The overturning of Roe v. Wade earlier this year is the signal of a larger effort to significantly roll back rights. As communities mobilize to fight to maintain what took decades to win, we must examine what brought to this historical moment. Social progress requires funding, but how has philanthropy played a role in narrowing the possibilities for change?
What would our society look like today if the philanthropic sector knowingly gave up its power and directed unrestricted funds to groups imagining and organizing for a radically different world? As we brace ourselves for the next decades-long battle, how can radically different approaches to philanthropy make the change we’re reaching for stick?
‘What’s going to happen when our marriage money goes away?’ This was a frequently asked question at The Empire State Pride Agenda, New York’s statewide LGBT civil rights and advocacy organization. I worked at the Pride Agenda from February 2008 to December 2012 and during the majority of that time, the organization received a great deal of monetary investment to pass a marriage equality bill in New York State. For example, the Civil Marriage Collaborative, a philanthropic collective that financed a state-by-state effort to win marriage equality in the US from 2004 to 2015, contributed nearly $1.3 million to the Empire State Pride Agenda. This type of financial support enabled our organizing and public education to strategically expand throughout New York state. I began my work at the organization as the Pride in the Pulpit Coordinator, which meant that I worked with clergy and faith communities throughout the state to create LGBT affirming congregations and to advocate for LGBT equality and justice– especially marriage equality. Since the organization had access to financial resources, I was able to solely focus on faith-based organizing, which is rare in nonprofit organizing space. Many of my peers in other organizations had to juggle multiple campaigns, constituencies, and regions.
In addition, significant financial support enabled us to act quickly in the face of defeat. In 2009, the marriage bill was voted down in the New York State Senate. With the support of the Civil Marriage Collaborative, the Pride Agenda launched a paid educational canvassing effort in a key senate district in Queens. This effort, which I directed, enabled us to identify over 2,000 marriage supporters, who were later able to help replace a homophobic Republican with a Democrat who supported our agenda. This continued financial support allowed us to lay the needed groundwork to pass marriage in New York State in 2011.
One may look at the Civil Marriage Collaborative and call it a philanthropic success. However, the narrow focus on marriage limited the scope of change. Marriage was not the only LGBT rights bill to not advance in 2009. Another piece of legislation that didn’t even make it to the floor for a vote was a transgender rights bill, the Gender Expression Non Discrimination Act (GENDA). Even though I organized for both marriage and transgender rights, the funding for the Pride Agenda’s 2009 canvass was restricted to marriage advocacy. As a nonbinary trans person and one who is deeply committed to movement building, I wanted the paid canvass to focus on both pieces of legislation but was told our grant did not permit it. GENDA did not become New York State law until 2019. Furthermore, the marriage money did go away after marriage passed in 2011. From 2011 to 2012, Pride Agenda’s program team, which was responsible for advocacy and public education efforts, shrunk from 9 people to 4. The Empire State Pride Agenda dissolved in 2015.
Transgender violence is on the raise in the United States. In 2022 alone, at least 34 transgender people have been murdered in the US, including Club Q shooting victims Daniel Aston and Kelly Loving. On 29 November, just ten days after the Club Q shooting, out of concern that the Supreme Court would continue to roll back rights post the striking down of Roe V. Wade, the US Senate enshrined marriage equality into law by passing the Respect for Marriage Act. The juxtaposition is painful. We are able to pass a marriage equality bill in the US while transgender people die, the majority of whom are Black transgender women, in part because millions of dollars went towards building support for marriage equality as opposed to a holistic LGBTQ rights movement centred in gender and racial justice.
Philanthropy’s failure to invest in a broader and long-term vision for social justice is not limited to LGBTQ justice. In 2017 less than 1 per cent of philanthropic funding went towards feminist movement-building organizations. As we navigate a post-Roe America, one must keep in mind that gender justice does not begin and end with abortion. The right to choose is in fact just one piece of an intersectional movement for gender and racial justice.
In the face of violence, philanthropy must radically shift. Now is the time to stop investing in silos and short-term strategies, and to start funding the creation of a world we want to live in, one that we may not even live to see.
One way to do this is to commit to long-term funding that is focused on sustainability. For example, the Shott Foundation is launching a campaign to raise $30 million in five years to provide education justice organizations with an endowment. If successful, these organizations will have a larger endowment than the foundation. While an endowment does percent its own challenges, particularly when it comes to ensuring one is not investing in corporations who are responsible for the injustices we are fighting, it is an unprecedented commitment to long-term funding.
In addition, philanthropy must provide unrestricted funds towards movement building. I direct an education justice coalition that seeks to end New York City’s school-to-prison pipeline by investing in healing-centered practices, such as restorative justice and social-emotional support and divesting from racist criminalizing practices that harm young people. While there is funding available to run educational programming for youth, there is very little funding available to organize for a just school system.
You get what you pay for. The world we have today is the one that philanthropy funded. In order to achieve a socially just society, the philanthropic sector must fund movements with the understanding that it’s a long-term commitment and that success could mean that philanthropy as we know it looks very different.
Kate McDonough is the Director of Dignity in Schools Campaign New York, a citywide education justice coalition, and MFA student at The New School