What Happens When a Local, a National, and a Family Funder Walk Into a Bar, a Church, and a Library

Ohio’s philanthropic sector is stepping up support of LGBTQ communities. In 2014, even as the Midwest overall experienced the greatest funding decline of any of the five U.S. regions, Ohio came in second (behind Illinois) for the highest LGBTQ philanthropic funding in the 12-state region. The Cleveland Foundation has emerged as a new, and perhaps unexpected, leader in this space. Thanks to a significant increase in LGBTQ grantmaking, the world’s first community foundation claimed the #4 spot among the Top 10 Funders of LGBTQ Issues in the Midwest, as well as the Top 10 Community Foundations Supporting LGBTQ Issues in the U.S

But that doesn’t mean Ohio’s LGBTQ landscape is all sunshine and rainbows. The fact is, more than half of LGBTQ Americans live in states where it is generally legal to be fired, evicted, or refused service in places like restaurants and movie theaters solely on the basis of LGBTQ identity - and Ohio is one of those states. Philanthropy is a sector concerned with things like poverty and health disparities, both of which disproportionately impact LGBTQ folks. This context makes Ohio’s average grant dollars per LGBTQ adult of just $4.93 look pretty measly. Even worse when contrasted against grantmaking in New York, a state which provides greater protections from discrimination than Ohio, yet boasts grant dollars per LGBTQ adult at a rate of $18.16. Clearly, we still have a long way to go.

It is against this backdrop of contrasts that the concept of an LGBTQ Funders Immersion Trip came to be.

Together with my fellow Ohio LGBTQ Funding Ambassador, Brian Schultz of Foundation Center Midwest, we set out to design a two-day deeply immersive experience to engage both Ohio-based and national funders in the local LGBTQ landscape in Cleveland, Ohio.

Why place-based funders? Large and small, family and community, these are the foundations that know their local communities. These funders have valuable reputations and strong relationships with both service providers and policy makers, which means they can navigate local resources and open doors that national funders would not have access to.

Why national LGBTQ funders? Before it was safe, and certainly before it was trendy, these foundations put their names and their resources behind issues impacting LGBTQ people. These funders have deep knowledge of national resources, strategies, and best practices at a scope beyond the capacity of local funders to keep up with.

Both local place-based funders and national LGBTQ funders have unique knowledge and resources to contribute to the overall picture of improving quality of life for LGBTQ Ohioans. So how might one go about fostering cross-learning between these funders? Put them all on a trolley to criss-cross the city together, of course!

This is not a conference! This sentence became our unofficial mantra as we planned, coordinated, coaxed, cajoled, and championed our way to a successful immersion trip. We eschewed the typical conference regalia of agendas, sessions, panels, and conference centers, instead assembling an itinerary of experiences to engage participants with local leaders and community members in a variety of community locations. Knowing our city was about to be the temporary two-day home to funders from across the state and country, we resisted the nearly unrelenting urge to polish things up and put our best foot forward.

Because immersion isn’t about making a “good” impression. It’s about making an authentic impression.

Over the course of two days in early September, nearly 40 philanthropy representatives immersed themselves in Cleveland’s local LGBTQ culture, learned about the strengths and gaps in local infrastructure, and explored creative ways to support local LGBTQ communities. Some funders attended the full two-day experience from start to finish, riding the trolley between each community location. Others attended partial days or popped in and out throughout the experience, exploring a bit of Cleveland on their own along the way. Hotels were merely a temporary home base for out-of-towners, as no portion of the immersion trip took place in a hotel conference room. Funders had an opportunity to interact directly with community members, staff and executive directors of LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ nonprofits, grassroots organizers, advocacy organizations, community development corporations, and city representatives. A sampling of the places we went and topics we explored throughout the trip:

  • A discussion of Northeast Ohio’s LGBTQ infrastructure at the nationally recognized “citadel of free speech”, the City Club of Cleveland
  • A visit to the third oldest LGBT Community Center in the U.S.
  • Lunch at an LGBTQ night club while learning about local housing discrimination and efforts to cultivate an LGBTQ neighborhood that’s consciously inclusive along intersecting dimensions of class, race, gender, age, and identity
  • An exploration of arts and LGBTQ issues held in a repurposed church which served as one of the last stops on the Underground Railroad
  • A “State of the Movement” address open to the community highlighting the coordinated efforts, the successes, and the very real challenges that constitute Ohio’s legal equality landscape
  • A visit to the Cleveland Public Library to hear about interesting ways funders are supporting LGBTQ leadership
  • A roundtable discussion between local and national funders, held at a social services organization for seniors, and led by Foundation Center’s Cleveland Manager (local), Philanthropy Ohio’s Executive Director (state), and Funders for LGBTQ Issues’ Executive Director (national)
  • Economic Development Happy Hour hosted by the local LGBTQ chamber of commerce at a neighborhood restaurant

By the conclusion of the trip I was equally exhausted and energized. Was it a lot of work to put this thing together? For sure. Many an evening and weekend were sacrificed. Was it worth it? Absolutely! It would be impossible to describe all of the big and small ways this experience impacted myself, my philanthropy colleagues, and the LGBTQ funding landscape. However, in upcoming blog posts I hope you will be able to experience a bit of the impact of the immersion trip through the eyes of several who attended. I think you will find, as I have, that an immersion trip is a powerful tool to help local funders further their knowledge about the issues that impact LGBTQ people, and to help national LGBTQ funders deepen their understanding of what life is really like for LGBTQ people and organizations in places like Cleveland. 

This is part of an ongoing blog series detailing Out in Ohio: An LGBTQ Funders’ Immersion Trip in Cleveland which took place on September 8-9, 2016 and was sponsored by the national affinity group, Funders for LGBTQ Issues, and led by local LGBTQ funding ambassadors Kristi Andrasik, The Cleveland Foundation and Brian Schultz, Foundation Center Midwest.

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