It’s rare to see dramatic and decisive movement on a civil rights issue. And cases of private donors clearly spurring that progress are few and far between. That’s why the 2015 marriage equality decision, a historic milestone for LGBTQ rights, stands out in the annals of philanthropy. With the bulk of American politics and public opinion set against them, a cadre of wealthy individuals and foundations funded smart advocacy that helped a controversial niche issue enter the political mainstream. It’s a proud achievement for social justice philanthropy, and an ample demonstration of the power that private funders can wield.
Tim Gill and David Bohnett played a crucial role in the philanthropic lead-up to 2015’s marriage equality decision, along with Jon Stryker’s Arcus Foundation, the Haas Fund, the Open Society Foundations, and a number of other funders. With fortunes minted in the 1990s dot-com boom, Gill and Bohnett combined philanthropic advocacy with political giving to help push LGBTQ rights onto the national stage. So it isn’t too surprising to see their support behind a recent initiative to promote LGBTQ inclusion.
This time, the Gill Foundation and the David Bohnett Foundation are partnering with none other than former Vice President Joe Biden—through the Biden Foundation—and YMCA of the USA (Y-USA). Over three years, the planned initiative will fund strategies to support LGBTQ individuals and families at local YMCAs. During year one, an initial cohort of local Ys will pilot those strategies—which could include staff training, member outreach, youth programming, and community collaborations—and then pass what they learn to the national network of 2,700 organizations.
This commitment reflects an acknowledgment among funders that much must still be done to improve the lived experience of LGBTQ Americans. As Ben Francisco Maulbeck, president of Funders for LGBTQ Issues, told us last year, laws alone aren’t enough. A recent op-ed that Biden co-authored with Y-USA President Kevin Washington contains the same theme: “Today, too many members of the LGBTQ community continue to face discrimination, harassment, rejection and physical violence every day at school, at work, in their neighborhoods and even in their homes.”
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The hope is that Y-USA’s sizable reach can be harnessed to counter those trends, particularly as they affect LGBTQ youth, who are more likely to face bullying and commit suicide. These youth also often have weaker family supports and are more vulnerable to becoming homeless.
The details are still a bit fuzzy on how this initiative will make a difference, as are specifics on which local YMCAs will receive initial support and the amount of money involved.
Y-USA is a regular recipient of philanthropic largesse. As we’ve reported, some of the big names on its list of major funders include Robert Wood Johnson, JPB and Walmart. Comcast is another major partner. Local YMCAs also carry out their own fundraising, and government grants often flow to the national organization. Under Kevin Washington’s leadership, Y-USA has sought to position itself as a leading charity with an equity and opportunity focus—more than just a “gym and swim place.”
Of course, the 173-year-old Young Men's Christian Association also has a long and complicated history with LGBTQ issues, at one point officially condemning homosexual acts while serving as a tacit stage for gay subculture. Village People’s hit famously gives a nod to that history. Nowadays, Y-USA maintains a commitment to diversity, equity and the inclusion of all groups.
Like most Democrats of a certain age, Joe Biden hasn’t always demonstrated the firmest dedication to LGBTQ causes, either. In 1996, he joined the majority of the U.S. Senate to support the Defense of Marriage Act. But times change. Less than 20 years later, in 2012, he caused an election-year kerfuffle when he preempted the president’s long-awaited “evolution” on marriage equality, declaring his absolute comfort with same-sex marriage unions. Since then, Biden has stood solidly in the pro-LGBTQ camp.
Post-Obama, Biden’s future hasn’t always been easy to scry. The Biden Foundation offers a window into his priorities, but it’s an indirect one. The foundation came together in 2016—right around the time Trump was elected—as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation to be funded by donations. Joe and Jill Biden didn’t officially start it. A group of the couple’s supporters did, many of whom continue to serve on the organization’s board. Leadership includes Ted Kaufman, a former senator and senior adviser to Biden, and Mark Gitenstein, a former U.S. ambassador who co-chaired Biden’s 2008 transition team along with Kaufman. Louisa Terrell, a former FCC official with previous stints working for Cory Booker and Facebook, heads up the staff.
The Biden Foundation’s priorities include promoting LGBTQ equality, ending violence against women, bolstering the middle class, and supporting military families. There’s also a fellowship program for young people who want to work on social issues. If you’re wondering where cancer stands on that list, the Bidens actually lead a separate effort to fight the malady that caused Beau Biden’s death in 2015.
In addition to Tim Gill, the foundation’s top donors include the Masimo Foundation and the Bohemian Foundation. The latter was founded by Pat Stryker, Jon Stryker’s sister. While LGBTQ issues aren’t a leading priority for the Bohemian Foundation, social justice philanthropy is something of a family affair for the Strykers. Pat Stryker is also a longtime major Democratic donor.
Biden’s involvement in this partnership will lend it some political heft, and Y-USA will bring the ground-level infrastructure. Meanwhile, Gill and Bohnett continue in their role as powerful behind-the-scenes movers for LGBTQ equality. Gill in particular has poured significant resources into these fights, and the Gill Foundation sits beside Arcus as one of the nation’s top annual LGBTQ grantmakers. Although some observers predicted a drop-off in funding after the marriage equality victory, funders in this space have retained their momentum. But it’s only been three years since the 2015 decision, and the quest for full equality is far from over.