What is the actual price tag for corporate “LGBTQ+ friendliness”?
Tracking corporate philanthropic contributions to the gay liberation movement

“With the privilege of making a profit comes great responsibility,” used to say my previous boss Kate Gilmore, the Deputy Human Rights Commissioner at the United Nations.

Corporate Philanthropy or Corporate Giving is the act of corporations donating a portion of their profits or resources to various nonprofit organizations directly or through a company foundation. The most common help that corporations donate is cash; however, corporations also donate the use of their corporate facilities; property (such as used computers, buildings, or land); gifts of products, services, and equipment; advertising support; or executive loans. Many corporations also have employee volunteer groups that donate their time.

According to Funders for LGBTQ+ issues in the last decade tremendously, corporate funders have increased their investment in LGBTQ+ issues (read Box 1 below for a history of corporate LGBTQ+ funding, particularly in the context of the HIV pandemic). What started as a small portion of LGBTQ+ funding overall, compared to governments, foundations, and individuals, might have become the bulk of the movement’s financing.

According to the latest data from Funders for LGBTQ+ Issues (now obsolete as the data is from 2016), corporate donations in the United States for work on LGBTQ+ issues (mainly in the US, but to a smaller extent globally) account for a notable portion of overall LGBTQ+ grant-making in the United States. In 2016, that support totaled $20.4 million. Just like LGBTQ+ philanthropy as a whole, these numbers have been growing steadily in the United States: corporate funders gave nearly twice as much as in 2016 as they did in 2012, belying concerns that funding would falter after the 2015 marriage equality decision in the United States. Some of the top corporate givers for LGBTI causes include Gilead Sciences, MAC Cosmetics, and Wells Fargo. Beneficiaries of Pride-related benefits this year included organizations such as GLAAD, GLSEN, Outright Action International, The Trevor Project, the It Gets Better Foundation, Ali Forney, Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), and Immigration Equality.

When corporations make large donations to LGBTQ+ organizations, we hear about it in news headlines. Recent examples of this include:

  • AT&T donating $1 million to the Trevor Project in 2018, the single largest contribution in the organization’s 20-year history
  • Google.org recent gift of $2 million to OutRight Action International’s Covid-19 Global Fund (on the Board of which I serve)
  • EY’s support of the Hong Kong Gay Games 2022
  • Bath & Body Works $1 million donation to support the Human Rights Campaign Foundation (see USA Today, May 2021: 55 brands that are giving back for Pride Month 2021).

Yet, today the overall contribution from “LGBTQ+-friendly” companies to LGBTQ+ organizations is a black box including for the companies themselves. Mainly because the data is not collected and reported, and some companies benefit from the lack of transparency. Consequently, it is impossible to distinguish our true friends from “Pride rainbows” or fair-weather friends.

Take the example of the Miami Dolphins, famously owned by controversial Stephen Ross but also claiming to be LGBTQ+-friendly with their “FOOTBALL UNITES” program. Their annual revenues are $372 M with an operating income of $7.9 M. How much of that money has been spent supporting the organizations trying to fight the waves of anti-trans bills popping up in the US? The Miami Dolphins FOOTBALL UNITES program has partnered with Miami Beach Pride on a series of events throughout the community. Still, we need to get down to the numbers to understand the authenticity of their engagement with our embattled community.

Similarly, many companies have access to service providers who, in exchange for a small sum, will ensure that companies are touted on their platform as “LGBTQ+ friendly,” irrespective of whether they walk the talk.

To change this paradigm, the LGBTQ+ community needs to build accountability and incentive mechanisms to ensure that a fair exchange is at the root of the “pro-LGBT label” that many companies enjoy. This question is particularly stringent for companies that operate in jurisdictions where human rights violations of LGBTQ+ people are egregious or those whose owners are financially contributing to politicians who use LGBTQ+ people as pawns in a political game.

In addition, the repartition of giving between the various segments of the movement is crucial. To be crude, it is sometimes easier to donate to fight “youth suicide” than decriminalization in a country where the Government’s goodwill is necessary to one’s business operation. In contrast to many foundation donors, and corporations have tended to steer away from giving to advocacy and grassroots organizing groups. Instead, corporations have focused on issues like public health (HIV/AIDS in particular) and supporting service providers such as Le Refuge in France or the Ali Forney Center in NYC, USA, which provide services to homeless LGBTI youth. Corporate philanthropy has largely failed to support or include transgender and intersex people or their umbrella organizations in grant-making to any significant degree. At the same time, a 2017 study showed that more than half of trans groups and more than three-quarters of intersex groups globally had 2016 budgets of less than $10,000 (The State of Intersex Organizing (2nd edition) and The State of Trans Organizing (2nd edition)).

As I mentioned recently, “money is the nerve of our war,” the historic shift in societal attitudes we observed in the United States came with a hefty price tag. The combined budget of GLAAD, the Trevor Project, HRC, the Victory Institute, GLSEN, Equality California, the LGBT Center, Lambda Legal, etc.. adds up to almost a billion dollars a year. What makes us think we will achieve the same results in Tunisia or Hungary for 5,000 Euros a year? How will we defeat anti-trans rhetoric in the UK if we can’t fund public awareness campaigns? Did you know that the annual budget of French inter-LGBTQ+ is approximately 140,000 Euros and that it is staffed only by volunteers (see my recent article on the French LGBTQ+ movement)?

The opacity of the corporate contribution to the movement is about to change. Out Leadership is partnering with the Global Philanthropy Project to increase the visibility of corporate philanthropic leadership in support of global LGBTI communities. The biennial Global Resources Report provides philanthropy, governments, multilateral agencies, corporate foundations, and civil society with the most detailed and accurate understanding of the global funding landscape on LGBTI issues. For the first time, the forthcoming report (documenting 2019 and 2020 funding) will include a section focused on foundations and grant-making programs from corporations. We are eager to ensure all corporate contributions are counted.

The initial deadline was October 29, but it has been postponed to November 15. Would you mind making sure that your company makes its submission?

The Global Resources Report was developed by the Global Philanthropy Project in partnership with Funders for LGBTQ Issues. Within this partnership:

  1. Corporate funders based or headquartered in the US are invited to report their grants data through Funders for LGBTQ Issues using this data collection site or by contacting research@lgbtfunders.org.
  2. All other corporate funders (those outside the US) are invited to report grants through the Global Philanthropy Project using this data collection site or by contacting research@globalphilanthropyproject.org.

Data is vital to ensure that we establish a win-win exchange with the private sector regarding LGBTQ+ friendliness. You can help us gather and disseminate it.

Suggested additional reading.

A brief history of corporate giving to the LGBTI movement in the United States 

(Extracted from Forty Years Of LGBTQ Philanthropy, 2012)

Between 1985–1993, some of the movement’s most important allies began supporting the community in response to the spread of HIV/AIDS and increased discrimination against lesbian and gay people. These included corporate funders such as Levi Strauss, Wells Fargo, or Ben & Jerry’s.

For example, the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1980s and the early 1990s significantly impacted Levi Strauss’s San Francisco workforce. Bob Haas, CEO from 1984 to 1999, saw the need for the company and its corporate foundation to get involved in HIV/AIDS work. In 1985, the foundation contributed $6,000 to the San Francisco AIDS Foundation.

However, funding of the global LGBTI equality movement is much more recent. IBM, as an example, has a long history when it comes to LGBT workplace equality. As early as 1984, IBM included sexual orientation in their non-discrimination policy, but they started supporting organizations fighting for LGBTI equality only in the early 2000s.

By 2010, a study titled “Forty Years of LGBTI philanthropy 1970–2010” found 83 corporate foundations/giving programs in the US between 1970 and 2010, which awarded 1,764 grants totaling $26,938,831 to LGBTI issues. The average grant from corporate foundations/corporate giving programs was $15,271, and the median grant was $7,500.

Today, this amount is equivalent to the annual giving by corporations and is rising steadily.  Yet, it remains a drop in the bucket of all philanthropic giving by corporations and of the movement’s funding, with corporate giving accounting for less than five percent of the total.

Example 2: The pitfalls of “Pink philanthropy” – lessons learned from the Tobacco industry’s support to LGBTI organizations

(Extracted from Truth Initiative paper “LGBT”)

Big Tobacco has targeted the LGBT community since at least 1991 when tobacco company Philip Morris settled a boycott by pledging large donations to AIDS research and programs. The boycott, led by the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, protested the company’s support of Senator Jesse Helms (R-North Carolina), a leading opponent of AIDS funding and the human rights of LGBT people. Using corporate philanthropy as evidence of its support of the LGBT community, Philip Morris quickly gained access to the market, leading the way for other tobacco companies to follow suit.

Tobacco companies also began to advertise in “gay press” publications in the early 1990s, often depicting tobacco use as a “normal” part of LGBT life. Many ads for products other than cigarettes glamorized smoking, and many articles having nothing to do with smoking were shown with tobacco images.

In 1995, the tobacco company, R.J. Reynolds, created a marketing strategy called “Project SCUM” (Sub-Culture Urban Marketing) to boost cigarette sales by targeting gay men and homeless individuals with advertisements and displays placed in communities and stores. On top of donations, giveaways, and increased advertising, the tobacco industry made community outreach efforts by hosting local promotions like “LGBT bar nights” featuring specific cigarette brands.

For years, the tobacco industry has appealed to LGBT consumers through targeted advertisements in the LGBT presscigarette giveaways, and free tobacco industry merchandise. Today, the LGBT community is among the hardest hit by tobacco. Overall, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender adults smoke at rates up to 2.5 times higher than other adults due in part to targeted marketing by Big Tobacco.

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