Foundations have a right to change their priorities. Given the extreme power imbalance between them and the organizations and causes they support, however, there is a right and a wrong way to exit a field. The right way requires transparency, appreciating the harms such a decision can cause to fragile movements, and treating your grantee partners with respect. That is why we are so shocked by the way in which the Evelyn & Walter Haas, Jr. Fund -- a well-respected progressive foundation and major funder of LGBTQ+ issues -- abruptly abandoned the LGBTQ+ movement. This kind of behavior is all too common and when foundations fail to adhere to basic standards they need to be called out.
Unfortunately, similar moves by funders are rarely discussed in public. Why? Foundations are loath to criticize other foundations, and grantees are terrified of speaking up for fear of being labeled troublemakers and being shut out by other foundations. Fortunately, we are both no longer working in foundation grant making or grant seeking -- we don't have to worry about retribution.
For 20 years, Haas had been an exemplar -- a non-LGBTQ+ foundation making equality for LGBTQ+ people a priority. It had been among the top five domestic funders of LGBTQ+ issues during this entire period. Its investments of over $100 million played an important role in overturning the ban on out people serving in the military, repealing anti-LGBTQ+ policies in mainline Protestant denominations, winning marriage equality nationwide, the Supreme Court ruling that LGBT people are protected by Title VII from employment discrimination, and more recently, supporting state-based efforts to extend basic civil rights protections to all LGBTQ+ Americans. That's a record to be proud of!
Here are the three ways Haas completely bungled its decision to end its support for the LGBTQ+ community and tarnished its proud legacy.
First, it was not transparent about why it made this decision, saying only that it wanted to devote its "attention to a set of issues confronting California and our Bay Area community." We know the reason wasn't money -- almost every foundation has seen its endowment surge over the last couple of years, and Haas is no exception. What is it then? Just be honest.
Second, because Haas has been a significant funder, it had a heightened obligation to consider the impact of its decision on both the LGBTQ+ movement and on other funders. Contrary to popular wisdom, the LGBTQ+ movement is starved for foundation resources with just 28 cents of every $100 awarded by U.S. foundations going to LGBTQ+ issues. Of that, only a small portion goes to state-level advocacy. This is a place where Haas's exit will be felt the most as it has been a top supporter of state-based work, including making grants ranging from $70,000 to $150,000+ to LGBTQ+ equality groups in Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Ohio, North Carolina, Texas, Utah, and West Virginia. Each of these groups is sorely underfunded and fighting some of the ugliest anti-LGBTQ+ proposals in history, such as Florida's "don't say gay" bill, the targeting of young trans people, and those in a dozen other states to ban LGBTQ-themed books from libraries. At the same time this occurs, BIPOC and trans people are already woefully under supported by foundations.
Moreover, at this critical moment in time, the Haas announcement tells other foundations that the struggle for equal rights and dignity for LGBTQ+ people in the U.S. does not need foundation support. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. This is exactly how the Ford Foundation's 2015 announcement that it was dropping its LGBT program was widely interpreted -- "American Queers got marriage and that's all they need." Instead, Haas's exit should have at the least included an all-out push to bring other foundations to the LGBTQ+ table.
Finally, respect. The Haas "wind down" plan -- basically giving its grantees one additional year of general operating support -- ignores that hard reality that few of its grantees will be able to find new dollars to replace those coming from Haas within a year's time. For example, the average revenue of the eight state equality groups mentioned above is $1.06 million, meaning the Haas grant comprised 10 percent or more of their budgets. How are they going to make that up? While being this stingy is common among foundations, Haas should have followed the best practice of providing "three or more years of support once the exit is announced."
Is too late for the Evelyn & Walter Haas, Jr. Fund to do the right thing? Perhaps, but no other foundation should allow their legacies to be so badly tarnished by such irresponsible practices.
Katherine Acey, Executive Director, Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice (1987-2010), OSF International Human Rights Initiative, former Advisory Board Member, Funders for LGBTQ Issues, Founding Member. (KatherineAcey@gmail.com)
Amber Hollibaugh, Co-Executive Director, Queers for Economic Justice (2002-2014), Senior Strategist, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Recipient CLAGS Kessler Award, Author, My Dangerous Desires. (Amberhollibaugh@aol.com)