Hope and Fear: LGBTQ Funding in the Age of Trump

The history of social progress in America tends to be a story of two steps forward, one step back. Marginalized groups may win major legal victories, but there’s always pushback. That’s been the case for women, African Americans and others. Recent history shows the same process in play for the LGBTQ community. 

The Supreme Court's Obergefell v. Hodges decision in 2015 to legalize marriage equality across the U.S. isn't even two years old, but already that triumphant moment feels like a distant memory amid a politics that's turned hostile to LGBT rights, with trans people feeling especially targeted. To get a better sense of what’s happening at the forefront of LGBTQ philanthropy, I got in touch with Ben Francisco Maulbeck, president of Funders for LGBTQ Issues, and Lyle Matthew Kan, the organization’s research and communications director. This funders affinity group has more than 80 members. According to its most recent Tracking Report, LGBTQ grantmaking reached a new record of $160.7 million in 2015, up from around $100 million in 2010. 

That's serious money. And, as we've reported, it's had a major impact. Over the past decade or more, focused and strategic philanthropy has made a lot of difference in the successful battle for marriage equality, with such as funders as Tim Gill, Jon Stryker's Arcus Foundation, David Bohnett, and the Haas Fund at the forefront, along with quite a few others. 

Yet as we've also reported, the past two years has been a time of transition for LGBTQ funders and nonprofit groups in this space. Even as advocates have mobilized for a broader push against discrimination, some funders, most notably the Ford Foundation, have been inclined to move on to other causes after the marriage equality victory. At the same time, that victory, with its broader legitimatization of LGBTQ rights, has made it less risky for certain funders like community foundations to work in this area. In turn, Donald Trump's election last fall added another twist to the story. 

Given Trump's close ties to the Christian Right, these are anxious times for LGBTQ advocates and funders, who worry that hard-won legal gains may be at risk and are concerned about new attacks. A case in point: the president’s recent executive order seeking to ease restrictions on political activities by religious organizations in the name of free speech and religious liberty. "Through this executive order, Trump has directed Attorney General Jeff Sessions—a man who has denied LGBTQ people equality under the law—to seek a license to discriminate across all areas of the government," said Sarah Warbelow, legal director of the Human Rights Campaign.

Also worrisome is that Trump's budget cuts and assault on the Affordable Care Act may affect services for vulnerable LGBTQ communities. Maulbeck is especially mindful of what he calls the "lived experience" of LGBTQ Americans. He says that for many funders, it’s not enough to focus on laws alone. Philanthropy needs to do what it can to improve the daily lives of LGBTQ people, many of whom struggle with problems including health, homelessness and hate. As we've reported, funders in this space are increasingly concerned about the challenges facing economically insecure and isolated seniors. 

The good news, according to Maulbeck and Kan, is that funding is on the rise. Also, more funders are looking across silos in an intersectional way, with coordination rising in the wake of Trump's election. 

At this year’s Funding Forward, an annual conference organized by Funders for LGBTQ Issues and held in Seattle, Maulbeck was encouraged by the rising level of funder interest, including high participation from non-LGBTQ funders and local philanthropic leaders like the Raikes and Gates foundations. Maulbeck hopes to replicate this success when Funding Forward moves down south to New Orleans next year. Maulbeck also hopes to see funders commit $200 million to LGBTQ causes this year.

Maulbeck highlighted another trend we’ve covered before: more locally focused funding for LGBTQ issues, especially from community foundations. This can be key to improving LGBTQ Americans’ lived experience. In rural places and the South, where investment from major LGBTQ foundations is rare, the role of smaller funders—such as individuals with donor-advised funds housed at community foundations—can make a major difference. Speaking of the South, there's been a big push in the past few years among LGBTQ funders to ramp up funding in this region after years of oversight and with critical battles underway, such as the epic fight over the "bathroom bill" in North Carolina. According to the 2015 tracking report, LGBTQ funding for work in the South rose by 52 percent between 2014 and 2015.

Still, Maulbeck sees room for increased funder commitment. That’s especially the case where priorities intersect, as in the high rates of homelessness among LGBTQ youth and healthcare concerns (including mental health). On a high-profile issue, trans rights, there's been a lot of new funder activity in recent years, but needs have been rising as well, as trans people face new threats in a hostile political climate.  

One area where Funders for LGBTQ Issues shines compared to some other affinity groups is in its research. Maulbeck and Kan emphasized the group’s interest in tracking key data, and it shows. Its staff has assembled a library of in-depth, visually appealing reports and data briefs that have become key resources for the sector. Research includes information on regional funding patterns, types of funders stepping up, and the flow of resources for different sub-groups of the LGBTQ population.

The group's recently released tracking report underscores this data's helpfulness in grasping the state of LGBTQ grantmaking. Beyond showing an increase in funding for the South and trans communities, the report shows that giving to address criminal justice issues affecting LGBTQ people more than doubled.

On the other hand, for the first time since 2009, corporate funders gave less to the cause than during a previous year. And while more funders are contributing to LGBTQ issues than ever before, growth in this number fell from a 20 percent increase in 2014 to just 5 percent in 2015.

One larger question, here, is how funding in this space connects up with support for other social justice issues. Just like we’ve seen with Asian American philanthropy, LGBTQ funders and advocates are keen to coordinate with a range of actors while also drawing new resources and attention to issues in their community. It's always a tension, but the rise of Trump has been an important catalyst for intersectional work.