How Do We Move the 97 Percent?

Giving in the LGBT community

Major organizations serving the LGBT community, after suffering a precipitous decline in revenues from 2008 to 2009, stabilized the following year, in significant respects restoring fiscal soundness to their operations.

At the same time, data from 2010 indicates a continuation of a troubling trend in financial support for those same advocacy groups –– the shrinking of the pool of donors opening up their wallets.

According to a financial overview of leading organizations released December 6 by the Movement Advancement Project (MAP), an LGBT think tank, “Even an optimistic estimate concludes that fewer than three percent of LGBT adults give to national LGBT organizations.”

And Ineke Mushovic, MAP’s executive director, was quick to emphasize that the three percent estimate is likely “a vast overstatement.”

Each of 40 organizations that participated in the MAP study –– largely selected based on their size, but in some cases for the unique nature of their mission, as with New York’s Audre Lorde Project, which serves LGBT people of color –– measured the total number of individual donors they have, but there was no way to weed out duplications from those who contributed to more than one of the groups or to reduce the total by eliminating straight ally contributors.

The combined expenses of the 40 groups studied comprise 32 percent of the expenditures by all LGBT-related nonprofits and 71 percent of the total spent by advocacy groups.

Though community centers and HIV/ AIDS organizations were excluded from the MAP study, it seems fair to say that more than 97 percent of the LGBT community is disengaged from any financial support for the advocacy efforts that serve them.

The reasons for this and the implications are unclear –– and are grist for debates that could prove every bit as heated as they are inconclusive.

“I think we all agree there could be significant growth in that number,” Matt Foreman, director of gay and immigration rights programs at the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund, said of the proportion of the community that donates money.

The Haas Fund is a philanthropic organization that includes LGBT advocacy among its core missions, and Foreman is a veteran of gay rights advocacy, having run the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the Empire State Pride Agenda (ESPA), and the New York City Gay & Lesbian Anti-Violence Project.

Foreman noted that every one percent increase in the base of donors has the potential of delivering more than $30 million a year to the movement. The number of people who give $1,000 or more, he said, is “tiny.”

Ross Levi, a successor to Foreman at the helm of ESPA, confirmed the essential picture the MAP report laid out regarding the scale of donor participation.

“At ESPA, we do not have a wide base of small donors,” he said. “We have nowhere near the base we would like to have.”

The MAP report described the situation in even starker terms.

From 2009 to 2010, the number of donors giving at least $35 dropped 12 percent, while the number of big givers –– $1,000 or more –– dropped 15 percent. Turnover –– the percent who gave in 2009, but not 2010 –– remained steady, at 48 percent, compared to recent history.

The contribution made by individual donors comes into sharper focus when looking at total organizational revenues. The 40 participating organizations had revenues of $203 million in 2008, but that total dropped to $163 million the following year, then rebounded marginally in 2010 to $164 million. The share contributed by individual donors, however, steadily declined over the three years –– from $78 million to $67 million to $58 million. The loss in that revenue was offset by a number of sources, most significantly in-kind contributions.

MAP was blunt: “Finding a way to reach the 97 percent of LGBT adults who do not give is becoming an increasingly urgent priority.” The report noted ominously that the top ten anti-gay organizations spend almost three times as much as the 40 groups participating in the study.

A key hurdle in assessing the implications of poor donor participation –– and how to combat it –– is a paucity of information about how other communities, such as African Americans or Jews, support their advocacy groups.

“What we don’t know is what it looks like in other communities,” Foreman said. “There is no comparable data out there to say how we are doing.”

MAP’s Mushovic said the group searched for benchmarks in other communities, but to no avail. She noted that the GivingUSA Foundation, which measures charitable fundraising nationwide, found a 2.7 percent increase in revenues last year, while income in the LGBT sample her group measured fell 14 percent.

Foreman noted, however, that the problem with the GivingUSA numbers are that they include church and college donations, which are fundamentally different than the sort of advocacy funding MAP examined.

Still, the trend lines in the gay community were not heartening compared to the habits of American society as a whole.

To be sure, there are cycles to giving, and the steep decline in revenue from 2008 to 2009 was likely influenced in large measure by the fact that the first was a presidential election year, which brings out advocacy groups pushing their agenda on both state and federal ballots. (The MAP report, however, excluded the tens of millions of dollars spent on the Proposition 8 fight in California.)

With a presidential election next year, Mushovic said revenues and expenditures should spike once again. “If we don’t see that, then we know we have a problem,” she said.

Foreman emphasized that the downturn in the economy cannot be discounted. In fact, the stabilization of finances in the past year, he said, “is an extraordinary testament to the resiliency of our organizations that keep going in this kind of climate.”

ESPA’s Levi, who runs an organization whose budget averages somewhere north of $3 million and has a staff of roughly 20, said he sees revenues in his organization and others responding both “to crises and to opportunities.” With the successful fight for marriage equality in New York being a focus of significant nationwide attention –– dating back to 2007 –– ESPA’s funding picture has not fit the norm in recent years.

Levi argued that even if giving is not up in the community, “activism is.” The marriage fight here brought out unprecedented numbers of people contributing their time to the cause, he said. That doesn’t necessarily fatten the kitty, however.

“We’ve found that it’s easier to motivate donors to engage in other forms of political activism than it is to create donors from volunteers,” he said.

Perhaps mindful that the next big item on ESPA’s agenda is a long-stalled transgender rights bill that many in the gay and lesbian community are considerably less focused on than marriage equality, Levi said, “Where you get your money from is important.”

He explained, “An organization has more flexibility to achieve the goals of a community and, particularly, goals affecting the most vulnerable within the community when it has a broader donor base.” Put another way, he added, “The more democratic donating is to an organization, the stronger the foundation for that organization to represent the needs of all community members, especially its most marginalized members.”

Levi recounted a meeting with religious leaders from communities of color in which one of the ministers present asked his colleagues how many give money to ESPA. The minister went on to argue that greater support for the Pride Agenda would allow the group to better represent the array of socioeconomic as well as political goals the leaders shared.

Levi was careful, however, to hold back from any argument that organizations funded largely by well-off white gay men are unresponsive to other constituencies within the community.

“The good news is that in the case of many big donors, they give because they believe in the overall agenda,” he said.

Foreman was adamant in rejecting any suggestion that the grassroots of LGBT America is in any meaningful way alienated or denied access to an insular leadership in major advocacy organizations.

“What gets done is not just for the privileged few,” he said. “The notion of Gay, Inc. is laughable. For anyone who knows anything about our movement, it is underfunded and very effective given that it is essentially held together by string and wire. I don’t know what world people saying that are thinking of.”

The MAP report examined the issue of diversity among the staff and boards of the 40 participating groups and found data that challenged the notion that it is overwhelmingly a gay white world. Among staff members, 32 percent identify as people of color, 48 percent as women, and six percent as transgender.

The diversity strides on boards are more modest, but still meaningful, with 25 percent people of color, 40 percent women, and six percent transgender.

Mushovic, Foreman, and Levi alike were at a loss to venture firm conclusions about why so few people in the LGBT community are willing to back up their aspirations with their dollars.

“Everyone has their own firmly held belief why this is,” Foreman said.

Mushovic concurred, saying it is as likely that gays in Boston, New York, Washington, and San Francisco are complacent in their gay-friendly homes as that embattled LGBT community members in deep-red states are disillusioned by the lack of delivery on the part of advocacy groups.

It is significant, however, that a separate MAP study of gay giving –– which included a broader swath of organizations, including big community centers in places like Los Angeles and Manhattan –– found that two-thirds of the dollars raised in the community flow to California, New York, and Washington, DC, reflecting both the size of their LGBT communities and the concentration of national groups there.

The Haas Fund, joined by several other donors, will begin a multi-year study in 2012 to examine the underlying reasons why so few people give and how higher participation rates can be achieved.

Still, for all the challenges of engaging the community in helping fund the movement, MAP, ESPA, and Haas all reflected an upbeat assessment of where things stand today.

The MAP report details effective financial stewardship during a period of economic upheaval, achieved in good measure by the success of organizations in diversifying their funding streams away from individual donors.

An August report from MAP that analyzed “key indicators of LGBT equality in the US” offered an extraordinarily positive assessment of two-year trend lines across several dozen criteria, including public perceptions of the community, visibility, relationship recognition, workplace fairness, and, of course, military service.

The key negatives were the climate in state legislatures (due, as with the US House of Representatives, to the 2010 elections), progress on HIV/ AIDS, and revenue-building by community organizations.

Foreman translated those measures into a full-throated argument that the glass is more than half full.

“It feels to me that the movement is accomplishing incredible things for the community, more than anyone else,” he said. “You get out of our gay bubble, and people say to me, ‘How are you getting done as much as you do?’ We think, ‘What? We’re getting nothing.’ But, in fact, we’re doing damned well.”

Then, in a concession to the relative nature of that verdict, he added, “I don’t know what kind of commentary that is on the rest of the world.”