Unusual Times Lead to Unusual Grants. Here's a Case in Point

Political hot buttons aren't the Rockefeller Foundation’s usual fare. Like many other big foundations, it avoids ideological language and positions itself as a practical, problem-solving institution—one working to "promote the well-being of humanity throughout the world." The foundation’s priorities in recent years have included building resilience in cities throughout the world, bringing clean energy to rural India, reducing food waste, and more. 

Overall, this isn't a funder who you might naturally think would join the resistance to the Trump administration. But these are unusual times—unusual enough to stir outrage even in the most cautious and technocratic precincts of the foundation world.

Back in February, a set of grants from the Rockefeller Foundation caught our attention: $1.5 million in total to the ACLU, the Anti-Defamation League, and the International Rescue Committee. What was notable about these grants is that they came at a point when some of the nation’s other major foundations were still reticent to directly confront the new president. While hardly indicative of a major shift in Rockefeller’s funding priorities, those grants at least made it clear where this funder stood. “When our core values—diversity, pluralism and respect for all—are threatened we will respond," it said at the time. 

This month, the foundation followed up with another trio of grants, this time to benefit the LGBTQ community. According to Neill Coleman, VP of global communications at Rockefeller, the grants place “a particular focus on fostering spaces to organize and supporting communities most impacted by violence, prejudice, and discrimination.”

Timed to coincide with Pride Month, the outlay consists of $100,000 each to the NYC LGBT Center, the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, and the Campaign for Southern Equality. In its press release, Rockefeller alludes to a “time of heightened risk and fear” for the LGBTQ community, and grantee comments make it clear that Rockefeller’s support answers an increased demand for services following the 2016 election. 

Rockefeller has not previously been a significant funder of LGTBQ issues. Like the Barr Foundation and some other funders who have stepped forward with new emergency funding, the foundation has gone outside its established program areas to respond to the exigencies of the moment. 

We've reported often on the emergence of new discretionary and flexible “rapid response” funding following President Trump’s election. Funders have often focused their efforts on empowering the grassroots, building intersectional alliances, and protecting the most vulnerable—all causes that arguably benefit from less restricted and more time-urgent funding.

Legal aid and litigation have also emerged as important vectors of resistance funding, especially where marginalized communities and immigrants are concerned. By supporting the Sylvia Rivera Law Project and the Campaign for Southern Equality, Rockefeller seems well attuned to that need. Meanwhile, supporting programs to improve the “lived experience” of LGBTQ Americans, especially in the South, covers several bases we recently explored in conversation with Funders for LGBTQ Issues.

While it's true that LGBTQ funding isn't an existing program area for Rockefeller, the foundation has engaged the issue in the past. Back in 2014, it published a short piece looking at “livelihood issues” within the LGBTQ community, especially where non-conforming people are denied rights and opportunities. Drawing on staff from the NYC LGBT Center, that conversation also looked at how LGBTQ rights—or the lack thereof—inform some of Rockefeller’s programs around global health and development. 

This year’s grants follow that path. Through advocacy and legal work, LGBTQ organizations want to counter perceived threats to rights, while at the same time, increasing services for community members living outside places like Manhattan or West Hollywood. 

We’ve discussed how important community foundations are for LGBTQ populations in rural states and the South, where the usual sources of support aren't as forthcoming. By acknowledging the increased risks those populations face, as well as the need for legal protections, Rockefeller is dipping its toe into an area of LGBTQ funding that’s getting more attention in the post-marriage equality, post-2016 era.