What Does It Feel Like To Win? This Top LGBT Funder Tells Us

Long before David Bohnett struck gold in the dotcom boom of the 1990s, and long before he began giving away millions to LGBT and other causes, he was a rare, openly gay MBA student at the University of Michigan. His activism included manning the "gay crisis hotline," where he talked to students about how to come out.

Bohnett also volunteered to go to freshman psychology classes as a live specimen of a homosexual. He would stand before the students, looking like the perfectly normal Midwesterner that he was, and say, "I'm gay, ask me anything." 

Things have sure come a long way. In fact, it's hard to think of any social movement of the past quarter century that has triumphed as decisively as the LGBT movement. It's also hard to think of any movement in which philanthropy has played such a decisive role in accelerating changes in culture and policy. 

That philanthropy has been a very strategic and closely coordinated effort by a relatively small group of super-wealthy individuals along with a handful of foundations. And while David Bohnett has never given to LGBT causes anywhere on the scale of either Tim Gill or the billionaire heir Jon Stryker (who funds the Arcus Foundation), he's been a key player in this effort for the past 15 years. 

Which means that Bohnett knows what it feels like to win, and win big, in a way that most donors will never experience. 

"I feel a tremendous sense of pride and accomplishment," Bohnett said in a recent interview, about the impact of his LGBT giving, which has totaled $17 million since 1999, and more if you count political donations (Bohnett was the single largest donor fighting California's Proposition 8 in 2008, putting up $2 million).

Bohnett made clear that it was too early to declare victory. "I know there's still a lot of states where people can't marry," he told me. But with state marriage bans being overturned left and right, and the dominoes "falling faster than anyone ever expected." But he, like many LGBT funders, senses that his work on marriage equality is finished. While he may still fund various things in this space, "I'm prepared to move on to other opportunities." 

It's not often that philanthropists get to declare victory and move on. And the remarkable thing about the journey of Bohnett and other early LGBT funders is how improbable it once seemed that they would get to this point on marriage equality so quickly, much less change cultural norms so dramatically. 

When Bohnett started his serious LGBT activism in the 1980s in Los Angeles with his then-partner Rand Schrader, a prominent gay activist, his hopes were very modest: to make "incremental progress over time" in what would be a "long march."

The AIDS epidemic, which took Schrader's life, accelerated the pace of LGBT activism and change. After Schrader died in 1993 and Bohnett was left, thanks to federal estate law, without assets, he set out to build an Internet business called GeoCities. Things took off, and GeoCities became the third most visited site on the Internet. Bohnett took the company public and then sold it to Yahoo in 1999, walking away with several hundred million dollars. 

He used his new wealth to set up a foundation and plunged into the still relatively new world of LGBT philanthropy, as well as political giving. Bohnett started funding a number of organizations, including GLAAD and Human Rights Campaign, but by 2000, he had fixed a clear, long-term goal that he wanted to help achieve with his philanthropy: marriage equality.

That fall, at a political fundraiser at his home in Los Angeles that included a number of U.S. senators, Bohnett called for full equality for gays and lesbians, including same-sex marriage. "At the end of the day," he told the group, "all I really want is to marry the man I love, and live in our society with the same rights and privileges as everyone else."

Back then, marriage equality was still a goal that seemed far-fetched and was quite controversial. "It was very challenging to bring the community along," Bohnett said, of the reluctance many advocates felt about pushing this issue. "But I always believed it was possible." Bohnett thought it would take "twenty years." 

Bohnett's conviction was shared by a group of other individual donors with whom he had begun working closely, including Tim Gill (widely viewed as the most important LBGT funder of recent times), Jon Stryker (the richest such funder), James Hormel (the food heir and one of the oldest funders in this space), Henry van Ameringen, and Jonathan Lewis (son of the late billionaire insurance magnate Peter Lewis). 

Hormel was an especially early and strong proponent of marriage equality. Bohnett recalls him saying, "This is where we've got to go." 

The legalization of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts in May 2004 was a big turning point, and ironically, it was the religious right and the GOP which, by making it a wedge issue in 2004 through ballot initiatives in numerous states, elevated the issue further. These efforts to ban same-sex marriage triggered a counter-mobilization of activism and philanthropic dollars, and Proposition 8 stepped up the battle even more. For example, between 2007 and 2009, the Arcus Foundation ramped up its LGBT rights giving by 50 percent. The Gill Foundation also increased its giving. Between 2005 and 2011, giving by all LGBT funders nearly doubled, to $123 million. 

And today, watching those dominoes fall in state after state, David Bohnett feels both extremely satisfied and grateful at his chance to have been part of it all. 

Still, though, he is struck by how hard it remains for many gay people to come out, even now. He thought that achieving marriage equality would have a bigger impact on that very personal struggle, the one that he first worked on at the campus hotline in Ann Arbor so long ago. 

So Bohnett knows that his work as an LGBT philanthropist is far from complete. He plans to continue his giving, but with some changes, including more focus on leadership development. But Bohnett is quick to say that shifts in his foundation's giving priorities will happen slowly. "Surprises are very difficult for grantees... we don't do quick pivots."

Bohnett also shared with me that he still has plenty of money left, despite giving away a total of $53 million to all philanthropic causes over the past 15 years. Significant new money is set to flow for his philanthropy because of arrangements he made years ago.

Bohnett says about his giving: "I'll be able to do this for the rest of my life."