Philanthropy

Philanthropy in Sasha Issenberg’s The Engagement

New book about successful gay-marriage movement highlights role of some grantmakers who supported it—prominently including the Haas Fund and Tim Gill—and suggesting some funding lessons to be drawn, including by others and in any context.


Sasha Issenberg’s new book about the successful gay-marriage movement, The Engagement: America’s Quarter-Century Struggle Over Same-Sex Marriage, well-describes the role of several philanthropies and philanthropists who helped fund it—as his 2012 book The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns well-covered the Carnegie Corporation’s role in reshaping modern politics. Given the gay-marriage movement’s success, some philanthropic lessons could and should be drawn from Issenberg’s The Engagement.

Issenberg reports on an Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund planning grant in the early 2000s to Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund attorney Evan Wolfson. “The grant supported Wolfson as he prepared to return to the San Francisco philanthropy … with both a strategy and a structure that would not have left marriage advocates as powerless as they had been” in previous setbacks in specific states around the country.

From the standpoint of Haas and those sharing its worldview, it was quite an effective planning grant.

“Wolfson was able to define a singular objective: the ability for same-sex couples to marry across the United States of America,” according to Issenberg. “In practice, Wolfson had defined more than fifty distinct policy objectives. … Any marriage campaign would have to be slogged out” among the states and territories, “simultaneously in courts, legislatures, and at the ballot box” (though, of course, no private, tax-exempt, charitable foundation or nonprofit grant recipient could ever engage in politics).

Wolfson’s proposal and Haas’ giving, with the planning grant and subsequently, mimicked and presaged successful policy-furthering strategies, sometimes including by those having differing perspectives, and in other contexts. There was a singularity of focus, a self-critically honest and harsh evaluation of previous failures, and a workable combination of state-based and national goal-setting.

Drawbacks of Multi-purposeness, Benefits of Singular Focus

Wolfson’s prior Lambda experience didn’t bode well for what he knew would be further necessary fundraising for the new effort. At Lambda, “he had struggled to secure enough resources to shape the priorities of other organizations” that would normally be fully allied, but had different and thus putatively competing goals, Issenberg recounts. “The conventional fundraising targets, broad-based foundations whose munificence had sustained some of the left’s major institutions, had always been reticent to back gay-specific causes.”

The multi-purposeness of large institutional grantors and grantees had allowed for too much “bargaining away,” or “watering down,” of a healthily discrete, single-issue focus.

When the ACLU wanted to start a gay-marriage project in the mid-1980s, for example, “the likes of the Ford Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation refused to give,” Issenberg writes. “Ultimately unable to find an established foundation willing to back the project, the ACLU took the unlikely approach of relying on a single large donor, openly gay San Francisco philanthropist James Hormel, to back the project’s 1986 launch.

“A decade later, when Wolfson started raising money for Lambda’s” gay-marriage effort, Issenberg continues, “the pool of available donors remained so small that his efforts immediately set him in conflict with local groups. …

“The proposal Wolfson delivered to [Haas] sketched a single-issue national organization called Freedom to Marry, based on the campaign model that could support political and legal activity,” as Issenberg tells it. Haas awarded the grant, Wolfson founded Freedom to Marry and the Freedom to Marry Foundation in 2003, and he recommended that Haas hire Tim Sweeney to help the foundation secure philanthropic allies in support of the effort.

Fortunately Finding Four, Followed by Further Fulsome Funding, and Defeats and Frustration

“Fortunately, he knew where to find them,” Issenberg writes. Sweeney looked for and found many of them at a meeting in Aspen, Colo., hosted by Tim Gill. Gill and three others—Rutt Bridges, Jared Polis, and Pat Stryker—became well-known as the Gang of Four, which engaged in both philanthropic and outright political giving to further their cause.

In 2004, the Gill Foundation gave $250,000 “to launch the Civil Marriage Initiative, conceived as a way for nonprofit donors to prioritize marriage work in designated ‘core states,’” according to Issenberg. “The first meeting was held at the New York headquarters of the Open Society Institute, the charitable arm of liberal investor George Soros’s empire, and brought together seven left-leaning philanthropies not all uniquely focused on gay concerns.” Further fulsome funding, in fact, followed.

But there were serious political setbacks to the gay-marriage cause that year; 13 states passed constitutional amendments banning it. There were then polls, “autopsies,” and summits. There were complaints about certain, supposedly leading organizations, specifically including the Human Rights Campaign. There was resentment of its ostentatious D.C. headquarters. There was territoriality, there and elsewhere. There was, in other words, human nature. There were ups and downs.

There was frustration, familiar to all pursuers of any cause, with whatever viewpoint.

But as the rest of Issenberg’s The Engagement shows, on the part of gay-marriage proponents, there was enough patience and—maybe more important—persistence to ultimately prevail at the end of the quarter century of incremental cultural, political, and legal advances leading up to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 Obergefell v. Hodges decision constructing a rationale that the fundamental right to marry includes gay couples in 2015. Freedom to Marry wound down its operations in 2016.

While it offers its own lessons to heed, from our standpoint, we see focus, honest evaluation, progress in reasonable increments, and perhaps patience and persistence above all as worthwhile ones to be drawn—by those of any ideological or moral outlook, and including in philanthropy, and in any policy context.

This article first appeared in the Giving Review on June 21, 2021.

Michael E. Hartmann

Michael E. Hartmann is CRC’s senior fellow and director of the Center for Strategic Giving, providing analysis of and commentary about philanthropy and giving. He…
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