Social Service Funders Must Support LGBTQ+ Nonprofits to Advance Their Missions

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A few months ago, while I was talking with Funders for LGBTQ Issues’ Deputy Director Alexander Lee for a previous story about foundation giving to LGBTQ+ nonprofits, something he said brought to mind an issue I’ve been aware of for roughly 20 years. If you’re a social service funder that wants to solve issues ranging from homelessness and poverty to healthcare access, you don’t have a chance of achieving your goals unless your grantmaking portfolio specifically includes groups that serve, and preferably are also led by, LGBTQ+ people. This is particularly true in light of the fact that sexual minorities almost certainly make up a higher percentage of the overall population than we know.

For donors, advocacy can be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about giving to LGBTQ+ people and causes. That’s hardly a leap given the outright political hostility facing LGBTQ+ communities, and particularly transgender people, in states across the country right now. But even funders whose missions are 100% focused on social services need to put nonprofits that serve and are led by sexual minorities on their radars. 

Not convinced? Here are three of the most compelling reasons that the social service philanthrosphere needs to either start moving money to LGBTQ+ nonprofits or to send a lot more funding their way.

1. LGBTQ+ people are at higher risk for a host of the problems that you’re trying to solve. Roughly 40% of homeless teens, for example, are LGBTQ+, and 28% of LGBTQ+ youth — that’s nearly a third — have reported facing homelessness or housing instability at some point in their lives. LGBTQ+ people overall are more likely to be living in poverty than cisgender straight people, and the numbers are worse for LGBTQ+ people who are also Black or other racial minorities. 

If your mission is increasing access to healthcare, you should know about last year’s survey showing that LGBTQ+ people were more than twice as likely to be blamed for their health issues by practitioners as cisgender straight people. Nearly four times as many transgender and gender-nonconforming people reported similarly poor treatment. This survey wasn’t specific to care provided by nonprofit organizations, but it’s hard to believe that healthcare nonprofits are immune from such a widespread problem.

2. Many faith-based nonprofits actively discriminate against sexual minorities. The Salvation Army may dispute the allegation, but it’s been widely criticized as an anti-LGBTQ+ organization since I started my reporting career at Between The Lines, Michigan’s statewide LGBTQ+ paper, in 2003. Meanwhile, Catholic-run social service organizations are so dedicated to anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination that they’ve taken their case to the Supreme Court. Note also that the Christian Legal Society and an organization called the Institutional Freedom Alliance have put out a 32-page playbook to help religion-based nonprofits “maximize (the) legal defenses” of Christian nonprofits that are determined to “remain in line with the historic Christian view about marriage and sexual conduct.”

To put it bluntly: If you’re a social service funder making grants to groups like these, you’re actively working against your mission unless you’re OK with leaving LGBTQ+ people in need on the sidelines at best, and making their lives even harder at worst. Or as Ralph, a 42-year-old cisgender gay man in L.A., said in a recent study of LGBTQ+ poverty by the Williams Institute, "There's been a few times where I've, opportunities came up for, like, housing, [but] it's been, like, a Christian home or something like that, where they're not really OK with homosexuality. Being a gay man, no, I couldn't have gone into that place."

Seeing as “housing first” has been a guiding mantra for anti-homelessness philanthropy for some time, it’s troubling to think that a potential beneficiary had to remain unhoused because he was actively discriminated against by nonprofit groups charged with providing that housing. 

3. Nonprofits serving LGBTQ+ people, and those they lead in particular, don’t need training to provide culturally appropriate services to these populations. There’s also the fact that LGBTQ+ people and orgs are inherently intersectional. That word gets thrown around a lot, but all it means is that there are LGBTQ+ people in every single demographic social service funders seek to support: There are Black trans people living with disabilities in rural areas, and cisgender, white gay men living in poverty in our cities. 

While issues like ableism and racism also pop up within some organizations and communities serving and led by LGBTQ+ people, with a little legwork, it’s not hard to find LGBTQ+ nonprofits that are committed to, and practicing, equity. Further, trans people who take the risk to ask for help shouldn’t have to risk being deadnamed or misgendered, regardless of whether the person who addresses them incorrectly is doing so out of bigotry or ignorance.

If these three reasons aren’t enough to convince you to include LGBTQ+ nonprofits in your social service giving portfolios, consider this fact: As of 2022, 7.1% of Americans felt safe enough to disclose their LGBTQ identities to Gallup. That’s double the number that came out to Gallup just 10 years earlier. The true number of LGBTQ+ people in our country — and thus among the populations being served by social service nonprofits and their funders — could well be far higher. We don’t yet know, and we definitely won’t know while state legislatures and political leaders continue to do all they can to force LGBTQ+ folks back into the closet. 

The point is, a significant proportion of the people that social service funders in the United States are seeking to help are sexual minorities. If you’re not funding the nonprofits created to serve these people, you may not only be failing to help — you could be making their situations even worse.

In addition to Alexander Lee, I’d like to thank nonprofit consultant and nationally-recognized LGBTQ leader Sean Kosofsky, MPA, and Michelle Dominguez, M.Ed., the program manager at Social Justice Partners Los Angeles and a freelance contributor to Inside Philanthropy, for the inspiration and their help and ideas for this editorial.