Interview with Jon Stryker: A Journey to Inclusive Philanthropy

In less than a decade, Jon Stryker has quietly emerged as one of the leading global funders of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights. In 2000, Stryker founded the Arcus Foundation (, whose mission is to achieve social justice that is inclusive of sexual orientation, gender identity and race, and to ensure conservation and respect of the great apes. Since 2000, Arcus has awarded grants totaling more than $122 million in these two program areas. Two years ago, Arcus launched an international LGBT rights program to support groups working for LGBT rights at the international level as well as locally in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. In 2008, the foundation will award $2 million internationally -- a modest sum that nevertheless increases total LGBT funding by nearly 20%. Stryker, who has been a Global Philanthropists Circle member since 2004, talked with Global Giving Matters about his journey as a philanthropist, the challenges of funding international LGBT groups, and why LGBT rights and human rights are one and the same.

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Global Giving Matters: Let me start by asking you to give us a two-minute overview of your philanthropy. How did you start and how has it evolved?

Jon Stryker: Before starting Arcus, I gave mostly to organizations with which I was already familiar. Or friends would ask me to contribute to organizations they were involved with. It's always nice to make your friends happy, but I felt like the money I was contributing was going to different causes and groups without any real goal in mind. I started to realize that having a foundation would allow me to develop specific goals and strategies to have impact on the areas in which I wanted to fund -- LGBT rights and great ape conservation.

About the time that I started the Arcus Foundation, in 2000, I was also coming out as a gay man. I quickly realized that there was very little funding for LGBT communities, and that LGBT rights was a niche that was not only personally important to me, but also an area where I could have a big impact as a donor.

My first LGBT grants were to organizations in and around Kalamazoo, which is where I'm from and where the foundation is headquartered. At the time, we had one employee, and we were funding LGBT-related projects and outreach efforts in Michigan. We would also fund projects that had a national scope or impact, but we were only two people and we couldn't effectively manage much more than that.

From the start, we funded -- and continue to fund -- "straight" organizations whose missions dovetailed with ours, and we stipulated that all recipients note that funding came from the Arcus Gay & Lesbian Fund. We also required that all grantees have a board-approved nondiscrimination policy that includes sexual orientation and gender identity. We believe it's critical for all our grantees to show an organizational dedication to LGBT rights, officially and in writing. To this day, nondiscrimination remains an eligibility requirement for all grantees. In any case, that's how our LGBT work got started.

The other half of Arcus' work focuses on great ape preservation. Apes and conservation are lifelong interests of mine. Around the same time I was getting involved with LGBT funding, I learned about an organization based in Florida called Save the Chimps, which was trying to rescue a group of chimps that had been "decommissioned" by the United States Air Force and who were going to be turned over to biomedical research labs. Save the Chimps didn't have any money at the time, but they were doing great work, so I contacted the founder, Carole Noon, and I got involved.

As I learned more, I realized that all the great apes were facing similar problems -- particularly chimps and orangutans from the entertainment and biomedical industries. I also found that there is almost no funding whatsoever for chimp sanctuaries, places where these individuals can live in a natural habitat after a lifetime of being subjected to medical testing and abuse. From there, I decided that if we were going to work on apes in captivity, we should also focus on conservation and apes and the natural habitat. That's how our great apes program started.

After a few years, I realized that we could have a much greater impact if Arcus became a more professional organization. So in 2005, we hired Urvashi [Vaid] as the executive director, expanded our staff, brought on new board members, and launched a strategic planning process that culminated in our decision to restructure the foundation into the two areas I mentioned earlier. And I have to say, I'm really proud of what we've accomplished. We've assembled a great team at the foundation, and Urvashi has done a great job of overseeing this growth.

GGM: How do you see LGBT rights fitting into that civil rights or human rights framework? When you talk to your peers, what is their response to reframing human rights in this context?

Stryker:I don't like the term "reframing." I see LGBT rights as part of the spectrum of human rights -- the freedom to define your relationships, the freedom to define yourself and how you present yourself to the world. I think those are basic freedoms. When I talk to people about these issues, they often don't realize what the day-to-day reality is like for gay men and lesbians in many parts of the world. People don't realize that there is just one country in Africa where homosexuality is protected by the constitution. They don't know that there are seven countries in the world where homosexuality is punishable by death. When people hear those facts, it becomes much easier to see the connections between human rights and LGBT rights.

It's really a matter of telling people the stories of courageous individuals around the world. Here's one example. There was a meeting last year in Kenya for donors and LGBT organizations to discuss the need for more funding for LGBT groups in East Africa. Several Rwandan activists returning from the meeting were persecuted, beaten up and even arrested. Several of them left the country for fear of their life.

Here's another example. In 2005, Mehdi Kazemi, a gay Iranian teenager, came to London to study English. While he was there, his boyfriend was hanged for "sodomy" -- but the UK government still insisted that Kazemi return to Iran when his visa expired. When his appeals for asylum were turned down by both the British and the Dutch governments, Kazemi became a rallying point for European rights activists. The UK eventually backed down and allowed him to stay there. When you hear stories like these, you realize that LGBT rights are literally life-and-death human rights issues. Individual LGBT people around the world -- ordinary people simply trying to live their lives, as well as those who are advocates -- exist in very diverse, often hostile climates. The best protection they can have is for the broader human rights, civil rights and funding communities to champion and support their efforts to achieve full LGBT rights.

GGM: So how much funding is out there for international LGBT work?

Stryker: The short answer is, not very much. A 2007 report by Funders for Lesbian and Gay Issues found that there is about $10 million per year given globally outside of the United States [see sidebar]. Out of that $10 million, a significant portion of it is coming from Atlantic Philanthropies, which concentrates its LGBT funding to South Africa and Ireland. This year Arcus is budgeting $2 million, so we just increased the international total by 20%. We are committed to changing this funding picture by raising the awareness of individual and institutional donors.

GGM: Who have you looked to for guidance and inspiration as a donor?

Stryker: We've reached out to other organizations that are already doing funding in this area -- Sigrid Rausing Trust, the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice, Hivos, the Ford Foundation, Atlantic Philanthropies. We are convening a group of human rights funders and activists from around the world in September to develop new strategies for how we can draw more funding into this field. We're also reaching out to the Gill Foundation which has a terrific conference aimed at LGBT donors based in the US to program some information about the challenges facing LGBT people internationally. I'm also in the process of finding individuals who are already or are interested in funding in this area. I'm tapping into every network that I can think of -- friends of friends of friends. And while I've found some individuals -- in Turkey, Italy, England, and Germany -- I'm just getting started on that outreach.

GGM: Are you thinking about funding work together, or is it more at a conversational level?

Stryker: We're just talking and thinking at this point. Some of the people I've been talking to -- not all of them -- are gays and lesbians in more traditional countries, where there are some interesting and challenging dynamics. They are not sure how they want to get involved, given all the personal safety issues involved. Then there are the cultural differences in looking at sexuality and gender. And there's also a lack of knowledge of who can you fund and what can you do. If someone wants to fund a small gay and lesbian organization in Nairobi, for example, you can't just send them a check. You need organizations like Astraea or Human Rights Watch or the Fund for Global Human Rights who can administer the funding and help the organizations. At Arcus, much of our international funding goes through intermediaries.

GGM: Are you thinking about doing direct funding?

Stryker: Not right now. I did do some research on my own. I traveled in South Africa, mostly Johannesburg and Cape Town, talking with organizations there. South Africa is one of the few countries in the world to have gay and lesbian rights enshrined in their constitution. Legally, they are ahead of most of the world, but there's a big gap between the law and people's everyday lives. Discrimination is still a problem, regardless of the constitution. South Africa is already a focus of Atlantic Philanthropies, and we hope our involvement can help in other regions of that continent.

GGM: What challenges do local groups face in the countries you fund in?

Stryker: Personal safety issues are foremost. In many countries, LGBT rights advocates aren't even supposed to meet in groups. Individuals could lose their jobs. They could have to leave the country because of threats and harassment. Organizationally, these are tiny groups, usually with very few resources. In many cases, they are operating basically in secrecy so they're isolated from other organizations. One of our strategies is to help connect these organizations from country to country, so they can have peer support and opportunities to share their stories. And to connect these groups with the mainstream human rights infrastructure in their countries -- which itself can be closed to supporting LGBT people's rights. It's extremely challenging work.

GGM: Given all these challenges, why did you choose to focus on Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, arguably three of the toughest regions for LGBT rights?

Stryker: Well, we looked at research done by Funders for Lesbian and Gay Issues which showed that LGBT movements in these regions had some of the greatest need and the fewest access to resources. And we were already working in two of these regions because of the great apes work. We fund ape programs in Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, southern China, Indonesia (Borneo and Sumatra), Malaysia and various countries in Africa. We focused on the Middle East because that is where some of the most horrendous human rights abuses are taking place and there is a link to our work on religion and values. We couldn't take on the whole world, but this is a big chunk of it.

GGM: That makes sense from a geographical and practical perspective. But what do you see as the philosophical or programmatic connection between your LGBT work and your great apes work?

Stryker: It's about compassion. Great apes are under huge threat. They are becoming extinct in the wild, and they are being used in the biomedical and entertainment industry then just being thrown away. They are infected with diseases and then warehoused. We don't use the language of animal rights -- it's more of a compassion and conservation language. That's one common ground -- the compassion side. Another connection is justice. In our work for human rights, we are among those trying to expand traditional ideas of social justice to include sexuality and gender. In our great ape work, we often see a link between economic development for people and ape conservation -- social justice for people can truly enable conservation.

GGM: Critics of LGBT rights often argue that homosexuality is a Western invention and promoting gay rights is a form of cultural imperialism. How do you respond?

Stryker: The reality is that there are gay and lesbian people in every culture, but they are invisible for all the reasons we've been talking about. Even in our own country. I used to go to an LGBT meeting in Kalamazoo, and there were teachers who would only put their first names on the minutes because they were afraid. In many communities of color in the US, there is huge pressure to stay in the closet. I think that's used against us. People try to say that it's this white, Western thing, and it's not. Arcus works domestically to support the leadership and power of LGBT people and our allies in communities of color. We see our international work as comparable -- it's about supporting people who are trying to live in peace as openly gay or lesbian or transgender people in their home countries.

GGM: If a donor is interested in learning more about international LGBT work, what's your advice? Where should they start?

Stryker: First, become informed yourself. The first thing is to research the problems. In our strategic planning process, we interviewed scores of experts, trying to understand the most successful strategies. Our goal was to find strategies that meshed with and enhanced what others were already doing. Moving forward, we're looking for ways to measure our impact.

Second, share the stories. You're not going to win over everyone, but these stories are human stories and they resonate with anyone who has empathy for human struggle. The struggles we face are homophobia, religious intolerance, and the belief that gay people are immoral and should not have the rights that other people have.

Finally, invest in leadership and build your network -- which I see as two sides of the same coin. I'm incredibly proud of the team we have at the Arcus Foundation. It stuns me that we've gone from one or two people to 21. We now have three offices -- in Michigan, New York, and Cambridge, England. We are partnering with major global partners -- the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations -- which I never could have dreamed. The fact that we are one of the largest funders of LGBT rights and great apes conservation is amazing. I'm proud of what we are accomplishing.

At the same time, we need to cultivate partners and get more people to invest in this work. Arcus has developed a strong, authentic approach that really attracts talented, smart people. We're a great resource for others, and we're happy to talk to people. I guess I would like to challenge other Synergos groups to understand these issues and to figure out ways to integrate LGBT civil rights work into their work.