she has seen over the past year is the closure of LGBTQ nonprofits her foundation had supported. Five have shuttered.

"We didn't see a lot of groups close during COVID. We are seeing groups close now," said Carter.

Why exactly is hard to say, she told the B.A.R.

"I don't know if I am ready to call it post-COVID yet. But people are tired and those who gave their all during those years need space and time to recharge," said Carter. "It is not for lack of need. They are not closing their doors because things are great here, so let's call it a day."

Part of it likely has to do with the minimal fiscal support many LGBTQ nonprofits receive, she said.

"There are not enough LGBTQ folks in their communities supporting those organizations and so few funders investing in LGBTQ organizations," said Carter.

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