End of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Is a Victory for Philanthropy

Print Date: 
July 11, 2011
The Chronicle of Philanthropy
By Anthony Bowen and Andrew Lane

On Friday, President Obama certified that the military was ready to end the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that for more than 17 years has prohibited open service by lesbian, gay, and bisexual people in the military.

It's hard to imagine the policy would have been repealed were it not for the several dozen foundations that poured more than $12-million into advocacy work. The success of these grants offers a powerful lesson in how to bring about social change.

The situation is starkly different than it was in 1991, when, on the campaign trail, Bill Clinton publicly stated his willingness to sign an executive order allowing gays to serve in the U.S. military.

Advocates in favor of such a change were not prepared for the political battle that lay ahead in the following two years. In Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America, the historian Nathaniel Frank explains how the "well-oiled machinery of the religious right" quickly pulled together a comprehensive strategy to ensure that President Clinton would never sign that executive order.

Although pro-gay groups joined together to form a temporary advocacy alliance called the Campaign for Military Service, they did not have the money, communications strategy, or organizing capacity to combat opponents. Evangelicals, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and several leading members of Congress effectively forced President Clinton to compromise by establishing don't ask don't tell, a policy that, in practice, significantly worsened conditions for gay service members.

At the time, few advocacy groups were taking steps to promote the importance of allowing gay men and lesbians to openly serve in the military. From 1987, when the J. Roderick Mac­Arthur Foundation awarded a group called Alternatives to Militarism the first known grant to challenge military regulations on sexual orientation, to 1993, when don't ask don't tell was signed, foundations awarded less than $150,000 total to support nonprofits working on this issue.

The 1990s, and particularly the past decade, however, have seen a seismic shift in foundation support to secure equality for gay and transgender people. Grant makers awarded $93.5-million in 2009 to groups working on such issues, as compared with $13.5-million in 1999 and a dismal $1.2-million in 1989.

Foundation support to examine and repeal the military's restrictions took a similar upward path in the last decade. Among those leading the efforts were the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund, the Wells Fargo Regional Foundation, the Gill Foundation, and the Arcus Foundation, who joined with other grant makers to collectively invest more than $1-million annually starting in 2004 to promote efforts to allow gay people to serve openly.

In December, after Congress passed the law that put into motion President Obama's declaration last week, Ira Hirschfield, president of the Haas Jr. Fund, outlined the invaluable role of one of the fund's grantees in changing public and military perceptions of gay and lesbian soldiers when he noted in a statement that repeal "would never have arrived (or it would have been a much longer wait) without the persistent, grinding work of the Palm Center."

The Palm Center, a think tank established in 1998 as the Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military, changed its name after it received a $1-million contribution from the Michael D. Palm Foundation in 2006. The Palm Center has conducted comprehensive and comparative research showing that don't ask don't tell has hurt military effectiveness. In addition, its research found that countries with open service saw no impact when lifting their bans and, most important for top military officials, that allowing gay men and women to serve openly would have no negative effects on military readiness or unit cohesion.

The Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which has received more than $7-million from foundations since its founding in 1993, represented many of the 14,000 servicemembers discharged under the ban. It has conducted successful public-education and media campaigns to discuss the harms of the ban on open service and share research on how millions of tax dollars have been wasted through enforcement of the policy. The network also facilitated the earliest efforts around legislative repeal of the ban.

Other foundation-supported organizations, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Lambda Legal, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, and the Center for American Progress, played a critical role in mobilizing grass-roots support, taking on early legal battles, monitoring media debates, and publishing position papers.

The Palm Center, the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, and their partners provided the research, tools, and advocacy messages that political lobbying groups, members of Congress, and other allies needed to take advantage of the more welcoming political environment in 2009 and 2010. It was their years of work and their support from grant makers that laid the groundwork for success.

But it was not only foundations' willingness to support advocacy efforts that made repeal possible, it was also how they structured their investments. Of the $10.8-million that foundations awarded to the Palm Center and the Defense Network from 1995 to 2009, 76 percent was as general operating support.

Unrestricted grants allow nonprofits to build their internal operations, take advantage of unforeseen opportunities and move money where it is needed most. More than 20 foundations have supported one or both of these organizations for at least five years in a row, and some have stuck with these organizations for more than a decade. Long-term financial commitments allow nonprofits to focus on their programs, rather than constantly spending time looking for new sources of money.

Without advocacy groups consistently pressing for change, the ultimate victory for gay men and women would have been much more unlikely. But without money from foundations, invested generously and shrewdly, other victories on social justice will be harder to come by.

Anthony Bowen is a graduate student at Indiana University's Center on Philanthropy. Andrew Lane is executive director of the Johnson Family Foundation, in New York, and a board member of the Palm Center and Funders for LGBTQ Issues.