When my colleague Philip Rojc mused in August about numerous claims of underfunding in the nonprofit world versus the comparative lack of data about the amount of money actually being moved to those causes, Movement Advancement Project LGBTQ Program Director Naomi Goldberg tweeted in response about MAP’s 15 years of data collection on trends in LGBTQ+ giving.
“Good data is out there, but it takes serious funding and time to collect,” she said.
There are at least three entities that conduct research and issue reports on giving to LGBTQ +causes: MAP, Funders for LGBTQ Issues and Giving USA. Candid’s Foundation Directory Online and ProPublica’s Nonprofit Explorer are available for researchers with the time, funding and staff to mine them. However, a close look at the available facts reveals that no one really knows how much money is being moved to LGBTQ+ causes.
Combining the best data available reveals knowledge gaps large enough to drive a bus through. And while a quick glance through the news makes clear the huge and urgent needs LGBTQ+ communities face, the best anyone has been able to do is provide an educated guess about how much money is being moved to address those needs. No one has tried to estimate how much money LGBTQ+ nonprofits need to fully serve their missions. Attempting to answer these questions does, however, provide some important lessons in the difficulty of assessing disparities and monetary needs in the nonprofit world.
Tallies that rely on 990 data are generally at least a year behind the times and often incomplete. Giving by DAFs, LLCs and individuals can be done mostly, or even entirely, under the radar. Those issues alone make it virtually impossible to get a complete picture of support for LGBTQ+ causes — or any nonprofit cause, for that matter. But a closer examination shows that even those high hurdles are just the beginning.
Different reports, different focuses: none of them complete
Comparing the three reports that attempt a national tally of LGBTQ+ philanthropy reveals three different approaches — none of which provides a complete picture of the giving landscape, let alone of the field as a whole.
Funders for LGBTQ Issues’ 2019–2020 Resource Tracking Report (the affinity group’s most recent such report) analyzed several thousand grants by U.S. foundations in both 2019 and 2020, and arrived at totals of $201 million in 2019 and $200 million in 2020. To produce the report, researchers combined the results of funders’ own surveys with results from keyword searches of roughly 62,000 submissions in Open990 (which has since shut down).
Known knowledge gaps in this report include researchers’ decision to exclude money moved for the purpose of regranting, and the fact that many organizations don’t reply to surveys — particularly smaller nonprofits that lack the time and staff to do so. Additionally, some organizations didn’t have enough of a footprint for researchers to find and reach out to them, while other groups didn’t collect the kinds of data included in the report.
And then there’s the issue of tracking funding for intersectional groups. For example, funders and nonprofits may say they’re engaged in doing or supporting Black political work even though that political work may be centered specifically around Black LGBTQ+ communities, said Alyssa Lawther, research and communications officer at Funders for LGBTQ Issues.
Groups that specifically define themselves as intersectional aren’t the only complication. A look at MacKenzie Scott’s recently launched website highlights the difficulty of tracking giving to LGBTQ+ work housed within larger, non-LGBTQ-focused organizations — for example, veterans’ groups that have individual programs focusing on LGBTQ+ vets. A search of the Yield Giving database using the search term “sexual orientation” delivers some obvious names in the LGBTQ+ nonprofit world, like the Pride Foundation and the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund. But it also returns funding to Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan New Jersey, Urgent Action Fund-Urgent Response Fund for Ukraine, and YWCA of Binghamton and Broome County — hardly names that first come to mind when thinking about LGBTQ+ organizations.
This database search reveals that my own recent reporting on Scott’s LGBTQ+ giving — conducted before the database came online — was woefully incomplete, even after poring over the organizations listed in each of her grant announcements on Medium. That was an attempt to quantify giving by a single large donor. Multiply that by all the foundations and large donors backing LGBTQ+ causes in the U.S. alone and add in a multiverse of intersectional LGBTQ+ groups and organizations that include LGBTQ-focused work within larger missions, and the scope of the challenge quickly becomes overwhelming.
The Movement Advancement Project avoids this issue by limiting its data capture to nonprofits that have both a national impact and are engaged in advocacy-related work. It also covers several streams of giving, from foundation funding and corporate contributions to bequests and individual gifts. Of course, MAP’s report excludes the universe of nonprofits whose work isn’t connected to advocacy, as well as those whose work includes but isn’t exclusive to LGBTQ+ causes, and local groups with a local impact. Thirty-nine LGBTQ+ nonprofit organizations responded to MAP’s request for information for its 2021 effort. Those nonprofits are among the powerhouses of the field, with a combined reported total revenue of $398.5 million in 2020.
MAP’s report, and the tally produced by Funders for LGBTQ Issues, have a specific focus on LGBTQ+ philanthropy. Giving USA, on the other hand, lumps LGBTQ+ philanthropy under its wide “public society benefit” category and, other than a one-page overview, doesn’t provide LGBTQ-specific information at all.
“It would be amazing if there was a common process” to collect LGBTQ+ giving data, said Lawther of Funders for LGBTQ Issues. There isn’t. Given the complexity of many of the organizations involved, it may be impossible to create one.
Defining “underfunded” in the world of LGBTQ nonprofits and philanthropy
Just as there isn’t a single common process by which researchers collect and disseminate LGBTQ+ giving data, it’s impossible to determine whether or not this sector is underfunded using even an estimated dollar amount.
Funders for LGBTQ Issues, for example, reports that just $0.23 out of every $100 moved by U.S. foundations supported LGBTQ-specific organizations in 2019. That figure would seem to indicate a very underfunded sector, but nonprofits don’t live by grant funding alone. Consider the fact that the 39 nonprofits which participated in MAP’s 2021 effort said that their total revenue (including but not limited to foundation grants) exceeded their combined expenses by $95 million.
Given the limitations of the reports I discussed above, the only concrete conclusions we can draw from them are that U.S. foundations are definitely neglecting this sector — and despite that neglect, the small fraction of LGBTQ+ nonprofits covered by MAP’s report still had a good year. But even taken together, the two reports don’t give us any idea just how well, or poorly, the sector is funded as a whole.
Then there’s the question of estimating how much money LGBTQ+ organizations need to truly succeed in their work. There are some distinct factors to consider when it comes to LGBTQ+ philanthropy, but that’s also a challenge for any group of organizations serving marginalized communities.
For one thing, LGBTQ+ communities’ needs have a tendency to shift both quickly and radically. When an atrocity like the mass shooting in Colorado Springs occurs, for example, security and healing from trauma shoot to the top of the to-do list. As another example, same-sex couples may have won the right to marry in 2015, but back then, LGBTQ-serving nonprofits had to contend not just with existing laws discriminating against such couples, but a whole raft of new reactionary actions — from “religious freedom” proposals to at least a few county clerks who refused to issue marriage licenses.
Comparing the money moved to extremist anti-LGBTQ+ organizations with the amount directed to LGBTQ+ equality groups is inadequate to establish a ballpark figure, according to Goldberg of MAP. She knows — MAP used to do that. One problem with this approach is that anti-LGBTQ+ groups like the Heritage Foundation themselves aren’t focused on a single issue. “It’s not entirely fair to say that all of their budget should be matched by funding for us,” Goldberg said.
Ultimately, trying to come up with a magic figure that constitutes “enough” funding for LGBTQ+ causes may be as unnecessary as it is difficult. On one hand, yes, the need is huge and a lot of work needs to be done. On the other hand, as Goldberg pointed out, there are more ways, and possibly more valuable ways, to measure the health of nonprofits than tallying up how much money funders are moving in their direction. Those measurements include things like the average tenure of nonprofits’ leadership, staffing levels and pay, and the amount that groups have in their reserve fund — all factors that MAP’s research, to its credit, tries to uncover.
The bottom line is that it’s impossible to prove that the LGBTQ+ sector is underfunded by any definition of “prove” that includes an accurate figure of the money being moved measured against an equally informed estimate of the total need. The best that may be possible is to get a better handle on the amount moved to LGBTQ-specific nonprofits alone. As Goldberg said, there is data out there; what’s lacking is the time, money and staff to create a more complete picture. And the same factors that make it so difficult to evaluate the sufficiency of funding to LGBTQ+ causes also apply to many other, if not most, areas of the nonprofit universe.
At the same time, the needs confronting LGBTQ +and related nonprofit sectors are obvious, real and critical. Rather than worrying about whether or not LGBTQ+ causes — and causes like voting rights, racial equity and reproductive rights — are “underfunded,” advocates may be better off continuing to push a MacKenzie Scott approach. That is, find effective nonprofits, move large (and preferably ongoing) streams of money to them, and get out of their way.
This story originally appeared on Inside Philanthropy, which covers how foundations and major donors are giving away their money, and why.