LGBT Groups Gain Mainstream Recognition For Community-Wide Grants

March 15, 2012       Frank Trejo      

Enrique MacGregor still recalls the day when a simple idea occurred to him and his partner, Mark Niermann, as they walked their dogs in their Dallas neighborhood.

Civic leaders were trying to raise money in 2000 for a Latino Cultural Center, so MacGregor and Niermann thought they’d tap into some of their friends and raise perhaps as much as $5,000.

“As we thought about it some more, we thought it would also be a great way to highlight the contributions gays and lesbians in the community make to Dallas as a whole,” MacGregor said.

They approached Dolores Barzune, one of those spearheading the cultural center’s fundraising and pitched the idea. They anticipated resistance because they would insist that the donation be recognized as coming from the gay and lesbian community.

“She just said ‘Oh, honey, no problem,’ and handed me a list of possible naming rights projects for the Latino Cultural Center,” MacGregor said with a laugh.

The group eventually donated $75,000 to the center. It was the start of the Gay and Lesbian Fund for Dallas, a 501(c)(3) organization that in its nearly dozen years of existence has generated more than $1 million for non-gay causes in Dallas — from the Twelve Hills Nature Center to the Dallas Children’s Theater and the Dallas Museum of Art.

It is, in effect, advocacy through philanthropy and Dallas is not alone. A handful of groups, from Vermont to San Diego, have used this model of philanthropy to varying degrees of effectiveness. It was pioneered by the Gay and Lesbian Fund for Colorado in 1996 by the Gill Foundation, one of the nation’s pre-eminent gay and lesbian philanthropic organizations.

Officials from the various funds said there is something very powerful about seeing the words “Gay and Lesbian” — sometimes literally etched in stone — recognizing that segment of the population as part of the overall community. The funds also tap into a revenue source that is known for being involved in civic and political fundraising.

Recent research has shown that gay and lesbian donors give more to charities than the general public, seek out recipients whose groups embrace equality and are supportive of the gay and lesbian community. And, only half of the contributions by gay and lesbian donors go to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) organizations. The other half is given to non-gay mainstream causes.

Ironically, the Gill Foundation announced this past fall that the Gay and Lesbian Fund for Colorado is closing its Colorado Springs office and that officials would be undertaking a strategic re-evaluation. Grants awarded in 2011 are to continue through 2012.

“In the years since we launched, the Gay and Lesbian Fund has invested more than $27.6 million in nonprofits all across the state. During this period, Colorado has become a much more inclusive and welcoming state while the economy and needs of Colorado have changed,” said Tim Sweeney, president and CEO of the Gill Foundation.

The groups inspired by the Gill Foundation’s efforts sometimes operate differently, but have similar guidelines. The donations must be publicly recognized and recipient organizations must have written non-discrimination policies that include sexual orientation.

While one of the challenges of gay and lesbian funds is that they often operate on very small or sometimes nonexistent budgets, Niermann said they also are free to come up with creative ways to raise money.

In Dallas, the Gay and Lesbian Fund started out by holding large-scale events for specific projects such as the Latino Cultural Center. Since 2005 the group has also worked with organizations such as the Dallas Museum of Art to “bundle” donations.

Donors who wish to join the museum membership program can do so by donating through the Gay and Lesbian Fund. Donors get museum membership benefits at whatever level they join, and the fund gets recognition for the total amount donated.

The fund has generated more than $250,000 for the Dallas Museum of Art. The average yearly donation brings it the same public recognition received by other major corporate or individual donors.

The group, which has operated with a volunteer board and community members, has started a membership drive of its own. It is offering memberships at different levels to develop a sustaining flow of operational funds.

“Overall, the fund is a really good idea that resonates with a lot of people for lots of reasons,” Niermann said. “It’s an excellent way to build bridges be­tween communities.” Bennett Law said he started the Gay and Lesbian Fund of Vermont in 2005 because of the divisiveness stemming from the battles for domestic partnerships and later for marriage rights in his state.

“I saw these signs, years after the fight, that still said ‘Take Back Vermont,’” Bennett said. “I was really shocked by the perception some people in Vermont had of gays and lesbians.” He set out to raise awareness of how much gays and lesbians are a part of Vermont.

The Gay and Lesbian Fund of Vermont operates as a pass-through entity, allowing people to make donations to causes such as public television and the fund passes along the cash. The donor allows the fund to send a letter with the donation asking that recognition be given to the fund. The group charges an administrative fee of $5 for each donation it passes along. The fee is the same whether the donation is $50 or $5,000.

The Vermont fund has generated about $200,000 since its inception, with no staff, no office and not even a telephone. “I know there is a potential to do much more,” Law said.

Nancy McDonald in Tulsa, Okla., runs the Gay and Lesbian Fund she and her husband started in 2002 through the Tulsa Community Foundation. It has generated approximately $25,000 each year for local nonprofits ranging from the United Way to the local Girl Scouts Council to the Tulsa Opera. She believes the group has created momentum in convincing nonprofits to not only recognize the local gay and lesbian community, but also in changing attitudes toward non-discrimination.

San Diego philanthropist Jim Ziegler established his Gay and Lesbian Fund about three years ago at the San Diego Foundation. While his fund’s website does ask for donations, Ziegler acknowledged that so far he has provided most of the funding. Beneficiaries have included a nature center and a local community organization.

He said the fund has donated less than $50,000 so far.

“I really don’t have a way of marketing the fund yet. It’s kind of passive right now,” Ziegler said. “In part, it’s because I don’t want to be competition for the other very worthy service providers in the gay and lesbian community.”

MacGregor said he and Niermann did hear initially from some in the Dallas gay and lesbian community concerned that the fund would compete for money with other gay and lesbian groups. MacGregor said he knew from experience the fundraising potential in Dallas.

The annual Black Tie Dinner event in Dallas has raised more than $16 million for local organizations that are gay supportive, as well as the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’ largest LGBT civil rights organization. The 2011 event, which attracted more than 3,000 people, raised $1.142 million.

MacGregor said he is certain the Gay and Lesbian Fund has not taken anything away from other gay groups. “The reality is that the Gay and Lesbian Fund of Dallas has brought out many donors who were not already giving to gay and lesbian causes,” MacGregor said. NPT

Frank Trejo is a Dallas, Texas-based freelance writer.

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