Gearing Up for the Next Fight: Inside the Gill Foundation's Strategy Shift

When Courtney Cuff started at the Gill Foundation a little over a year ago, she didn’t immediately overhaul the foundation’s strategy. Instead, she spent the first few months meeting with LGBT movement leaders in every corner of the country. And what she learned was more valuable than any flip-chart session with consultants. 

“What most stood out in all of my conversations was the urgent need to ensure that all LGBT people are treated fairly and equally, no matter where they live or work,” Cuff recently told IP. “With support for equality rapidly expanding across the ideological spectrum, there really is no region of the country that we should consider beyond our reach in terms of achieving equal opportunity.”

And that gave her an idea: Gill was one of the first funders working to end discrimination against same-sex couples, so why not extend the same level of focus and imperative to ending discrimination against LGBT people in all areas of their lives—from housing to employment to public accommodations. And that’s where she and founder Tim Gill are directing the 20-year-old foundation.

“Most Americans do not understand that discrimination against LGBT people remains legal, federally and in the majority of states,” says Cuff. “In every region of the country, a majority of Americans strongly oppose discrimination against LGBT people, but they are less aware that discrimination occurs and remains legal. It's going to take a big public conversation to change that.”

And Cuff’s right. While marriage equality has swept much of the country the same has is not true for employment, housing or public accommodations.  

Consider: In 32 states, LGBT employees can be fired from their jobs, denied housing or social services based solely on their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. As a consequence, LGBT people, experience greater difficulty finding and keeping jobs or have to pay higher taxes on the same income. In 29 states, lesbian, gay and bisexual people can be kicked out of rental units for their sexual orientation; in 33 states, transgender people can be kicked out because of their gender identity or expression.

“The idea that you could be married in a state like Florida, and then lose your job, without recourse, solely because of who you are or who you love is shocking to most people. But that may soon be the reality in the majority of states,” says Cuff. “It's critically important that Americans understand this reality and insist that no LGBT person is denied the basic promise in the ‘land of the free’ —an equal opportunity to live securely and work hard to support your family.”

But national support for fair and equal treatment in housing, public accommodations, and employment doesn’t necessarily mean that the fight will be easy. In places like Texas, equality opponents are using religious freedom to thwart efforts to promote discrimination against LGBT people and others, says Cuff.

“Most Americans agree that faith shouldn't be used as a weapon to discriminate, and we will support efforts, particularly by faith leaders in states like Texas, to reject the idea of discrimination against LGBT people in the name of religion. “

Speaking of Texas, it's been clear for a while that the Gill Foundation was going to shift resources to do battle in more hostile terrain like the South and the West. Back in April, Tim Gill told the New York Times, “We can’t allow two distinct gay Americas to exist. Everybody should have the same rights and protections regardless of where they were born and where they live.”

A range of other LGBT funders are also looking to focus more on the harder nuts to crack, both in their philanthropic and political giving, as we have written before. This shift comes after years of skimpy funding for LGBT work in the South, as documented in a recent report by Funders for LGBTQ Issues. 

Related - Fighting Without Funders: How LGBT Money Skips the South

Still, the details remain hazy as to exactly where Gill grants will go for this new phase of work, but Cuff says that the emerging strategy is “data-driven” with an eye on “measurable impact.”

The breadth and depth of support for ending discrimination can be measured in many ways, from the number of business or faith leaders in a state who have made public statements in opposition to discrimination, to levels of public support as demonstrated through opinion surveys or participation in social media campaigns, to the number of LGBT people who have been protected from discrimination through the initiatives of businesses or changes in local or statewide policies.

And as for one thing you should know about Courtney Cuff? Well, in her own words:

I’m impatient. I quickly learned that I can’t always control the pace of change. But I still believe we can accelerate it through strategic giving, and that’s what I wake up thinking about every morning. 

Related - Meet One of the Top New Leaders in the LGBT Funding World