Skip to main content
Previous Blog Home Next

Marriage Equality and Emergent Strategy

At FSG we’re often asked for good examples of emergent strategy in action. Last week, the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund, along with several partners, released a case study about how a group of funders took a flexible yet highly focused approach to achieving marriage equality in the U.S. While the paper and accompanying video don’t use the term, it’s a great example of emergent strategy principles in practice. And at a time when philanthropy is increasingly concerned with issues of equity and equality, this is a story that should resonate for funders across the social justice landscape.

We’d encourage those interested to check out the case study and video in full. It’s also worth highlighting 4 lessons related to emergence and systems change that philanthropists and practitioners alike might learn from:

  1. Ambitious goal, adaptive path. In 2005, the Gill Foundation convened 26 leading LGBT organizations in Denver to discuss a shared vision and strategy for achieving marriage equality at a state level. An ensuing strategy document laid out a series of ambitious, 20-year goals that became a roadmap and a rallying point for LGBT funders and partners. Having that North Star gave focus and cohesion to the movement while the approach to reaching those goals evolved considerably over time.
  2. Collaborative structures. It might be possible for one funder to nimbly weave through changing circumstances over a 10 year period, but 26+ organizations adapting together would be unthinkable without concrete structures to coordinate the work. In 2004, Haas Jr., Gill, and several other foundations formed the Civil Marriage Collaborative (CMC), which would pool resources and help guide over $153 million in investments to support marriage equality in alignment with the 20-year roadmap. In response to early legislative setbacks, the funders also built the capacity of the nonprofit Freedom to Marry to act as a backbone-type organization for the national movement. Both the CMC and Freedom to Marry served as focal points for funders and implementing organizations to react quickly to changes in the field, and to coordinate proactive investments.
  3. Zooming in, zooming out. For funders engaged in systems change work, the ability to understand both the big picture and individual lived experience is essential to adapting strategy. The CMC was remarkably attuned to this dynamic—particularly around public opinion and outreach. For many years, gay rights messaging had appealed to the value of fairness by emphasizing the rights and benefits denied to gay couples prohibited from marrying. Yet by 2006, the CMC and Freedom to Marry realized that this message just wasn’t breaking through, and that emphasizing “rights” over “love” had unintentionally signaled that gay people married for different reasons than straight people. 

    Over the next several years, philanthropists supported deep psychographic research and message testing to understand how a “love-and-commitment” frame might better speak to the broader public. In particular, they found that stories featuring parents and grandparents of gay couples talking about the love and hope they felt for their children was incredibly effective in building empathy and support for marriage equality among straight viewers. These insights led to significant pivots in the CMC’s public outreach strategy, and by 2012 contributed to multiple wins for marriage equality on state ballots.
  4. A time for every tool. From research to convening to political advocacy to public outreach to community organizing, the foundations in CMC employed almost every tool in the proverbial toolbox. By being well coordinated, and by building a nuanced understanding of public perceptions, the funders were also able to modulate and sequence different investment approaches depending on the external environment. On a state level, this meant investing early in public education to move the needle in states with incipient ballot measures but, as election days got closer, stepping back for 501(c)4 entities and donors to push marriage equality over the finish line. By 2013-2014, the CMC also recognized that support for marriage equality was growing at a national level and funneled over $1 million to LGBT legal groups to support litigation.

As we all know, in June of 2015 the work of the CMC and countless other groups paid off, and the Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality. And while philanthropy was one of many forces fueling the movement, philanthropy played a crucial role in its success.

Many of the tenets of emergent strategy that we value at FSG—clear goals and flexible means, trust and coordination across sectors, mastery of the macro and the micro, continuous learning and improvement, reacting quickly to opportunities, among others—shine through in the CMC’s work. For the funders in the CMC, their success on marriage forms a foundation for advancing lived equality for the LGBT community. And for those who confront many other social issues, from climate change to racial justice, where a stubborn mix of public policy and public will can seem inimical to progress, we would do well to consider and learn from the lessons of the CMC.

Congratulations, and thank you, to the CMC and its many allies for showing what’s possible in philanthropy.

Read the case study to learn more about this groundbreaking work > 

Funding partners of the Civil Marriage Collaborative include The Atlantic Philanthropies, Calamus Foundation (DE), Calamus Foundation (NY), Columbia Foundation, David Bohnett Foundation, Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund, Ford Foundation, Gill Foundation, Horizons Foundation, Johnson Family Foundation, Kevin J. Mossier Foundation, Open Society Foundations, The Overbrook Foundation, and anonymous donors.

Matt Wilka

Former Managing Director, FSG