Funding Forward: Lessons learned

I’m the IT guy.

I am a proud, comic book reading, video game playing, algorithm parsing, pocket protector toting, jargon spewing, cave dwelling, social anxiety having, Star Trek T-shirt wearing*, sci-fi reading, neck beard sporting*, red-blooded American nerd to the bone.

I came to Meyer 12 years ago fresh from a decade of running big systems with lots of blinky lights. I spent a majority of that time working in broadband networking. I also did some independant and corporate consulting and software engineering.

Today, I have the distinct privilege to be the manager of Meyer’s Technology Operations department. I’m a total operations wonk. Wanna talk swimlane charts and process optimization? I’m your guy. What I am not is a program officer.

Other than my term of service here at Meyer, I have no prior background in social justice or the nonprofit world. Despite 12 years at a foundation, in some ways I’m still a bit of a philanthropy newb.

I am also an out, gay man, and I have tried to do my best to help represent the LGBTQ+ community in internal discussions at Meyer.

In March, I had the honor and privilege to attend the Funding Forward conference in New Orleans. This is an annual conference put on by the wonderful folks at Funders for LGBTQ Issues that brings together funders from across the country to share experiences and to learn from each other.

It was also one of the best conferences I’ve had the pleasure of attending in my career. So much so that I felt inspired to blog about it. Despite being a person who has made his career in technology and the Internet, I don’t blog. Ever.

Until now, that is.


Lesson One: Funders for LGBTQ Issues is doing amazing work

Funders for LGBTQ Issues, as their mission statement says, works “to increase the scale and impact of philanthropic resources aimed at enhancing the well-being of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer communities; promoting equity; and advancing racial, economic and gender justice.” It is a philanthropy-advancing organization that works with funders via research, convenings, training, support services and collective action to promote equity for LGBTQ+ people.

Funders also puts on one heck of a conference. It was extraordinarily well run and had an impressive panel of experts, both through professional and lived experience, on issues important to LGBTQ+ communities across the board. Their staff were wonderful and welcoming and I could gush about them for several more paragraphs, but I’ll spare you.

One part of Funders’ work that was a focus of this conference is the Out in the South initiative. Nonprofits working the LGBTQ+ space have funding issues across the nation, but in the southern U.S., this problem has been particularly dire. Out in the South is a 5-year initiative to bring these issues into focus and to attempt to improve the funding landscape.

Out in the South is important work, and I encourage you to visit the Funders for LGBTQ Issues website and read about this initiative and take a look at the reports. If you are a foundation and are not contributing data to Funders for LGBTQ Issues, I strongly encourage you to do so. If you are interested, you can submit your grantmaking data at research [at] (research[at]lgbtfunders[dot]org) or contact Funders research and communications associate Andrew Wallace (andrew [at] (andrew[at]lgbtfunders[dot]org)) if you have questions. I’m quite sure Funders will gladly crunch any numbers you send their way.


Lesson Two: Great work is happening in the South

Our philanthropic brothers and sisters in the South are working hard to make change happen. They repeatedly reminded us that “the South isn’t what you think it is.” Does the South have some issues in the equity department? You bet. Guess what, so does the rest of the country. They have a lot to teach us about working in difficult political and social climates and meeting people where they are.

Remember, bigotry is hardly a “southern issue.” According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting database, the only arguably southern state that ranks higher than Oregon (at No. 14) for hate crimes committed per 100,000 population is Kentucky. Hate and bigotry are national issues, not regional ones.

I had the pleasure of meeting and learning from some really amazing people doing philanthropic work in the South. I was awed and humbled by their dedication and determination. They have a lot to teach the field about responding to the day-to-day issues we all work with, and they have developed (unfortunately) deep experience with responding to disasters. From Katrina to Harvey to the Pulse massacre, they have learned a lot of hard lessons and helped countless people on the road to recovery.


Lesson Three: LGBTQ+ issues are desperately underfunded

When I started at Meyer in 2006, I was the only out queer person on staff. I’m happy to report that is no longer the case, and I have wonderful LGBTQ+ colleagues at Meyer to help carry the rainbow flag around (Note: we don’t actually carry the flag around ... often).

I’m not going to beat around the bush here. Across nearly every social justice issue you can name, LGBTQ+ are statistically over-represented. Let me give you some examples:

  • The incarceration rate per 100,000 adults in the U.S. as of 2016 is 612. For LGBTQ+ people that rate is 1,882.

  • The U.S. Census does not (and will not in 2020) track poverty data for LGBTQ+ people, but the folks at the Williams Institute, an LGBTQ+ think tank at the UCLA School of Law, published this report in 2013 that indicates a significant disparity.

  • According to a 2011 study by the National Center for Transgender Equality, transgendered and gender non-binary people are four times more likely than the general population to have a household income of less that $10,000 per year. They had twice the unemployment rate as the national average (four times for trans people of color). Nineteen percent reported direct housing discrimination due to their gender identity. Nineteen percent also reported experiencing homelessness at some point in their lives. Of those “the majority of those trying to access a homeless shelter were harassed by shelter staff or residents (55 percent), 29 percent were turned away altogether and 22 percent were sexually assaulted by residents or staff.”

  • The Trevor Project’s website states that LGB youths are almost five times as likely to have attempted suicide compared with heterosexual youths. A 2015 study of transgender adults found that 40 percent of respondents had made a suicide attempt.

Unfortunately, I could quote figures like this all day long.

Let’s take a look at the philanthropic response to this. From Giving USA, I found that $58.46 billion in foundation grants were made in 2016. According to our friends at Funders for LGBTQ Issues, $172.8 million (which does not include the $29.5 million donated to the OneOrlando fund in response to the 2016 Pulse Nightclub Massacre), or 0.3 percent, were to fund LGBTQ+ issues.

Meyer did a bit better than that. In calendar 2016, Meyer made $25.3 million in grants, of which $952,000, or 3.75 percent, were for LGBTQ+ issues. In 2017, we did better still at $1.9 million, or 4.4 percent.

When we look at the national numbers compared with the demographics, the picture is a bit grim. The best data available estimate that approximately 4.1 percent of the U.S. population identifies as LGBTQ. For Oregon, this number is 4.9 percent, and it’s 8.8 percent for Portland. Unfortunately, the national grantmaking ratios don’t quite measure up to the demographics.

Please note that the “best data available” for the number of LGBTQ+ people in the United States is from Gallup polls. Although the folks at Gallup do a fine job, these statistics are not nearly as reliable as census data would be. Unfortunately we, that is to say the estimated 13 million LGBTQ+ people in the United States, have been erased from the 2020 census and the American Community Survey. Again, I’ll let you draw your own conclusions. Gary J. Gates, senior research fellow at the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy at the UCLA School of Law, published a 2006 study (which is where the state and city figures above were found) based on the 2005 American Community Survey, which only counted same-sex couples, not LGBTQ+ people. Though his study is excellent, it is only an estimate based on incomplete data.

Since Meyer shifted to focus on dismantling inequities in Oregon six years ago, our foundation has worked to do better on LGBTQ+ support. A few years ago, after a training on transgender issues, Meyer added gender pronouns to our staff and trustee bios online and, last month, to our nametags. We have also made an effort to remove “othering” language from our applications and to expand our due diligence processes to include LGBTQ+ issue-related questions when evaluating groups working on shelter, domestic violence and youth-serving organizations, among others.

Meyer has partnered with funders specifically working with LGBTQ+ populations as an intentional strategy to reach and increase support for LGBTQ+ orgs with whom Meyer may not have had a relationship in the past. Our Equitable Education portfolio recently followed our Building Community team in adding LGBTQ+ people to their priority populations list — a step in the right direction that I applaud. Last year, Meyer for the first time sponsored staff to participate in the Portland PRIDE parade, paying the entry fee and for staff time. They're sponsoring participation again this year.

Our internal staff and trustee demographic survey follows best practices to reflect our sex, gender identity and sexual orientation, alongside questions about race, ethnicity and equity familiarity. Meyer can do better, and we’ll keep trying to learn. Equity is as much a journey as it is a destination.

I would like to call on all funders and nonprofits (ourselves included) to remember that the roughly four in 10 people in this country who are LGBTQ+ are represented across every portfolio and every constituency you serve. We’re not all neatly stuffed into a single silo. We are of every age, sex, education level, income level, marital status, occupation, religion and any other socioeconomic pigeonhole you wish to look in. Do your organization’s programs reflect that? Does your leadership and staff?


Lesson Four: You don’t have to be on the program side to have a voice

I’d like to wrap up this novel-length blog post with a call out to my philanthropic colleagues who work outside the program department. You have opinions that matter. You can have a voice in your organization’s mission-related activities. You can effect change in the people you hire, the vendors you engage, the products you buy. Polish up that ol’ equity lens and take a good look at your own department. You might be surprised at what opportunities you find.

You can even go to program-related conferences! If you’re queer, come to Funding Forward next year. They were very welcoming to me as one of the few operations folks who attended. I’ll be there, so find me and we’ll exchange the secret operations handshakes and talk process improvement or something!

Lastly, if you are a LGBTQ+ person working in philanthropy in the Portland area, we have an informal monthly lunch to meet and get to know our peers and discuss issues. If you are interested in joining us, please feel free to contact me via email, and I will gladly add you to our mailing list. Please note that we would like to keep these lunches a safe and welcoming space for those who may not be out. As much as we love, appreciate and honor our allies, it would not be appropriate for them to attend these events. I should also note that this is an informal group that is not directly affiliated with Meyer or any other foundation. It's just us folks.

— Aaron

*I don’t actually have a neck beard but I do own a Star Trek T-shirt.