Advocate: Freedom to Marry Coalition: Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund

In 2008, California voters narrowly passed a measure amending the state constitution to ban same-sex marriage. Although the 52% to 48% vote was a blow for the gay community and its allies, the narrowness of the defeat showed a degree of progress. In 2000, a similar measure had passed by 61% to 39%. In just eight years, the dial had turned nearly 10 points in favor of same-sex marriage, one of the most contentious social issues of the day. What happened in that time? No small part of the change in public opinion had to do with work supported by the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund in San Francisco.

After the passage of the 2000 measure, the Fund helped to launch and became the primary funder of the Freedom to Marry collaborative, a gay and non-gay partnership working to win marriage equality nationwide. The collaborative coordinated a wide range of activities designed to reach specific sectors of the population: educating college students about same-sex marriage, conducting outreach to churches, building organizations’ communications capacity, producing studies on the policy implications of extending legal protections to lesbians and gay men. The work was strictly research and education on same-sex marriage, not advocacy for any particular ballot measure or legislation.

The foundation recognized that, while the issue might be decided in the courts, public acceptance was critical to securing and honoring same-sex marriage rights. “You need to peel away the layers of people’s resistance,” said former Haas Jr. Fund program director and now Gill Foundation president Tim Sweeney, and address the questions that “people are really worried about but won’t say out loud.”

The Haas Jr. Fund also supported extensive polling, focus groups, and other research, as well as the creation of a communications toolkit to help grantees target their messages better for the so-called “movable middle,” people open to persuasion on the marriage issue. The foundation’s support also enabled a coalition of grantees to come together under the auspices of Let California Ring, a public education campaign that began in 2006 and coincided with the state Supreme Court’s review and eventual decision finding that denying same sex couples the freedom to marry was unconstitutional.

Matt Foreman, current director of the Haas Jr. Fund’s gay and lesbian grantmaking program, noted that the public education campaign “began with the goal of sparking one million conversations about marriage equality” among Californians, using a combination of community organizing, paid advertising in mainstream and ethnic media outlets, and “earned” news coverage. He added, “The campaign, which raised over $11 million, took on increased importance and urgency after the Supreme Court’s pro-marriage decision,” sparking a number of other foundations to join in.

“One of the great values that foundations have is that they can be at a 30,000-foot level over a field or a sector or a movement, look at all the pieces of it, and stitch together organizing, litigation, public education,” Sweeney noted. “You can fund, say, 15 groups in this area, and then you can use your power of convening and capacity building. You can help people be [greater than] the sum of the parts. And that’s particularly true when it comes to communications work.”

CODA: After California voters approved Proposition 8, a furious debate erupted over the messaging and tactics used in the $45 million campaign to defeat the measure. Research has long shown that gay and lesbian couples are not the most effective messengers in reaching people in the “moveable middle.” As a result, none of the “No on 8” ads featured gay people. Many have complained that the campaign was essentially “in the closet” and that it would have been more effective to have represented the real-life experiences of gay and lesbian couples hurt by being denied the freedom to marry. The debate raises compelling questions about values and outcomes for both advocates and funders.

Media and research reports funded by the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund are available at freedomtomarry.org and letcaliforniaring.org.

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