As we navigate perilous times, we must regain control of the organizations we created to protect ourselves
The US LGBTQ+ movement was at some point one the most effective community-run grassroots movements. Today, some of our non-profits are co-opted by questionable actors, more focused on publicity than impact and instrumentalized by their leaders for personal gain, where did we go wrong? how does it affect the narrative about the community? and how can the community regain control of the institutions it built overtime?
Here are some elements of response and some suggestions to correct the trajectory. As usual, I would love to hear your thoughts.
An inverted relationship to beneficiaries
As illustrated in the simple graph below, the organizations we built to act as an interface between LGBTQ+ people and the establishment have instead become an interface between the establishment and the community. Our early leadership spoke for a disenfranchised constituency to the centers of power oppressing that constituency. Now some of our leaders have become the spokespeople for the oppressor, representing its interests to the disenfranchised. They tend to be more comfortable at the World Economic Forum or the Cannes Lions than at ILGA World or the NYC Pride March (which they actually do not attend.. too low brow). The reversal of direction happened gradually and imperceptibly as the community handed over control to corporations and wealthy donors at the expense of beneficiaries. In one of our top three organizations, every single one of the 7 Board officers is a representatives of a large multinational without a beneficiary representative or historical grassroots leader among them.
Fundraising over mission
The performance of executive directors is often judged over the amount of money they raise rather than how they contribute to the organization’s mission. Their financial incentives are also indexed on their fundraising. This has led to perverse incentives for some to focus exclusively on communication and public relations “coups” rather than meaningful change. “Mission creep” has become the norm. In 2019, as an example, one of them single handedly started lobbying for an LGBTQ Constitutional Amendment without consulting leaders in the movement. It made for nice headlines but at the detriment of the movement. The issues they prioritize are not the ones the community does.
Not all money is good money
As organizations shifted the focus from mission to fundraising, they lowered the standard for allyship. The largest donors to a key organization include a pharmaceutical company at odds with the movement and the second-largest producer of toxic chemical waste in the nation. The Board’s chair is a top executive at the world’s top plastic polluter. As a consequence, our community is muzzled in calling out these companies for funding anti-LGBTQ+ politicians, gauging HIV drug prices illegally or not cleaning up their environmental impact . In fact sometimes the executive director plays the role of a paid enforcer to ensure the community does not speak out against its patrons.
Greed and personality cult
In exchange for the keys to the house, co-opted boards often handout indecent compensation packages to the leaders in the organizations. As illustrated in the graph below, the total compensation package of this executive director doubled in five years from $228K to $511K (6% of the organization’s expenses that year), with a $110K compensation increase in a single year. Similarly, it has become the norm, for some executive directors to use the organization as a platform for personal gains even advertising their own products with the non-profit resources.
Elements of solution
Changing the Board: the Housing Works model
Housing Works has several boards. A board of directors which features consumer, volunteer and staff representatives and several “subsidiary boards” including a fundraising board (disclaimer: on which I serve) the Thrift Shop Board. This allows the community to remain in control of the organization and hold management accountable while retaining the philanthropic focus necessary in the US context. The decisions governing board composition are nuanced and complex but representation of beneficiaries, volunteers and staff should be the norm rather than the exception.
Forms 990s are useful but they are often disclosed one and half years after the fact. In addition, not everybody can read them. We need an independent watchdog to report on Board composition, staff compensation and use of common funds by LGBTQ+ non profits.
Refocusing on the mission
Growing for the sake of fundraising creates perverse incentives. Some of our organizations are clearly straying from their lane colliding with other organizations in what feels like cannibalism. Beneficiaries on the Board should remind EDs that they are to fulfill their mission rather than focus on growing the organization at the expense of others.
Selecting the right leaders
Leading a leading LGBTQ+ non-profit is a reward in itself. The incentive is to be in a position of leadership to the community and be part of a long-line of LGBTQ+ leaders. Executive directors can monetize these positions after they leave if they want to. Compensation does not need to match that of the private sector. One possible solution is to limit these mandates to a number of years so as to curb the temptation of turning our organizations into platforms for personal gains (the ED mentioned above has been in the job for eight consecutive years). But we also need to steer clear from profiles that are self-absorbed or individualistic. And finally, as a side note, if you lead our organizations, you must march in Pride with the community, that’s not negotiable.
Keeping each other’s honest
While there is some coordinating mechanisms between leading organizations in the community, a more formal network of leaders with rotating chairmanship could be instrumental in keeping each others in check. The council would discuss bi-annually delicate issues such as compensation, board composition, conflict of interests and organizational mission.
It is not a coincidence that as our movement gets more and more coopted, it is also losing key battles. As we enter another period of backlash, it is key that we regain control of the organizations we created and we ultimately own.