LGBT San Francisco, circa 1980

By 1980, San Francisco had already long had a reputation as a city friendly to lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and transgender (“LGBT”) people. As a result, the gay population was exploding, with tens of thousands of people pouring into the Bay Area from around the country – even the world – seeking one thing: a place where they could live in relative safety and equality. And more than almost anywhere in the world, they found it.

But prejudice and violence weren’t all that far away. In November 1978, gay city supervisor Harvey Milk was assassinated. Much of the city’s commercial, social, and philanthropic establishment remained shuttered, and bias still ran strong in many parts of the city. Even the city’s Castro neighbourhood, which had become famous – or infamous, depending on one’s point of view – as a gay area, was haunted by anti-LGBT violence. And basic legal equality still remained a faraway dream.

Although the U.S. LGBT movement dated to the 1950s, 60s, and even earlier, it was in the 1970s that LGBT people began developing more open, vibrant, complex communities. Few were more organized and alive than San Francisco’s, and that energy gave birth to scores of organisations to advocate for equality and address the health and social needs of the rapidly growing community. These organisations were uniformly small, grassroots-oriented, and mostly fuelled by volunteers and modest revenues from fundraisers in bars and street fairs. Other sources of funds were scarce, especially as neither foundations nor corporations had any interest in making grants to gay causes.

A business group – and a new philanthropic model

One of these early groups – formed in 1974 – was the Golden Gate Business Association, which brought together LGBT small business people, whose enterprises mostly catered to the LGBT community itself. Although the GGBA certainly advocated for its members’ commercial interests, GGBA saw itself as more than “just” a business enterprise. It considered itself an integral part of the broader community – a viewpoint that led to creation of the GGBA Foundation as the world’s first LGBT-focused community foundation.

The GGBA Foundation made its first grants in 1980, two grants of $500 each. One went to a small (and short-lived) employment-training project called JobPOWER. The second went to the Lesbian Rights Project, the forerunner to today’s National Center for Lesbian Rights, today one of the U.S.’s top legal advocates for LGBT rights.

Seeding change

These grants reflected – even so early on – two hallmarks that quickly began to distinguish the foundation’s grantmaking. First, the foundation would support organisations in every part of the exceedingly diverse LGBT community. That first year, it was civil rights and job training. The next few years saw grants to theatre collectives, lesbian groups, health groups, a community centre, cultural organizations, anti-violence groups, LGBT religious organisations – and far more.

The second hallmark visible in those earliest grants: the foundation would target its grants to smaller, newer organisations, which, for all intents and purposes, had no other possibilities for foundation support. Indeed, the GGBA rapidly developed a remarkable track record for being the first – or sometimes very early – funder of emerging, cutting-edge organisations. The Lesbian Rights Project was only one of many such grants. Another went to the original Gay Olympics in 1982, an event that swelled from a small venue in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park to a quadrennial international phenomenon that draws tens of thousands of participants today.

When HIV/AIDS began its terrible march through San Francisco’s LGBT community, the GGBA Foundation was there to make what turned out to be the first HIV-related grants anywhere in the world. Many of those grants seeded what today rank as leading institutions in the fight against HIV, such as the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and the University of California AIDS program. Over the most dire years of the epidemic, the GGBA was one of the few places that these organizations – most desperately needed – could turn.

35 years of growth

Since those earliest days, the foundation has grown many times over. Six years after its founding, it incorporated separately from GGBA and took on the new name Horizons Foundation. Over the years, Horizons has made more than $30 million in grants to hundreds of nonprofit organizations, and its annual grantmaking today is almost $2 million. The foundation has also grown its asset base to well over $20 million, its endowment to nearly $8 million, and is home to more than 100 individual donor funds.

Horizons continues to fund new, riskier ventures that more established grantmakers won’t touch. In more recent years, for example, the foundation was among the very first to fund transgender organisations, including leading U.S. nonprofits like the Oakland-based Transgender Law Center. Horizons also remains close to its community roots by ensuring that a significant portion of its grantmaking each year is awarded through a competitive grant process in which panels of diverse community members review applications and recommend grants to the foundation’s board.

 

A vision for the future

Remarkably, Horizons marks its 35th anniversary in 2015. While the foundation plans a major gala celebration this fall, its most important way of recognising the occasion is to build for the LGBT community’s future. Even as the situation for many LGBT people in the U.S. has improved considerably – and as we’re optimistic about future progress – it’s also highly likely that winning the rights, defending those rights, and meeting the needs of LGBT people will remain challenges for decades to come.

Furthermore, no matter what the LGBT community’s precise needs (and opportunities) may be in 20, 30, or 50 years, it will take substantial financial resources to meet them. The best single opportunity to raise those funds will be from LGBT people, who have been the prime funders of the movement throughout history. (In the U.S. generally, charitable giving by individuals far outstrips grantmaking by foundations.) Foundation and corporate grants to LGBT causes have indeed risen, but they’ll never be enough.

In recent years, Horizons has also analysed just where such future funds from individuals can come from and has concluded that the best opportunity – by far – lies in estate-based giving, from which the majority of people are able to make their largest-ever charitable gifts. Given that two thirds of LGBT Americans have no children – the most frequent recipients of their parents’ estates – the opportunity is enormous. What’s more, hundreds of thousands of movement pioneers, the people who built a movement and communities around the country, are now in their 60s, 70s, and 80s. Because of their deep personal experiences in the struggle for LGBT equality and dignity, many make for excellent prospects for estate gifts.

Horizons started with but two $500 grants more than three decades ago. Today, the generosity and dedication of thousands have helped it grow into a strong community institution. Tomorrow – and decades from now – future generations of LGBT people will also benefit from its founders’ vision of a single community-based institution to support the whole community. The needs – and perhaps even the dreams – of LGBT people will no doubt evolve, but that vision will be as powerful then as it is today.

 

 Find out more about the Horizons Foundation