$65 million gift to GLBT causes can help us think about our own giving

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You may have heard that the late Ric Weiland, one of Microsoft’s first employees, left a bequest of $65 million to GLBT and HIV/AIDS organizations. 

It is probably the largest gift ever made to causes directly related to our community. The last time I remember seeing the words “gay” and “philanthropy” in the same story with such large numbers was in 2002 when David Geffen made a $200 million unrestricted gift to UCLA’s medical school.

Both gifts are extraordinary for being at the top of the stratosphere of philanthropy, whether you put the letters GLBT in the equation or not. But both gifts provide us with an opportunity to think about how we sustain the organizations important to us and advance GLBT rights.

Ten years ago the Institute for Gay and Lesbian Strategic Studies (now part of the Williams Institute for Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy at UCLA) released a study of giving and volunteering in our community. The study found that while the average household in the U.S. gave donations of 2.2 percent of their income, GLBT households gave at a slightly higher rate of 2.5 percent. 

We’ve made significant advances since that study came out—the decriminalization of sodomy, gains for marriage in Massachusetts and civil unions in other states, hundreds of top companies offering domestic partner benefits, and the list goes on. Those gains came in part through the work of hundreds of organizations that benefit from the philanthropy of our community.

And yet there is so much work to do—fighting hate crimes, passing a fully inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act, changing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” achieving marriage equality, and electing fair-minded candidates at the federal, state, and local level. The case for accelerating our giving is clear. What can the colossal donations of Weiland and Geffen teach us about our own giving?

Weiland’s gift is significant because it sets the bar higher for philanthropists in our community. The obvious question for those with substantial financial means is—Why aren’t they giving more? Indeed, why aren’t we all giving more? While it’s true that there aren’t dozens of multimillionaires walking around Chelsea or the Castro or even our own Church Street, we shouldn’t use that as an excuse to avoid reconsidering our contributions to charitable and political organizations. 

If GLBT households gave 2.5 percent on average in the late 90s, how can we take steps to start doing better today? Most people start supporting an organization with small gifts and continue increasing the size of their gifts as their income increases and as their satisfaction with the work of an organization increases. An easy way to increase your philanthropic impact is to start by giving a little each month from each paycheck. Unfortunately, the causes that most need our funds aren’t part of many workplace campaigns that automatically deduct a portion of your pay. It’s a discipline you’ll have to develop yourself.

Another lesson from Weiland’s gift is the use of estate planning.  How many of us have considered including a GLBT organization in our wills? It’s one of the easiest and most effective ways of providing long-term support for our causes. If you’re not sure how much you’ll have when you die (and who is?), consider leaving a percentage of your residual estate to an organization after you have taken care of your partner and other members of your family. Another suggestion is to consult your advisers—a financial planner, your attorney, and a representative of the organization you’d like to support.

Geffen’s gift to UCLA’s medical school reminds us of the power of giving to organizations that support the common good. It would be hard to estimate the good will that Geffen’s gift has generated for GLBT acceptance in the wider community. “Out” philanthropists who support mainstream causes help build bridges that have a lasting impact.

Every decision we make about supporting an organization starts at the personal level, but with a little thought our giving can become strategic, too. It’s important to ask subjectively what’s important to you, but it’s also important to ask objectively what does our movement need? You may find one organization upon which to focus all your giving. But you may also decide to support a mixture of groups—some educational and some political, some local and some national in scope. 

Regardless of how much you decide to give and which organizations you support, your gifts are the fuel driving the advances in our community. I hope you will find new ways to support your favorite organizations in 2008.