Back in 2001, when philanthropist Chuck Williams donated $2.5 million to UCLA to found the Williams Institute, he knew he was filling a critical void. At the time, national support for same-sex marriage was growing but still languished below 30 percent, and 14 states still enforced anti-sodomy laws.
What Williams didn’t know was that his donation would go on record as the largest ever given to an academic institution in support of a gay and lesbian center for scholarship. And he probably couldn't have imagined how many other funders would eventually follow his lead in supporting the institute, as LGBT giving soared during the first decade of the 21st century and the Williams Institute carved out a unique niche as America's top LGBT legal policy shop.
Chuck Williams' total donations to the institute now stand at over $13 million, and a half dozen other individual donors have made gifts of between $1 million and $5 million. Williams has also pulled in a steady stream of grants from top foundations in the LGBT space.
Arcus is a committed supporter of the institute and since 2009 has granted more than $600,000 to help it produce and disseminate research on legal and economic issues, travel to international conferences, and even outline the steps needed to provide protections for LGBT workers through a federal executive order, which was recently signed by President Obama at the end of July.
Likewise over the past five years, the Gill Foundation has awarded the institute more than $1.7 million, which has helped the institute produce supplemental data that indirectly helped overturn anti-gay marriage laws, anti-gay adoption and parenting laws, and changed the U.S. Census to collect more accurate data about LGBT Americans.
Other foundations backing the Williams Institute include the David Bohnett Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the Haas Fund. Beyond these usual suspects, a surprising number of corporate funders have given to the institute at one time or another, including Wells Fargo, Morgan Stanley Smith Barney, and Goldman Sachs.
So what's the institute's magic formula for burying itself in money? Well, before getting to that question, some perspective is in order: The institute is relatively small, with only 20 or so full-time staff. Other LBGT nonprofits, most notably Human Rights Campaign, are much, much bigger.
As for the formula, it not one thing, but a combination of things. First, the institute is the dominant player in its niche, which it describes "as sexual orientation and gender identity law and public policy." While there's a lot of LGBT policy work going on in various places, Williams has long held a big lead when it comes to legal issues, and it's unique in tapping the firepower of a top law school.
Second, those legal issues moved progressively to the forefront over time. When marriage equality was just a dream, advocacy work was where the action was. But as the LGBT rights movement gained traction, won victories, and moved into the nuts-and-bolts phase of implementation on marriage and other issues, bringing in the lawyers became more important. Obama's executive branch order is a great example: Someone had to translate the broad goal behind the order into legalese. Of course, legal groups working in other civil rights movements have also been magnets for money in the past, so the success of the Williams Institute is hardly a unique phenomenon.
Third, the institute's fortunes have risen along with many other LGBT outfits in the past decade thanks to a big influx of new money. Foundation funding for LGBT issues quadrupled between 2003 and 2011, rising from $32 million to a $123 million. Individual giving also soared, and the Williams Institute has done particularly well in this regard. Have some clever development folks at UCLA have been hooking up the insitute with well-heeled LGBT alumni? We wouldn't be surprised.
Finally, the Williams Institute has soared because it's been damn good at what it does. Academic policy centers fade into esoteric irrelevance all the time, but not Williams. It's pumped out a huge volume of timely and relevant research written in plain English, and it's been savvy in playing the media game.
You name a hot LGBT issue, of the past or present, and Williams has jumped on it. The Williams Institute’s team of legal scholars, economists, and social scientists specialize in a cross-section of issues including marriage rights, employment discrimination, adoption and parenting, violence and crime, and immigration. The institute's meaty research on LGBT demographics has broken new ground over the years.
All told, the institute lists over a dozen different research topics on its website, and something is usually crackling in one of these areas, keeping Williams in the news, and in the policy arena.
So, the moral of story? Work the right niche at the right time, yes, but also excel.