How the Global Trans Initiative Will Revolutionize LGBTQ Funding

Written by: Ryan Schlegel

Date: December 09, 2015

Yesterday the Arcus Foundation, a leader in social justice philanthropy, announced that in 2016 it would begin making historic investments in issues that affect transgender people – especially inclusion and violence prevention – here in the U.S. and abroad. Joined by the NoVo Foundation and a handful of others, Arcus’s announcement of the $20 million Global Trans Initiative places the funder at the forefront of the movement for transgender rights, and indicates the foundation has a vision for transgender safety and equity that is in keeping with the rapidly changing LGBTQ rights movement. NCRP applauds this news, and urges other foundations interested in equity and justice to follow Arcus and NoVo’s lead.

Last year saw the culmination of decades of work by foundations and grantees to achieve national marriage equality, and although anti-discrimination statutes aren’t universal, gays and lesbians are much closer to full inclusion in society today than they have ever been before. The same cannot be said, unfortunately, for transgender people. Violence against trans women, especially women of color, has reached “epidemic” levels according to the Human Rights Campaign, and trans people are increasingly being used as scapegoats for regressive, reactionary social policy by conservative politicians nationwide. According to the Williams Institute, transgender people have four times the poverty rate of the general population, and transgender women experience, by some measures, the worst wage discrimination of any marginalized group. The biggest, most pressing front in the battle for LGBTQ equality in the U.S. is undoubtedly transgender safety and inclusion.

But funding for organizations whose focus is transgender equity has been hard to come by. According to NCRP’s analysis of Foundation Center data, just $18 million has been granted by foundations since 2003 to organizations with a trans equity focus. When you consider, for example, that over $140 million was awarded in the same time period for veterinary medicine, the plight of trans organizations and their constituents comes into sharp focus. Funding for trans equity has been, with the exception of a few leading foundations, ignored by the philanthropic sector.

Arcus’s Trans Global Initiative will hopefully contribute to changing that, both by the numbers and by the message it sends to transgender people, their advocates and other foundations. The Arcus Foundation has been leading on the issue of LGBTQ, and especially trans, rights work for years. Since 2003, Arcus has been one of 87 foundations to fund transgender-focused organizations, but it has been responsible for 14 percent of the total grant dollars dispersed.

With the Trans Global Initiative, Arcus and its partners will explode the heretofore small pool of money available for trans organizations. According to the same NCRP analysis, between 2003 and 2005, the sector average amount granted per year to trans-focused organizations was about $600,000. In 2006-2008 it was $1.4 million and in 2009-2012 it was $2.4 million. Clearly, the foundations working in the trans equity space have been shifting more funds toward these issues over the last decade. But an average of $5 million more a year from the Trans Global Initiative will likely double existing grantmaking for transgender organizations, resulting in stronger organizations, better networked advocates, more robust services for transgender people and, generally speaking, a stronger presence for transgender organizations in the LGBTQ rights ecosystem.

Arcus’s stated goal to concentrate the initiative’s efforts on transgender-focused and transgender-led organizations shows they understand the potential for impact. And the foundation’s priorities for the Trans Global Initiative – to focus on transgender people of color in the U.S., in the Global South and especially on poor transgender people– indicates they are intentionally targeting their grantmaking in communities with the most need. This equitable targeting strategy isn’t surprising when one considers Arcus prioritized the needs and voices of trans advocates in deliberations about their new efforts. And both are in keeping with NCRP’s vision for a philanthropic sector that empowers marginalized communities and contributes to a more just society.

We hope other foundations join the initiative, lending not just their dollars but their public leadership to this important cause. Those foundations who have historically funded LGBTQ equality issues, but whose focus has until now been mostly on gays and lesbians, are particularly well positioned to shift their priorities in the current political and social environment. The dire circumstances transgender people experience in their daily lives, and the precedent set by Arcus and Novo’s leadership demands other funders step up.

“The Arcus Foundation has always been a leader in funding that empowers marginalized communities, so this announcement is par for the course for them. But it has the potential to revolutionize grantmaking that benefits transgender people, and I hope other foundations are paying close attention,” said NCRP Executive Director Aaron Dorfman.

NCRP is proud to claim both the Arcus Foundation and the NoVo Foundation as supporters and as signatories to our Philanthropy’s Promise initiative. Their leadership on the Trans Global Initiative ought to be an example to other foundations who value social justice. It is our hope the $20 million committed today by Arcus, NoVo and their partners is just the beginning of an increased philanthropic commitment to transgender people, their families and their communities.

Ryan Schlegel is research and policy associate at the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP). Follow @NCRP on Twitter.

Graph by Ryan Schlegel.