Funding the Marriage Equality Movement: Lessons in Collaboration and Risk Taking

The marriage equality movement in the United States has been fueled by the strategic and coordinated efforts of legal groups, advocacy organizations, and a small but active community of grantmakers. The historic U.S. Supreme Court ruling on June 26, 2015, to extend marriage equality nationwide was preceded by a gradual legislative sea change and dramatic shift in public opinion. In 2001, a majority of Americans opposed the idea of allowing same-sex couples to marry. In 2015, polls showed a reversal of the numbers with 57 percent of Americans favoring marriage equality.

One of the key funders behind this shift was the Civil Marriage Collaborative (CMC), an initiative of the Proteus Fund that has partnered with individual donors and foundations to give roughly $2 million in grants each year since 2004 for a broad range of publicly visible education activities to advance marriage equality. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s groundbreaking decision to uphold same-sex marriage as a constitutional right, it’s worth looking closer at how the CMC, as a funder collaborative, contributed to the success of the marriage equality movement. The CMC’s story also offers lessons about the role philanthropy can play in advocacy, and how funders can collaborate and take risks for greater impact in a movement.

Prior to the Supreme Court decision, federal law defined marriage as the union of a man and a woman. By 2004, marriage equality had gained traction with key legislative wins, including the approval of civil unions in Vermont, which granted same-sex couples some, but not all, of the legal benefits of marriage, and a landmark victory in Massachusetts that made it the first state in the U.S. to uphold the right of LGBT couples to marry. But it was also a year of setbacks for the movement, as a series of same-sex marriage bans were passed in 13 states. According to the CMC’s director, Paul A. Di Donato, it was around this time that some grantmakers began to realize that achieving a critical mass of support for marriage equality would require greater engagement by philanthropy, not just a few relationships between individual foundations and big national players. With that in mind, a group of funders, including the Gill Foundation, the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund, the Overbrook Foundation, and the Proteus Fund as a convener, came together around the idea that pooling financial resources and sharing collective knowledge could lead to broader change. They agreed to test the waters as a funder collaborative for a few years to observe whether same-sex marriage would continue to gain traction. In 2007, when Paul joined the CMC, same-sex marriage was still at the top of the LGBT agenda, and the collaborative’s members were still deeply committed to supporting public education activities advancing this agenda.

From the outset, the collaborative focused on a state-based funding strategy that aligned with the overarching vision of the national campaign. CMC reasoned that “success at the state level is essential to build a national movement for a definitive victory at the federal level.” Paul and the CMC also recognized that there was a need to fund organizations operating at the state level because other grantmakers had made an assumption that funding national organizations would result in larger impact. To keep a pulse on emerging priorities in different states, the CMC formed connections with a range of influential partners, including organizations such as Freedom to Marry, the American Civil Liberties Union, and Lambda Legal. Paul explains that relationship building was an intentional part of the CMC’s strategy. “We always maintained very close working relationships and true partnerships with key national leaders, other movement organizations, and our grantees in the states to make sure we were operating as an integrated team.”

Drawing on the knowledge of its network, the CMC sought to change the debate about marriage equality and shift opinions by funding a broad array of public education activities including research, message development, and state-level polling (both baseline and post-public education polling in order to demonstrate cause and effect). Once the most effective messages had been identified, they could be deployed by grantees through field tactics like coalition building, community outreach, and other forms of advocacy. The collaborative understood that all of these activities had to happen concurrently — “firing on all cylinders,” as Paul puts it — in order to build the momentum needed to change polling numbers, which was one measure of success.

The CMC made it a priority to learn from both the successes and failures of the initiatives it funded. By striving to understand why particular activities worked or why setbacks occurred, the collaborative could invest the appropriate resources in helping grantees fine-tune the next iteration of their work. Of course, it can be challenging to fund in an environment that is constantly changing, in which it may not be possible to achieve consistently successful results. But Paul is confident that some of the CMC’s biggest successes resulted directly from its openness to taking risks after major setbacks such as the passage of Proposition 8 in California in 2008 or the loss of marriage equality in Maine during a 2009 ballot initiative. “I can honestly say that we were risk takers. When there was a big loss in the field where we had been funding the public education component, we doubled down. We were willing to make bets on people and tactics and strategies that were evolving as they went along.” After the loss in Maine, the CMC continued — and even ramped up — its funding in order to help local grantees like EqualityMaine analyze the problem, understand how to address it, and implement a new plan. When the question of same-sex marriage reappeared on the ballot in 2012 in Maine and three other states, it passed.

The CMC’s willingness to take risks enabled it to be responsive to emerging opportunities and challenges. These strengths stem in part from the nature of a funder collaborative structure, which, in CMC’s case, yielded strategic benefits, including:

  • Convening power: The collaborative was a catalyst for bringing key stakeholders together in order to achieve an integrated overarching strategy. At annual meetings, funder members met for shared learning and agenda-setting discussions with movement leaders; national nonprofit partners; experts in field organizing, polling, and communications; and grantees. The CMC used its convening power to effectively build trust with its grantees and partners, and to gather the knowledge it needed to engage in sophisticated and strategic grantmaking. By the end of these meetings, Paul observes, “the ball had been moved forward in terms of a deeper understanding of issues and getting people on the same page.”
  • Amplified impact: Coordinating with a breadth of organizations had a positive ripple effect that extended the reach of the CMC’s funding and influence. Other grantmakers in the field trusted what the collaborative was doing and followed its lead. According to Paul, it wasn’t uncommon for nonprofits on the ground to seek grants from the CMC before pursuing other funders because “it became a good housekeeping seal of approval to have a CMC grant.” While the collaborative was responsible for investing $20 million in public education activities over 11 years, Paul estimates that it had a direct impact on securing and directing another $10 to $15 million.
  • Knowledge for philanthropy: The CMC commissioned several internal evaluations to examine how public education activities have fit into and impacted the broader movement. These included case studies of the 2011 marriage equality victory in New York State and an evaluation of 2012 ballot box wins in Maine, Minnesota, Washington, and Maryland. Learnings were shared with the CMC’s network of grantmakers as tools for understanding marriage equality funding and shaping public education grants in other issue areas.

As a funder collaborative, the CMC has modeled how strategic partnerships and collaboration in philanthropy for advocacy can achieve significant results. Following the marriage equality ruling, Paul sees a vital, ongoing role for funders in breaking through other barriers that marriage equality alone will not overcome including discriminatory practices in housing, education, the criminal justice system, and employment. “There’s a robust agenda out there that needs work, and that work can’t happen unless it has money. Until all levels of government are doing everything they can to fight discrimination in all those other areas, the policy job isn’t done.”

For more information about the Civil Marriage Collaborative, visit www.proteusfund.org/cmc.

To learn more about funder collaboratives, read our GrantCraft guide.

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