The Marriage Equality Hall of Fame: 8 Funders Who Helped Make It Happen

It's always hard to pinpoint the role of philanthropy in bringing about big changes in society and, to be sure, there are many reasons why same-sex marriage is fast becoming legal across the United States, a trend that yesterday's Supreme Court decision has accelerated. 

But, wow, if ever there was a great case study of focused and strategic philanthropy that got results, this is it. For nearly 15 years, a relatively small group of super-wealthy individuals, along with a handful of foundations, have pushed hard for marriage equality and other changes to grow public support for LGBT rights more generally. They have spent hundreds of millions of dollars, exponentially ramping up funding since the start of the century. 

Back around 2000, when this effort got underway, most of these funders envisioned a long fight ahead for marriage equality, possibly taking decades. Some wondered if they would ever win at all. And, in those early days, there was anything but consensus in the broader LGBT advocacy world that marriage equality was the right goal to pursue. Funders played a crucial role in putting this issue on the agenda and keeping it there. 

There have been different moments to pop the champagne in the past year or two. And while some of those pivot points have been more exuberant than yesterday's, none have felt as definitive. Yes, plenty of work remains, but the marriage equality battle is now won. 

So who are the funders I'm talking about? Eight stand out:


Gill, who made his fortune in the tech boom of the 1990s, is widely regarded as the most important LGBT funder of recent times. He spent around a quarter-billion dollars to promote LGBT equality through the Gill Foundation. But he was also engaged in heavy political spending through a sophisticated effort that drew on both his own wealth and mobilized that of other donors to target key races, mainly at the state level, with the goal of achieving marriage equality in places like New York. (See IP's guide to the Gill Foundation's LGBT giving.)

Gill's fast and furious philanthropic spending offers up a great example of the benefits of frontloading big giving. He didn't just catch the wave of social change around LGBT issues—his foundation helped create that wave. 


While Gill has been the strategic mastermind, Stryker brought some of the deepest pockets to the marriage equality fight, as the billionaire heir to a medical instruments fortune. Stryker came out relatively late in life and then, as if to make up for lost time, set up the Arcus Foundation in 2000, which quickly became one of the top funders of LGBT work. Since 2007, the foundation has spent over $100 million supporting a wide range of organizations pressing for LGBT rights, including many working specifically on marriage equality. (See IP's guide to Arcus LGBT giving.)

Stryker has also been a major political donor, giving mainly at the state level (often in coordination with Tim Gill) to influence elections with an eye toward electing legislators friendly to marriage equality and other LGBT rights, particularly in his home state of Michigan, where Stryker has spent millions of dollars. 


The Haas Fund has been in the LGBT equality space for decades, spending roughly $70 million. It declared its support for marriage equality in 2001, becoming the first major established foundation in the U.S. to embrace this goal. Over the years, Haas has targeted spending on a number of different fronts in the marriage equality fight, including legal and advocacy work to challenge DOMA and Proposition 8. Perhaps no foundation in the LGBT area has focused so relentlessly and specifically on marriage equality as Haas. (See IP's guide to Haas LGBT funding.)


Ford has helped orchestrate every civil rights breakthrough of the past half century, and marriage equality is no exception. Ford is among the largest funders of LGBT rights on an annual basis, spending $11.4 million in 2012 alone. That money goes out to a wide array of institutions employing different approaches, including many which have worked on marriage equality. Ford's overall spending in recent decades on LGBT issues tops $70 million. (See IP's guide to Ford LGBT funding.)


Like Gill, Bohnett made his money in the dotcom boom, and has been funding LGBT causes ever since. His total giving through the David Bohnett Foundation doesn't come anywhere close to what Gill and Stryker have given away, but on the political side things, Bohnett was the single biggest funder of efforts to stop Proposition 8 in California and he's been a die-hard member of the cabal of funders who pushed marriage equality early on as a top goal. 

A pivotal moment for Bohnett came in fall 2000, at a political fundraiser at his home in Los Angeles that included a number of U.S. senators. There, 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." (See my profile of Bohnett.)


The heir to a flavor and fragrance company, Amerigen has been a major supporter of LGBT causes through his New York-based H. van Amerigen Foundation. Amerigen has kept an extremely low profile, but he's known to have worked closely with Tim Gill, Jon Stryker, David Bohnett, and James Hormel in coordinating both his philanthropic and political giving. Together, this cabal of five funders was super-focused on marriage equality from 2000 onward. The organization Funders for LGBTQ Issues has estimated that the H. van Amerigen Foundation gave around $25 million to LGBT causes between 1970 and 2010, and it's continued giving since. 


An heir to a food fortune, Hormel is a long-time veteran of the battle for LGBT rights broadly and the marriage equality fight in particular. His funding in this area goes back to least 1981, when Hormel was among the founders of Human Rights Campaign. David Bohnett recalls that Hormel was among the funders most adamant about focusing on marriage equality years ago, when this cause seemed unrealistic to many advocates. Bohnett recalls him saying, "This is where we've got to go." 


Williams bankrolled the creation of the Williams Institute in 2001 at the UCLA Law School, and it has since become the premier legal policy shop of the LGBT movement, with its fingers in nearly every important fight of the past 13 years, including the different stages of the marriage equality battle. Chuck Williams' total donations to the institute now stand at over $13 million. (See IP's recent article on the Williams Institute.)


My original version of this piece neglected to mention the crucial role of the Open Society Foundations in backing marriage equality. That was a major oversight. OSF was an early funder in this area, and was one of the first significant funders of both Freedom to Marry and the Civil Marriage Collaborative, two organizations that were pioneers in pushing marriage equality. From 2000 to 2005, a pivotal period in the marriage equality fight, OSF invested $5.1 million in LGBT rights organizations. This early money, including to back state level fightslike a 2005 legal challenge in Iowawas arguably more important than the bigger money that came in from other funders later on. OSF's grantmaking in the LGBT space has remained significant. For example, it gave $7.4 million for these issues in 2011. 


Beyond these eight funders, there are many others who played an important role in bringing about marriage equality. Philanthropy is very much a team sport, and nobody wins a victory alone. Of particular note are the many anonymous donors who have poured a vast fortune into LGBT groups over the years. In 2012 alone, anonymous funders gave over $20 million for LGBT work. 

These people may not receive public credit, but surely this week they are savoring victory in their own private ways.