GLBT Fundraising Falters: The Problem of Urgency, Exhibit A

It was a good year for the gay and lesbian movement.  The last few years have included policy victories: the end of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell in the military, a few favorable court decisions, and the institution of same sex marriage in several states.  The Obama administration has declined to defend the Defense of Marriage Act in a federal court, and the issue of same sex marriage will surely reach the Supreme Court in the next year or two.

Perhaps even more significantly, the world is changing: as support for gay marriage grows across the population, it is becoming so accepted among younger people that it’s almost not an issue.  This is true among liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats.

Note, for example, young Barbara Bush’s video for marriage equality in New York, in addition to Megan McCain’s somewhat longer term support for the issue.  McCain, at least, wants to make the Republican Party a more hospitable place for gays and lesbians, and even more, for younger people.

The tides of history certainly seem to be moving for gay and lesbian equality in America–and world-wide.  This doesn’t mean, of course, that the movement has won or that there won’t be significant setbacks over the next few years.  Even if our reading of the tides is right, there are plenty of cross-currents, riptides, and eddies along the way.

Here’s the challenge:  As the movement seems to be winning, its core organizations are having a harder time in raising money.  According to Shawn Zeller (Congress.org):

From 2008 to 2009, 39 of the largest groups saw their revenues fall on average by 20 percent, from a combined $202.7 million in 2008 to $161.3 million in 2009. That level of funding didn’t even cover expenses, falling short by $4.3 million.

The numbers were compiled by the Movement Advancement Project, a Denver-based think tank, and this is the first time such a tally has been released publicly.

Final revenue figures for last year are not yet available, but the report says the 39 groups responded to a bad 2009 by slashing their budgets last year to $135.4 million, 21 percent lower than in 2008. Among the groups participating in the survey were stalwarts of the gay rights movement such as the Human Rights Campaign and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

“The revenue drop reflects two things: the economic climate and some frustration at the pace of change in 2009,” says Ineke Mushovic, the Movement Advancement Project’s executive director. She expects that the burst of policy gains in late 2010 and early 2011, combined with a recovering economy, may create a better picture when the report is next updated.

I’m only halfway convinced by this analysis.  The faltering economy, to be sure, puts a strain on donors, and all sorts of political and charitable organizations suffered through the recession–and beyond.

But it’s more than that: people are most likely to give of their time and money when they see an issue as particularly urgent or promising.  Paradoxically, the great progress the gay and lesbian movement has made over the past few years undermines the feeling of necessity for many donors.

Of course, some large (and small) donors make long term commitments to particular causes.  But many people drift in and out of movements, depending upon personal and political circumstances.  People who saw glbt issues as most pressing three years ago may now see reproductive rights, education reform, nuclear power, or health care as more urgent at the moment, and direct their discretionary $30 or $100 accordingly.

Environmentalists do best when the administration is hostile to their cause.  Abortion rights and anti-abortion activists wait outside the Court for every decision, ready to announce defeats and urgent threats to stoke their supporters.  And the anti-deficit crowd got much more crowded and active when a Democrat took office.  (It’s not that President Bush governed as a fiscal conservative; rather, he just wasn’t as threatening an image to their supporters as President Obama.)

Organizations face the dilemma of claiming credit for their victories in such a way that it still seems absolutely urgent to keep supporters tuned in, ready to turn out, and to open their wallets.

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About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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