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The Importance of Preserving & Catalyzing American Generosity: Or Why a Small Foundation Grant From the 1990s Stays With Me Today

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Back in the early 1990s, I joined the board of a new nonprofit that provided a safe community space where LGBTQ teens in the Twin Cities could hang out and connect without fears of harassment or bullying. It was one of the first such centers in the country. It may be hard for some younger people today to believe this, but back then it was considered radical to even acknowledge that LGBTQ youth existed.

In those early days, the center’s financial picture was a bit shaky. But I recall the day we got our first foundation grant, from the local community foundation. The grant was not large, maybe $20,000, but it meant the world to us. It allowed us to keep the place running for another month or two, and it gave us increased visibility and credibility in the community. Grants from other foundations soon followed, along with increased donations from individuals. The center went on to thrive for many years, making a positive impact on the lives of many LGBTQ youth.

That was the first time I saw firsthand the power of philanthropy in action. Over the past several decades this experience has stayed with me through my work in the philanthropy sector, because it clearly highlights the tremendous value that philanthropy brings to our society. Philanthropy has the unique ability to innovate, incubate and deliver results. It can act quickly and take risks to meet critical community needs—even when dealing with issues considered controversial to some people. Philanthropy can meet societal needs that business and government can’t or won’t address (our LGBTQ youth center opened on the heels of a decade where the federal government had refused to take action on the AIDS crisis and where many gay adults—myself included—still felt pressured to stay in the closet in the workplace). Philanthropy creates thriving places that benefit everyone, particularly those who are vulnerable or feel left out by their own communities.

United Philanthropy Forum and the members of our network will be taking these messages about the important value and role of philanthropy to Capitol Hill next month for the 2019 Foundations on the Hill (FOTH). More than 200 philanthropy leaders from more than 30 states will come together in Washington, DC on March 11-13 to urge federal lawmakers to support policies that will maintain and strengthen America’s philanthropic sector, so that it remains robust and responsive to the needs of all our communities. We’ll explain to senators and representatives that to be effective, foundations—just like businesses—require favorable policies that help, not hurt, the charitable sector. That means supporting policies that incentivize all Americans to give; repeal new taxes that were placed on nonprofits in the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act; and keep politics out of philanthropy by protecting the Johnson Amendment.

FOTH participants will also share with lawmakers their personal, on-the-ground stories of how philanthropy has made a positive difference in the lives of many people in their states and districts—there are countless stories like the one I just shared about my experience with the LGBTQ teen center. One thing that always keeps me motivated and uplifted in my work is thinking about all the LGBTQ youth in the Twin Cities who I know had a better life because they had a place to hang out and feel safe, which was made possible in large part due to the early support of foundations. There’s always room for philanthropy to improve and get better, but the lives of millions of people are better thanks to philanthropy—and the policies that preserve and catalyze the spirit and capacity of American generosity. That’s a message I want every legislator to hear next month in Washington and throughout the year.

David Biemesderfer
President & CEO, United Philanthropy Forum
Follow me @dbiemesderfer

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