July 06, 2015
The marriage equality movement in the United States has been fueled by the strategic and coordinated efforts of legal groups, advocacy organizations, and a small but active community of grantmakers. The historic U.S. Supreme Court ruling on June 26 to extend marriage equality nationwide was preceded by a gradual legislative sea change and a dramatic shift in public opinion. In 2001, a majority of Americans opposed the idea of allowing same-sex couples to marry. In 2015, polls showed a reversal of the numbers, with 57 percent of Americans favoring marriage equality.
One of the key funders behind this shift was the Civil Marriage Collaborative (CMC), an initiative of the Proteus Fund that has partnered with individual donors and foundations to award roughly $2 million in grants each year since 2004 for a broad range of publicly visible education activities aimed at advancing marriage equality. In the wake of the Supreme Court's decision to uphold same-sex marriage as a constitutional right, it's worth looking closer at how CMC, as a funder collaborative, contributed to the success of the marriage equality movement. The CMC story also offers lessons about the role philanthropy can play in advocacy, as well as how funders can collaborate and take risks to achieve greater impact.
Prior to the Supreme Court decision, federal law defined marriage as the union of a man and a woman. By 2004, marriage equality had gained traction with a number of key legislative wins, including the approval of civil unions in Vermont, which granted same-sex couples some (but not all) of the legal benefits of marriage, and a landmark victory in Massachusetts that made it the first state in the U.S. to uphold the right of LGBT couples to marry. But it was also a year of setbacks for the movement, as a series of same-sex marriage bans were passed in thirteen states. According to CMC director Paul A. Di Donato, it was around this time that some grantmakers began to realize that achieving a critical mass of support for marriage equality would require greater engagement by the philanthropic community, not just a few relationships between individual foundations and big national players. With that in mind, a group of funders, including the Gill Foundation, the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund, the Overbrook Foundation, and the Proteus Fund (as a convener), came together around the idea that pooling financial resources and sharing collective knowledge could lead to broader change. Subsequently, they agreed to test the waters as a funder collaborative for a few years to see whether same-sex marriage would continue to gain traction as an issue. In 2007, when Di Donato joined CMC, same-sex marriage was still at the top of the LGBT agenda and the collaborative's members were still deeply committed to supporting public education activities aimed at advancing that agenda.