UPDATE: We learned Friday after publishing this story that Arcus founder Jon Stryker had committed $200,000 to the campaign against North Carolina’s Amendment One late last week.
While most LGBT people have probably never heard of the Arcus Foundation, it has touched many of their lives.
The nation’s largest grant-maker to LGBT causes, Arcus delivers money to a range of non-profit groups advocating for LGBT rights and health.
But recent changes at Arcus have some advocates quietly worrying about the future of those programs.
Arcus CEO Yvette Burton departed April 3 amid rumors she was fired by the board. Burton, a former market development research director at IBM, took the helm of Arcus in January 2011 not long after the departure of longtime activist Urvashi Vaid, who spent five years running the foundation.
“Yvette’s departure was a termination,” said a source with knowledge of the situation at Arcus who spoke on condition of anonymity. The source added that Burton’s efforts to “clean house” at Arcus ruffled feathers throughout the organization.
Burton did not respond to several requests for comment.
An Arcus official told the Blade that the foundation’s work continues but the organization would not comment specifically on Burton’s departure.
“The Foundation’s commitment to its mission is longstanding,” Bryan Simmons, vice president of communications at Arcus, told the Blade. “Our strategies will continue to support that mission regardless of any change in leadership.”
Other changes at Arcus were evident before Burton’s departure. The organization’s board of directors had purportedly initiated a new strategic planning process to reassess programming and giving priorities, according to the source. Many organizations were reportedly told that they would not be guaranteed funding beyond 2012, and some ties were severed altogether.
“‘You’ll have to qualify under our new guidelines,’” the source paraphrased the message from Arcus to some of its LGBT grant recipients. “Subtext: ‘You’ll probably not be getting funding moving forward.’”
In addition, several sources also contend the organization’s founder, billionaire philanthropist Jon Stryker, may have ceased personally giving to political campaigns and 501(c)4 organizations, however after this article was originally published, the organizers of the campaign to stop Amendment One in North Carolina revealed that Stryker had wired the campaign $200,000 Friday. Stryker could not be reached for comment.
“Is this a prep to exit the LGBT space altogether? Possibly,” the source said. “Was [Burton] a disaster? Possibly.”
Another knowledgeable source noted the turnover at Arcus’ main office in Kalamazoo, Mich., and said that Stryker has had a change of heart regarding his philanthropic priorities.
Some activists unaffiliated with grantee organizations have attempted to sound the alarm.
“Any change at any funder in the LGBT movement is pretty big for any orgs they fund,” said Kalpana Krishnamurphy, director of the Race and Gender Justice Program at the Western States Center, an immigration-focused organization. “Changes in leadership bring new priorities and new focuses for the work.”
Though Arcus has no direct programming of its own, more than $58.4 million in Arcus grants went to small programs and organizations doing LGBT-related work between 2007-2010, making it the largest grant maker to LGBT causes.
“Hearing from organizations in different areas — men who have sex with men [support organizations], HIV-specific projects, younger gay men of color — hearing that organizations have not been getting funded or getting the cold shoulder, is not the worst kept secret in the world,” another prominent LGBT activist told the Blade on condition of anonymity. “The ATM is closed.”
Sources familiar with Arcus said that Burton took seriously her mission to transform the way the Foundation operated and made many staffing changes quickly. One source said that Burton sought to increase grantee accountability and professionalize the organization. The staffing changes, however, may have led to a revolt by some in the organization. Vaid, who ran Arcus for five years, did not respond to emailed interview requests.
Despite the upheaval, other leaders that rely on Arcus dismissed concerns about a shift in focus and expressed confidence in the foundation’s commitment to LGBT causes.
“With Arcus and, actually, all the LGBT funders, they’ve been consistent with their funding over a number of years, and to us and I’m sure to other organizations, that’s extremely important,” said Brad Sears, executive director of the Williams Institute at UCLA, which receives funding from Arcus for its research in the field of LGBT workplace issues. “When you’re hiring people, and you want them to have a job now and in the future, it’s great to have both funding for multiple years, and funding that is at least somewhat more flexible for general operating.”
The Arcus Foundation’s reach is broad. The organization has contributed to everything from the Gill Foundation, the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force and the Transgender Law Center to AIDS and HIV research, small LGBT-welcoming churches, LGBT religious advocacy groups and non-LGBT organizations that develop programming targeting LGBT people of color or other underrepresented groups within the LGBT community.
“We are not an LGBT organization — we are an organization being funded by Arcus because of the work we’re doing to bridge racial justice and LGBT justice,” Krishnamurphy said. “Arcus’s funding in this area [is really] crucial.”
“We wouldn’t have been able to have our GLBT program at all,” said Akaya Windwood, president of the Rockwood Leadership Institute, about Arcus’s contributions. “It made it possible for us to have a robust LGBT program that focuses a lot on communities of color, underrepresented communities within the movement, and rural.”
According to the most recent available IRS forms from 2010, the organization’s total assets were just short of $180 million, most of that being in investments, rather than cash on hand.
The largest single contributor was the organization’s founder, Stryker who gave $30,790,736. The contribution was made in 583,600 shares of Stryker Medical stock. Along with savings and securities interest and dividends, as well as assets on sales of several million dollars worth of assets, the Stryker money made the biggest chunk of the organization’s nearly $50 million in revenue for 2010.
Meanwhile, after expenses and new investments, Arcus contributed $27 million to various LGBT-focused and conservation programs throughout the world in 2010, which — when compared to the Gill Foundation’s nearly $12 million in disbursements that same year — makes Arcus the biggest funder of LGBT programs in the world.
“General operating support from any foundation is really critical for LGBT organizations,” said Masen Davis, executive director of the Transgender Law Center. “There are still too few funders throughout the United States that are supporting LGBT equality and that can make it very difficult for organizations of any size to really work in scale to create change for our community. Arcus has been really important to us and I hope that they continue to be important to our work for years to come.”
Hundreds of LGBT-focused programs at non-profits throughout the nation might not exist if not for Arcus.
“We’re extremely thankful,” said Troy Plummer, executive director of Reconciling Ministries — a group that pushes for LGBT inclusion in the United Methodist Church — explaining that the multi-year grants from Arcus for general operations helped the organization expand programs within the denomination.
“We have been able to consider projects that we would have never considered before the funding from the Arcus Foundation,” Plummer said. “And they were intentionally strategic in wanting to build capacity of our organization, and that was very helpful, and it continues to be helpful in doing so.“
Arcus’s focus on intersectional work — especially in regard to race, religion and age groups — is considered vital for organizations outside what many consider the marriage-focused mainstream of the LGBT movement.
“We’ve observed some drift in traditional funders in amount or percentage allocation toward ‘marriage equality efforts,” said Cindi Love, executive director of SoulForce, whose Equality Ride targeting anti-gay policies at private colleges has been partially funded by an Arcus grant for several years. “Arcus has absolutely from the first day been one of the strongest supporters of the ride because of its emphasis on the development of the next generation of leaders within our movement.”
Amid the nervousness, optimism still springs from the LGBT leaders that continue to rely on Arcus.
“I feel like Arcus has really taken care with their grantees so that they’re able to build and take action when they need to, so shifts in that funding are clearly important to all the grant receivers,” Plummer told the Blade. “I appreciate Arcus rethinking their strategic visioning, and what they want to do to make an impact on a large scale,” saying that he was impressed with the result of the last iteration of the foundation’s strategic plan.
“I don’t know yet whether or not we’re part of that plan,” he added.
“I know that they’re undergoing some strategic planning, and that Arcus has gone through quite a bit of transition, so, we’re all out here cheering them on, and hoping that they get to a really solid place,” said Windwood. “If Arcus thrives then that means that other organizations thrive.”