In a Difficult Year, LGBTQ Fundraisers Saw Strong Support, New Opportunities — Inside Philanthropy – Inside Philanthropy


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While the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic dominated our collective attention during the past year, fundraisers say donors to LGBTQ+ causes have continued to provide strong support—and for good reason, as this community has been disproportionately affected by the virus. Recent studies show that LGBTQ+ Americans are at greater risk for health complications and are more likely to live in poverty, lack access to healthcare and paid medical leave, or work in highly impacted service industries. 

At the same time, the nation’s heightened attention to equity, diversity and inclusion seems to have made LGBTQ+ issues a higher priority for many Americans, perhaps removing some former barriers and opening up a new dialogue with potential contributors. With the 2015 Supreme Court ruling making same-sex marriage legal nationwide—a longtime goal of the LGBTQ+ community—the recent passage of the Equality Act in the House of Representatives, now awaiting Senate approval, and the Biden administration’s support for a fair-trade nondiscrimination policy, LGBTQ+ issues are prominent in the current news cycle.

Also contributing to this momentum is the funding for LGBTQ+ issues by billionaire MacKenzie Scott, whose year-end, $4 billion giving to 384 nonprofits included organizations like Lambda Legal, the oldest and largest national legal organization committed to achieving full recognition of the civil rights of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgender people and people with HIV.

Scott made it clear that she wanted to support communities that have historically been marginalized and underserved or severely affected by COVID-19, especially groups with strong leadership and an established organizational structure. With a data-driven approach, she and her team of advisors conducted due diligence on prospective recipients and announced the results at the close of 2020. Funds came from Scott’s donor-advised fund and are to be used at the discretion of the recipients, an important factor this year for organizations facing increased operating and service needs.

 “This gift is a vote of confidence and serves as a point of validation for many of the donors we talk with,” said Josh Pushkin, Lambda Legal chief development officer, adding that this transformational investment is a sign that big philanthropy is taking notice of Lambda Legal’s work and impact. Pushkin said the organization has excelled in the court of public law, but sometimes struggled in the court of public opinion. 

Lambda Legal has some 18,000 loyal donors who, when the pandemic hit, “stood up to renew, and in many cases, increase their gifts,” Pushkin said.

Once the national campaign went entirely remote, supporters who formerly gave at in-person events were now engaged in their homes, unlocking the potential across the country to make Lambda Legal a household name. This pivot was not without its challenges. “As far as the global pandemic, I was impressed with how quickly the team at Lambda Legal could adapt and excel,” Pushkin said, attributing that passion and determination to the group’s commitment to its mission.

“We are all adapting to this strange new reality,” he said, listing direct mail, email, individual video calls, virtual galas, cocktail parties and grassroots events as tactics his team used to create a “Surround Sound effect” to amplify donor messaging and keep donors engaged.

In 2021, the organization will focus on its One Lambda Legal campaign with a year-long series of virtual fundraising events, culminating in an October online campaign week, unique to the organization. Lambda Legal also boasts a strong menu of corporate and law firm donors, which benefit from online training and education provided by Lambda Legal. The nonprofit is looking to enhance and grow legacy giving and major gifts as it approaches its 50th anniversary in 2023. 

Another major LBGTQ+ nonprofit, the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, was hit by COVID closures just as they were finalizing their 2021 fiscal year budget. “We had to rapidly re-evaluate everything,” said Christopher Speron, senior vice president of development and membership. HRC improves the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people by working to increase understanding and encourage the adoption of LBGTQ+-inclusive policies and practices.

The organization had planned 28 large-scale fundraising events across the country, as well as 300 Pride events and a street canvassing operation. All of it was canceled or suspended. Instead, the organization mounted one big online fall event, followed by a virtual presidential inauguration event; the group has planned an upcoming April event.

“Key revenue and acquisition channels were now unavailable to us, but the good news is that we will actually achieve close to what we budgeted, despite it being an extraordinary year of loss for our community, with people losing jobs, facing healthcare crises, and just the general hardships of the pandemic,” Speron said.

“We knew event-based donors still wanted to support us and we early on recognized that virtual fundraising would have to contain the same traditional fundraising strategies, so we continued sponsorships and everything you would do for an in-person event. All events became free; monthly donors were asked if they wanted to pause their gifts and then re-asked three or four months later, with a terrific retention rate, even as our members navigated a lot of hardship. Our donors doubled down and remained engaged in our work,” he said.

One successful initiative was a COVID-19 mask campaign: For every mask bought, HRC donated two to needy organizations. Ten thousand contributions resulted in 20,000 extra masks going to people in need, he said.

“We leaned in on the caring. We sent care packages to donors to show the love, care and concern for our supporters and people responded. We asked how they were, about access to medical care. We led with the human to be with our supporters,” Speron said. “With the focus on racial equality last summer, people really wanted to help.”

HRC is taking a conservative approach in its fundraising strategy going forward. “We are hopeful we will have some in-person gatherings in fall 2021 or early 2022, but are not relying heavily on event revenue. We want to capture the momentum when it starts. There are donors out there who now say, ‘I wish I’d done more to help my community,” and will double down when we can reconnect with the world.”

Corporate support for LGBTQ+ fundraising continues to play a significant role, and MAC VIVA GLAM Fund is one of the leaders. MAC Cosmetics became active in this area during the HIV/AIDS epidemic. “Our campaign has always resonated with consumers because of its grassroots beginnings, and because it is so authentic to MAC and our community. Certain aspects of our mission might appeal differently to some consumers, but ultimately, it’s about helping people of all ages, races and genders who are in need,” said Nancy Mahon, senior vice president of global corporate citizenship and sustainability at parent Estée Lauder Companies.

“2020 was an incredibly challenging year for MAC VIVA GLAM’s NGO partners on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. In early April 2020, we quickly deployed $10 million in donations to over 250 organizations to support COVID-19 emergency relief efforts,” Mahon said. “The support provided our partners with funds to address the growing need for vital services from at-risk communities, including food delivery, medication support and testing and treatment of COVID-19, especially among the immunocompromised.”

MAC VIVA GLAM’s mission is to create healthy futures and equal rights for all, and directs proceeds from the sale of VIVA GLAM lipstick to support marginalized communities, including women and girls, LGBTQ+ people and those affected by HIV/AIDS.

“Every year, we work with powerhouse talent on a new campaign to spread awareness of our VIVA GLAM efforts. Past ambassadors have included Elton John, Miley Cyrus, Ricky Martin and Rosalía, to name a few,” Mahon said. 

Another prominent LGBTQ+ nonprofit, Funders for LGBTQ Issues, represents a network of more than 75 foundations, corporations and funding institutions that collectively award more than $200 million annually to support LGBTQ issues and advance racial, economic and gender justice.

“Fundraising data for 2020 is delayed, but the trends we’re seeing show an expanded universe for LGBTQ funding,” said Kristin Wertz, interim president. She credited this success to increased opportunities and new resources, the removal of past barriers at foundations, which now allow video reports and no longer require interim reports, plus an increase in grassroots fundraising in LGBTQ communities, with mutual aid inspiring support by and for fellow members, especially people of color and people in the South.

Wertz said the pandemic and the uprising for racial justice pointed out the need and now there is “an amazing opportunity” for more inclusive access and a reduction in practical barriers.

Funders for LGBTQ Issues transformed their annual conference into a series of virtual seminars in 2020, with an expected decrease in sponsorship revenue, but expects to launch a similar event in 2021. “Many other funders stepped up and recognized the uncertainty,” Wertz noted.

Wertz said she sees this increased support as “symbolic of a deep philosophical spirit in our community and culture.” She noted that the issues of gender and justice are intersectional, and donors are responding to the breadth of that need. “I don’t think we will ever find ourselves back in 2019 and the tipping points will stay with us.”

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