A Foundation Success Story

There are lots of critiques of foundations and philanthropy – some justified, some not – and lots of calls for foundations to do a better job of owning up to failure and sharing what hasn’t worked.

But we could also do a better job learning from what has, in fact, worked.

One contemporary example of dramatic progress in which foundations have played a crucial role is gay and lesbian rights. That’s a story we at CEP have been watching closely for a decade, and a new piece by a key leader at one of the central players in that effort – Sylvia Yee at the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund – offers valuable insights.

As we all know, a lot has changed in a short time when it comes to this issue. I remember just under a decade ago, CEP was holding its biennial conference in San Francisco and we were trying to figure out who to ask to be our dinner speaker. We invited Gavin Newsom, the then 30-something mayor of San Francisco who had made waves – and brought national attention to the issue of marriage equality – by granting marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples. At the time, gay marriage was legal in Massachusetts, but in no other state, and Newsom was openly challenging state law in California.

We knew some, even among our mostly politically moderate or left-of-center foundation executive audience, wouldn’t be keen on this choice and, indeed, we heard some complaints. “Too political,” “too controversial,” and “too edgy” were among the comments I remember. I recall feeling surprised, but then again not surprised – and we ultimately decided we didn’t really care about the grumbling.

This was, after all, a crucial social and civil rights issue and we at CEP became increasingly interested in the role foundations were playing in it. At CEP’s 2007 conference in Chicago, my colleague Kevin Bolduc shared results of our research on foundation strategy and pointed to Gill Foundation in Colorado as an exemplar for its strategic work on gay rights.

At that conference, we shared a video excerpt of an interview Kevin had conducted with then-executive director Rodger McFarlane. That interview remains, in my view, an incredibly powerful articulation of the importance of strategy in philanthropy and of the kind of iterative (or “emergent”) approach favored for years by folks like Patti Patrizi and others. (Sadly, McFarlane passed away in 2009. He was reportedly the inspiration for the character “Tommy” in the play – and Emmy Award winning HBO movie – “The Normal Heart.”)

I also liked the Gill example, which we wrote up as a case study at the end of our 2007 Beyond the Rhetoric report, because it belied the frequently stated notion that social movements and strategy don’t mix. (My view is nothing could be further from the truth, as NCRP’s Aaron Dorfman and I argued in this Chronicle of Philanthropy piece last year.)

The Haas Jr. Fund was another central player in this effort, and was reportedly the first foundation to make marriage equality a priority. In a must-read (and that’s a phrase I try to avoid unless it is really warranted) Stanford Social Innovation Review article, Yee, who is vice president of programs there, offers her insights on how the dramatic results were achieved in this campaign.

“Among the critical components of this effort were a common game plan, a collaborative approach to funding the movement’s work, and a set of shared messages that helped generate public support for change,” Yee writes. “Too often, funders act separately to support groups whose work may be uncoordinated with (or even redundant with) the work of other players. In this case, however, funders deliberately aligned their investments with consensus priorities that were part of a bigger plan.”

Yee describes an approach that was resolute in its focus on effectiveness – on what would work in the effort to achieve the desired results.

She writes:

“As the marriage equality movement set out to work toward its 20-year goals, it soon became clear that the messaging that advocates were using to talk about marriage wasn’t working. … In 2006, the Haas, Jr. Fund and several partner organizations made a significant investment in psychographic research that explored what really goes on inside people’s minds when it comes to marriage equality. On the basis of that research, my colleagues and I arrived at a crucial insight: When we straight people think about marriage, we don’t think about hospital visits or taxes or dental plans. We think about love, family, and commitment. These findings led the movement to change the language and the imagery that it uses to communicate with the public about marriage equality. Advocates, for example, have become adept at sharing stories of gay and lesbian couples who want to marry not so that they can gain new rights and benefits, but for the simple human reason that they love each other. The coordinated use of such messaging has contributed to dramatic gains in public support for marriage.”

As we look ahead to our conference in 2015, which again be held in San Francisco, it is amazing to contemplate what has changed in terms of gay rights more broadly – and marriage equality specifically — in the last decade. As Yee writes, there is more to be done. Still, as she rightly notes, “The results speak for themselves. The patient, deliberate, and strategic approach of the marriage equality movement has yielded a steadily growing roster of wins at the state level.”

Many individuals and organizations played important roles in these efforts, of course, and much work was done – and suffering endured – in the decades prior. However, it’s worth taking note of the role that Haas Jr. and Gill, as well as other foundations, played over the past decade or so.

And, while being careful not to assume that all the lessons will apply to other efforts, it’s worth asking what we might learn from their success.

Phil Buchanan is President of CEP and a regular columnist in the Chronicle of Philanthropy. You can find him on Twitter @PhilCEP.

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