No One Left Behind: Tim Gill and the New Quest for Full LGBT Equality

By the time the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality earlier this summer, Tim Gill had been engaged in LGBT philanthropy for two decades. He’d given over $300 million to the cause, and distinguished himself as one the hardest working, biggest spending, and most creative donors in the fight for LGBT rights. He’d lived through some dark times, like when state ballot measures passed across the U.S. in 2004 that barred same-sex marriage, or the stinging defeat, four years later, when Proposition 8 passed in California. He’d sat in countless meetings to plot strategy, analyze opinion research, and manage the staff of the Gill Foundation, which has offices in downtown Denver and gives out over $10 million every year.

So you can understand why I asked Gill, in a recent conversation, whether he thought about taking a break from LGBT philanthropy after the SCOTUS ruling. Why not just declare victory and move on?

“Other movements have done that,” is how Gill answered. “They’ve won something and then sat back and relaxed”—only to find themselves with their work still undone many years later. “I don’t ever assume that we’ve won, that victory’s inevitable, and that we don’t have to do anything but mop up.”

Gill’s reference to other movements didn’t come off the top of his head. Before the Supreme Court ruling, as the Gill Foundation looked beyond marriage equality, it commissioned a study of how various other rights movements had fared in the wake of major victories. It was a sobering exercise. As it turns out, there are a bunch of examples of euphoric high points that devolved into brutal slogs—like the unending fight over abortion rights after Roe v. Wade, or the fact that disabled people still struggle to get around and find jobs a quarter-century after the ADA was enacted.

The takeaway from the study? Don’t stop fighting.

Really, though, Tim Gill didn’t need a research paper to keep him going and giving. While he’s an engineer by training, and known for a chess-like approach to the LGBT cause, those who work with Gill say this fight is intensely visceral for him. He just can’t stand the idea that LGBT people everywhere don’t have all the same rights as straight people. Nor is he content to trust that cultural and demographic change will gradually solve this problem in coming years. “Justice delayed is justice denied,” he likes to say, quoting William Gladstone.

Even before the SCOTUS ruling, Gill and his husband, Scott Miller, had planned out the next focus of their giving: A push to change laws in the majority of U.S. states where it’s still perfectly legal to discriminate against LGBT people in employment, housing and more. Gill sees this goal in some ways as more ambitious than winning marriage equality. Certainly, he says, it involves “a hell of a lot more than mopping up.”

Joint Decisions, With a Deadline

In understanding this phase of Tim Gill’s philanthropy, it’s important to spotlight Miller’s growing role. While the two have long collaborated to give away Gill’s fortune, Miller has recently become more formally involved. He became co-chair of the Gill Foundation in April, after joining the board last year. Also last year, Miller left his career in finance at UBS to take over Gill’s family office and manage the part of Gill’s sizeable tech fortune that hasn’t gone to the foundation. Miller, who is more than two decades younger than Gill, is the principal heir to that wealth.

The other thing to keep in mind about Gill philanthropy is that the clock is ticking. The Gill Foundation, which last reported assets of $234 million, will spend down within 17 years—a deadline that Gill and Miller says creates a sense of urgency. “It’s given us the mindset that we need to act fast,” says Miller. “These foundations that go on in perpetuity—where do they get a sense of urgency?”

We’ve wondered the same thing at Inside Philanthropy, and in explaining the spend-down choice, Tim Gill makes yet another good argument that foundations should sunset: “If you’re talking about social change, your objective should be to improve the lives of people as dramatically and as soon as possible. As long as you have a smart strategy, it makes sense to spend money more quickly.”

Gill chuckles as he adds an important caveat: “If you have a stupid strategy, than perhaps you should spend more slowly.”

As for how to develop strategy, Tim Gill has some strong ideas after 20 years as a funder. One shortcut to understanding how he thinks is that he says his sense of self comes in large part from two great life passions: coding and snowboarding. Both manifest themselves in his giving.

As an engineer, Gill believes in experimentation, in methodically testing lots of different things to see what works, and then dispassionately choosing the best approach. But as a snowboarder who, by some acccounts, can be harrowing to ski with, he believes in aggressively going for it, even if the risks of a wipeout are high.

Perhaps most of all, though, Gill and the leadership of his foundation believe in forging strategy in a collaborative fashion, with the key stakeholders of the LGBT movement. And that’s been the case in setting the stage for the new push against discrimination.

The Pivot

If you go back and read the statements that top LGBT groups issued after the Supreme Court marriage ruling in June, you’ll notice a funny thing: Some sound remarkably similar. Movement leaders hit a celebratory note, but then pivoted to unfinished work ahead.

Take, for example, what Chad Griffin of the Human Rights Campaign had to say: “...our work isn’t done until every discriminatory law in this nation is wiped away. The time has come in this country for comprehensive federal LGBT non-discrimination protections.” Evan Wolfson, head of Freedom to Marry, said that the “movement will continue to harness the power of the marriage conversation and win in the work aheadincluding passage of a federal civil rights bill, securing state and local protections against discrimination…”

This echo chamber didn't emerge by accident. It was part of a plan, one hatched under the auspices of the Gill Foundation, where LGBT advocates came together well before the SCOTUS ruling to strategize for a future when marriage equality had been won.

The plan was several years in the making. In 2013, when Gill was interviewing for job candidates to replace the departing President Tim Sweeney, he gave the four finalists a homework assignment: Pick a state in the South, and map out how you would win protection against discrimination in that state for LGBT people. It was a dry run for the work to come.

The new president, Courtney Cuff, spent her early months at the Gill Foundation talking and listening to LGBT groups. In an interview last fall with Inside Philanthropy, Cuff said:

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. 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.

Cuff’s boss was even more emphatic on this point, with Gill reportedly telling the foundation’s senior execs that he wanted to win non-discrimination in five years—or at least half the time it took to win the marriage equality battle.

Cuff, who didn’t know much about Gill before starting at the foundation, found him to be formidable and inspiring. “Tim is just relentless and always sees what the possible is.”

The Gill Foundation and LGBT groups worked on a strategy shift through 2014, and news of the focus on non-discrimination first became public that spring; the foundation finished its own strategy makeover later in the year. A key premise, as Cuff explained to IP at the time, was that Americans need to be awakened to the reality of enduring discrimination.

Making that happen won’t be easy. Polls show that while the majority of Americans oppose discrimination against LGBT people, they also aren’t aware that such discrimination remains legal in many places—and can have a very real and negative effect. A 2013 study by Pew found that a fifth of LGBT people reported being treated unfairly in the workplace, with much higher numbers for transgender people. Research has also found significant discrimination in housing.

These facts aside, though, how do you get action on a problem that just doesn’t register for Americans, even those on your side?

To Tim Gill, one key is to engage business, particularly large national corporations, the vast majority of which already have policies to protect LGBT workers. These companies have operations all over the country, and want to be able to move people around without worrying that their LGBT employees may face discrimination in certain states. Meanwhile, top companies in places like Texas and Georgia, with an eye on attracting the best people, want to make sure their locations aren’t seen as unfriendly to LGBT people. In short, the corporate world is quite open to an anti-discrimination push, and Gill says, “We’re trying to mobilize business in a new, more public way than we have in the past.” Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Apple’s Tim Cook are among those CEOs who’ve joined the push.

Another set of unlikely allies that Gill started cultivating a few years back are leaders in finance, some of whom come at this issue with a libertarian frame or because of a personal connection. Most notable among these are the hedge fund billionaires Paul Singer and Daniel Loeb. And as Gill put together the anti-discrimination push, these allies stepped forward with resources.

In April, two months before SCOTUS ruled, a new organization backed by Gill and other donors went public—Freedom for All Americans—unveiling plans for a five-year push against discrimination.

By this time, most top LGBT groups were behind the strategy of pivoting quickly to non-discrimination. Was every group super enthusiastic about this new focus? That seems unlikely, since these organizations work on a wide range of issues that affect the LGBT people, and not everyone agrees on where to put resources. Prioritizing a big policy fight mainly focused on Southern and Western states is not exactly in sync, for example, with the needs of groups that work with the large LBGT populations in coastal cities.

But if there is dissent within LGBT ranks over the new priority, it’s percolated very quietly. Publicly, the movement had closed ranks behind the anti-discrimination push.

Locked in a Room

Why are LGBT groups able to work together with such unity? It’s a question worth asking, given that this is hardly the norm in a social justice universe known for its fragmentation and feuding.

Part of the answer lies in what these groups have been through together. And part lies, for sure, with Tim Gill and his foundation.

While the LGBT movement is now triumphant, the past decade has been painful and traumatic at times, marked by searing defeats. The most depressing moment, by all accounts, was the 2004 election, when 11 states passed ballot initiatives barring same-sex marriage. It was a brutal setback, but one that forced a reckoning in the movement.

Gill recalls thinking, “We can’t let this happen again.” And one imperative that struck him as overriding was that everyone needed to be on the same page going forward, getting behind a clear and achievable strategy. So it was that after the election, leaders of top LGBT groups assembled in Denver, at the Gill Foundation, with a mandate to come up with a new strategy they could all get behind. “It was not us giving them the strategy,” Gill says. “It was us making them come up with one.”

The foundation’s president at the time was Rodger McFarlane, a former high school football player and Navy man who, at 6’7”, could be an intimidating figure. Did McFarlane really “lock” the activists in the Gill conference room and physically block them from leaving without a strategy? Of course not, but it’s part of the legend, and what emerged from the post-election retreat was a blueprint for moving marriage equality called the “10-10-10-20 Plan.” The goal was to achieve, by 2020, ten states with marriage, ten with civil unions, and ten with a limited state of domestic partnership.

The theory of change herea familiar staple of past movementswas to make progress at the state level, setting the stage for an eventual victory at the federal level.

This was the kind of strategy that Tim Gill liked—one that set very specific goals to be achieved in a realistic time frame. And he wonders why other movements haven’t done a better job at this kind of thing. “It seems that is where a lot of movements fail,” Gill says. “They don’t don’t have a plan, they don’t have a specific focus. They haven’t articulated the specific steps they need to take along the way.”

It’s a good point, although it’s unclear how environmentalists, to name one example, could map out such a plan on climate change when some of the top leaders in that world barely talk to each other. Bobby Clark, the Gill Foundation’s vice president for communications and programs, says that the LGBT world is notable for its “culture of collaboration.” But make no mistake: The Gill Foundation has played a key role in nurturing that culture over many years. And even though there are now larger LGBT funders, like the Arcus Foundation, Gill has remained the undisputed mothership of the movementespecially on matters of public policy.

Lessons of Love

As it turned out, total victory on marriage equality came more quickly than anyone could have dared imagine back in 2004. Gill argues that a key reason for the acceleration is that marriage advocates changed their messaging after losing on Proposition 8 in 2008. Initially, they had focused on the rights and responsibilities around marriageonly to realize that this wasn’t getting traction. Gill says:

People had a feeling about what marriage was. And when we talked to them about rights and responsibilities, that didn’t correlate with their feeling about what marriage was. And then when we realized we weren’t succeeding, we changed our message to be about love and commitment. And that is, in fact, what people think marriage is… then we saw a fairly radical shift in people’s opinions.

This change in messaging was made after substantial investments in opinion research by the Gill Foundation. And the ability of marriage equality advocates to embrace those findings, shifting rhetorical gears, is another example of the unusual discipline of the LGBT movement. By contrast, a small library of opinion research has been commissioned by anti-poverty advocates over the yearsand often has just been filed away and forgotten.

The focus on message research also underscores the practical mindset that Tim Gill and his team bring to their work. Social justice advocates have a well-known tendency to get hung up on principles or process, even when fealty to certain hallowed ideas stands in the way of progress. Gill, though, operates less like an ideological crusader than like a restless experimenter, looking for the path forward. The point, always, is to win.

Gill and Scott Miller stress that there were other forces at work in speeding up the marriage equality debate. “The most important thing by far,” says Miller, is that a growing number of LGBT people started coming out to friends, family, and co-workers. With growing familiarity and acceptance of LGBT people came growing support for marriage equality. Meanwhile, the top advocates in the fightparticularly Evan Wolfson and Freedom to Marrydid a masterful job of storytelling and connecting with Americans at a visceral level. Miller calls Wolfson the “most successful social entrepreneur of his generation.”

The lessons of the marriage equality push are very much top of mind as the anti-discrimination fight gears up, and that base of knowledge is one reason why Gill and his team hope things can go faster this time. “We’ve learned a bunch of lessons from the marriage battle,” says Courtney Cuff. “And we want to apply them.”

Gill stresses that struggles over public policy are very much like chess, in that you have an opponent you need to outsmart. In the case of marriage equality, the opponents were both powerful and well-financedincluding Karl Rove, who deployed same-sex marriage as a wedge issue to re-elect George W. Bush, and top conservative groups that spent tens of millions of dollars on this issue over the years. Ironically, though, this aggressive stance by the right had nearly the opposite of the intended result. “The average American wasn’t thinking about LGBT rights,” says Gill. “It was because the other side kept bringing it up that it became part of the national conversation.”

Rove’s anti-gay ballot initiatives may have helped Bush win in states like Ohio, but they had a profound mobilizing effect on LGBT activists and donors, as did Prop. 8. Gill says about the marriage push: “If we hadn’t had the opponents pushing back it might not have gotten very far.”

So is Karl Rove the unwitting hero of this story? Just maybe. And so far, the biggest boost for the anti-discrimination fight has come from Indiana Governor Mike Pence, who touched off a firestorm earlier this year when he signed a “religious refusal” billand who Gill credits with drawing attention to the number of high-level public officials who really believe that discrimination is OK. “Our opponent in that case was one of our best allies,” Gill says.

The Big Picture

As co-chairs of the Gill Foundation, Gill and Scott Miller don’t concern themselves with the day-to-day details of grantmaking. Rather, they weigh in on the big questions of goals and strategy. They play a similar meta-level role at the Gill Action Fund, which handles their political giving. Those contributions are deployed strategically in pursuit of the same goals that drive the couple’s philanthropy, with money going to both Republican and Democratic candidates. “Our political dollars are part of our overall philanthropic strategy,” Miller sayswith Gill quickly chiming in to stress that the giving is clearly separated, both legally and operationally. But he also says that one of the biggest lessons he’s learned over two decades is that you need “political money to solve a political problem.”

Tim Gill is not the only mega-donor these days who’s trying to change policy with both political and philanthropic giving that unfolds on parallel tracks. Other big donors, like Michael Bloomberg and Robert Mercer, are engaged in the same strategy. Which raises this obvious question for democracy reformers: If you’re worried about money in politics, how can you seek a crackdown on election giving while saying nothing about politicized philanthropy?

Gill isn’t unmindful of these issues. “We put our democracy at risk by equating money with your First Amendment right to speak. And we have to have some way of decoupling those.” As for the clout of philanthropy, he suggests that one answer might be forcing foundations to sunset and “ensuring higher churn in the voices” emerging from this sector.

While these are tricky questions, one thing is clear: Tim Gill stands as a leading example of how the super-rich can translate their cash into clout in ways far beyond the reach of ordinary citizens. If you favor LGBT rights, this is a great thing. But is this kind of power a great thing for American democracy? Maybe not.

Lately, Gill has been devoting most of his time to a tech startup he recently created called JStar, which is focused on bringing artificial intelligence to home automation. Gill was tinkering with the idea for two years before Scott told him to just start a new company already. Gill hired somebody else to be CEO, an executive in his late 20s, freeing up his own time to be the CTO and do what he loves bestcoding.

So while the outside world may think of Tim Gill as a nonstop crusader for LGBT rights, the reality is that he’s an introverted tech geek at heart, happily spending his days in front of a computer. In fact, besides Scott Miller, his favorite companions may be their two Bernese mountain dogs, Maggie and Phipps.