Here's One Funder Taking a Bow on Marriage Equality, While Seeing More Fights Ahead

Whoever said that philanthropy is filled with short-term thinking or that funders are afraid of a political fight? We see evidence to the contrary all the time, and last year, I wrote an in-depth piece about a handful of funders who played the long game on marriage equality—and scored big. 

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

I said in that article: 

... 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. 

For various reasons, these funders won faster they ever thought was possible. But it's a good bet that many would have stuck with this fight for another 15 years.  

Most of the philanthropic pioneers on marriage equality were individual donors who were themselves gay, like Tim Gill, Jon Stryker, Henry Van Ameringen, and David Bohnett. Initially, mainstream foundations kept away from this issue (for instance, the Ford Foundation came relatively late to the marriage equality fight). 

The Open Society Institute was pretty much the only big foundation that got behind marriage equality early on, becoming 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. 

But even more striking and bold was the role of the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund, which became the first foundation to come out in favor of marriage equality in 2001. Now, in the wake of last week's Supreme Court ruling making this the law of the land, the foundation is taking a richly deserved bow. 

Robert D. Haas, writing yesterday in the San Francisco Chronicle, recalls the foundation taking on this issue in 2000 before it was even part of the national discussion:

Back then, the country was in an entirely different place; marriage equality seemed light years away.

Despite our concerns, we launched our efforts to achieve marriage equality in the hopes of providing seed money for what we envisioned would be a decades-long struggle. At the time, we had no idea how long it would take for this issue to truly take hold. On top of that, many gay-rights advocates told us that focusing on marriage wasn’t the right approach.

The Haas Fund was persuaded to see things differently by Evan Wolfson, who then worked for Lambda Legal Defense and argued that civil unions weren't good enough. Haas backed Wolfson in creating Freedom to Marry, a pioneering group in the marriage equality fight. It then poured $38 million into this cause over the next 14 years, backing a variety of efforts, and collaborating with other funders like the Gill Foundation. (See a timeline of Haas efforts.)

Robert Haas is careful to say that the marriage equality victory isn't just a story about nonprofit groups and the philanthropists behind them. It was also propelled by lots of ordinary people changing their minds on this issue and joining the fight. That included some older, perhaps more traditional philanthropists, such as Evelyn Haas, who was born in 1917 and came of age when gay people were very much in the closet. 

Haas recalls discussing the family foundation's backing for LGBT work with Evelyn:

At one point, we asked our mother whether she was aware of the controversy that supporting gay rights would stir in some parts of the community, including among her own colleagues and friends. Her response was in two succinct sentences: “Well, then they’ll have to get over it. It’s time for all of us to move on.”

Now, finally, it looks as if the United States finally will move on, with LGBT rights fast fading as a divisive social issue. 

Just to be clear, though, the Haas Fund has no intention of moving on quite yet. As we reported in a piece last year, the foundation is backing work "to ensure that once those couples are married, their rights are protected." In the wake of the Supreme Court, the foundation noted that marriage equality opponents were already organizing efforts to win exemptions based on "religious" liberty and hoping to chip away at this historic gain in other ways. 

And the foundation pointed to a much bigger problem: 

the Supreme Court’s decision doesn’t change the fact that gay people in 28 states still lack basic nondiscrimination protections and that LGBT peopleparticularly people of colorare disproportionately disadvantaged in profound ways. 

Yup, lots of work still to do. And even before the applause had died down, Evan Wolfson took to the New York Times opinion page to lay out a vision for fighting the discrimination against LGBT people that is both widespread, and often, perfectly legal. 

We can think of at least one funder that will have Wolfson's back.