July 29, 2010 | by Chris Johnson
The joy of giving

Michael Fleming, who serves as executive director of the David Bohnett Foundation, will oversee about $5 million in donations this year to various political candidates and social justice causes. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Michael Fleming spent a lot of time on planes last week.

After leaving his home in Los Angeles, he flew to Boston to attend a dinner for LGBT officials receiving leadership training at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

On Friday, he traveled to D.C. to speak with Latino college students taking part in a Capitol Hill internship program with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute. Before the day was out, he was on his way to New York to visit the city’s LGBT Community Center.

But for Fleming, who serves as executive director of the David Bohnett Foundation, the busy travel schedule isn’t unusual. He told the Blade he travels about 50 percent of the time for work.

“It’s totally valuable if you realize at the end of that flight, you’re meeting with really impressive and interesting people doing important work,” he said.

In the position he’s held since 2000, Fleming is charged with decision-making and oversight for grants that gay billionaire philanthropist David Bohnett makes to social justice causes through the foundation he chairs.

For 2010, Fleming estimates the Bohnett Foundation’s total amount of donations will top $5 million. Among the causes that are a priority for the organization are LGBT rights, gun control and the arts. Even animal language research gets a cut.

But donations to LGBT causes, Fleming said, land the most money, accounting for about 65 to 70 percent of the organization’s annual donations. Fleming noted that LGBT work is important for the foundation because such efforts are “very personal” for him and Bohnett, who are both gay.

“I think we’re passionate about it because it’s our lives and our rights and I think, as a funder, it’s the most important work we can be doing,” Fleming said.

Fleming said organizations that are working to advance same-sex marriage in the wake of Proposition 8 have been a priority for the Bohnett Foundation.

Funds are being directed to Equality California, the National Center for Lesbian Rights and Lambda Legal, he noted, as well as toward the ongoing legal battles and public education campaigns in California.

“So if this matter comes up on the ballot again, you’ve laid groundwork for victory next time,” Fleming said.

Fleming married his spouse, the Cuban-born Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Luis Lavin, in October 2008 when same-sex marriage was briefly legal in California.

After marriage rights for gay couples were taken away following the passage of Prop 8, Fleming said the measure’s success was “poignant for everyone who got married” before its passage.

“We realized how lucky we were to be able to [get married], but I think it’s especially poignant realizing that so many of our friends and colleagues now do not have the ability to do the same thing we did,” he said.

In addition to supporting groups working specifically to advance same-sex marriage, Fleming said the Bohnett Foundation provides funding to just about every national LGBT group, including the Human Rights Campaign.

In particular, Fleming said the foundation is a major contributor to HRC’s Historically Black Colleges & Universities Program, which educates students in leading viable LGBT programs on campus.

“It’s been another program that gets young people — those who are [attending] historically black colleges and universities — to come to D.C.,” Fleming said. “There’s training that they go through. They learn about the political process; they learn how to take those skills back to the campus.”

Michael Cole, an HRC spokesperson, said the “continued generosity” of the Bohnett Foundation has enabled the program for seven years to “combat homophobia and intolerance on campuses where they too often run rampant.”

“When we started the program, there was only a single campus with an LGBT student group and now we work to support 26 such groups at [historically black colleges and universities],” Cole said.

The Bohnett Foundation has also provided many local LGBT community centers throughout the country with cyber centers, or areas where LGBT people can access computers and the Internet free of charge. Fleming estimated that the foundation has provided funds and equipment for more than 70 cyber centers throughout the country.

“Some are in big cities, but there others that are in medium-sized cities, or smaller places,” he said.

The D.C. Center is among the facilities to receive a cyber center from the Bohnett Foundation.

David Mariner, executive director of the Center, said the donation of six new computers, a flatbed scanner and a color laser printer has been a very important part of the D.C. Center.

“What the cyber center does is give people an opportunity to access the Internet and find out about resources in the community that are available to them,” he said.

Mariner said the cyber center has been integral to the D.C. Center’s career development program and has allowed local LGBT residents to work on their resumes and job searches.

Political giving

Fleming wears another hat, serving as Bohnett’s political director and advising him on political candidates that would advance LGBT rights and social justice causes.

A major donor to the Democratic Party, Bohnett last year donated $30,400 to the Democratic National Committee, according to Federal Election Commission reports. Other donations have gone to the few Democratic candidates that could take Republican seats this fall, including a $2,000 contribution to Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, who’s seeking to become the state’s next U.S. senator.

Other recipients of Bohnett’s donations are gay congressional candidates. Bohnett gave Steve Pougnet in California, the mayor of Palm Springs who’s running for Congress, $4,800 last year. David Cicilline in Rhode Island, the mayor of Providence who’s running for Congress, received $2,400.

Fleming said donations to the gay congressional candidates are important for Bohnett because they “stand a very good chance” of winning their races.

“We’ve long been … supporters of the [Gay & Lesbian] Victory Fund,” Fleming said. “It’s been one of the chief tenets of the Victory Fund that it’s really terrific to have friends, but it’s even better to have folks from our own community elected.”

Although there has been criticism that the Obama administration and Congress have not moved quickly enough on pro-LGBT legislation, Fleming said this perceived lack of progress hasn’t been a factor in his advice as Bohnett’s political director.

“I don’t just say, ‘Well, this administration may have let us down on this item,’” Fleming said. “I look at things in totality [and say], ‘Well, they may have succeeded here and succeeded there.’”

Sean Theriault, a gay government professor at the University of Texas, Austin, said even donating $30,000 to the Democratic National Committee in the grand scheme is “small potatoes.”

“Now, if he bundles that money with other ‘gay money,’ it gives him just that much more clout,” Theriault said. “What it probably buys him is access to politicians who are already supportive of the gay rights agenda.”

While he wears two hats, Fleming said that Bohnett’s donations to political candidates and the foundation’s contributions to social justice causes are really one-and-the-same mission.

“At the end of the day, those things are all tied together,” Fleming said. “What he believes in when he gives money to really terrific non-profit programs are also things that he would care about our elected leaders paying attention to.”

‘Relationships are primary’

While the fruits of contributing to candidates and campaigns are difficult to witness firsthand — except on election night or when pro-LGBT bills become law — keeping an eye on work resulting from the foundation’s contributions is a different story.

Fleming was able to witness such work upon his visit to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, where about 30 Latino college students last week gathered to hear from various speakers as part of their internship program.

As part of a $25,000 grant, the Bohnett Foundation paid for two Latino college students to attend the internship program: Jefrey Valasquez from Mount Saint Mary College in New York, and Rolando Rodriguez from Columbia University.

Waiting at the event for his turn to speak, Fleming was dressed in a summer grey suit, sensible attire for the 100-degree temperatures. Behind his silver spectacles was a face bronzed with a California tan.

When his turn to speak came, Fleming introduced himself to the students and noted how impressed he was with the students’ resumes. An organizer said that only 30 out of 396 applicants were accepted.

Fleming described the students as people who have already achieved much. He advised them to focus on the relationships they build over the course of their careers.

“My sense is that everything in life is about relationships,” Fleming said. “Relationships are primary; everything else is secondary.”

As an example, Fleming recounted that he first knew Bohnett as someone who worked out at his local gym in Los Angeles. That relationship ultimately landed him a position running the foundation.

Fleming also recalled how Bohnett in 1999 closed a huge deal after GeoCities — an early social networking website he founded — was sold to Yahoo for about $3 billion. A few months after the sale, Fleming said Bohnett invited him for breakfast after a workout.

“It was the worst restaurant,” Fleming recalled. “You made $3 billion. Why’d he take me to this dump?”

Fleming said Bohnett asked him to help him give away his money and wrote down on a napkin the social justice causes deserving of donations.

“He says, ‘I got $4 billion. Do you want to help me?’” Fleming said. “Something’s telling me go to the gym more often.”

Since he accepted the position, Fleming said the Bohnett Foundation has made donations to various causes, including leadership-training programs like the one in which the students attending the event were engaged.

Fleming said he takes particular pride in the Bohnett Foundation’s contributions to the Latino internship program because the Latino community often goes unfunded by other foundations. He noted that the average allocation of philanthropic dollars to non-Latinos per year is $62, while those in the Latino community receive around $4.20.

“Some of these foundations are not paying attention,” Fleming said. “I’m going to go out and rely on all of you to go out there and pay attention. Those numbers have to increase. There’s no excuse why they won’t.”

Fleming also stressed the importance of minority groups, including LGBT people, realizing that they’re part of a common coalition.

Recalling the fight in 2008 over Prop 8, Fleming said those advocating for the California measure sought to disrupt the coalition of traditionally progressive groups.

“And folks who don’t [want] people like me to get married — when they have to go look for a community that they thought would be their friend and vote against [Prop] 8, who’d they target?” Fleming asked the audience.

One of the students responded, “African Americans.”

“And?” Fleming asked.

“Latinos,” said another student.

“And they spend ridiculous sums of money trying to have a conversation in the Latino communities,” Fleming said. “The good news is that at end of the day, there was this poll out in the past week about marriage equality in California, and they’re the one minority community that’s over 50 percent in favor of it.”

Fleming said that those who care about LGBT civil rights are the same people who care about other people’s civil rights.

“The same folks who want to target you guys against me are the same ones that paint me as a middle-aged white guy and say, ‘Oh, you should [vote] this way on immigration,’” Fleming said. “They will break us up, they will target us. They will split us any way they can. Our communities, whatever communities we think we belong to, are much bigger than just one group, just one small group.”

Fleming said touring the country to see the benefits of his work is “overwhelming” because it’s far more informative than looking at grant reports.

“I think when you’re funding something,” he said, “especially an internship, especially something that involves young people, nothing compares to meeting them and hearing their stories and hearing what they learned working in Washington for the summer.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

1 Comment
  • The Bohnett Foundation does great work and Michael is a sharp cookie. Especially impressed with their strategic professional and leadership development of LGBT office holders through their work with Victory and the Leadership Institute.

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