by Maggie Haberman
May 2, 2014
Tim Gill is the most influential gay donor most people have never heard of.
The software entrepreneur has spent the last two decades working to advance LGBT rights, often through alliances with both Republicans and Democrats. He founded “Outgiving,” a political donors conference that is the gay rights version of the progressive Democracy Alliance, only with a bipartisan twist.
Gill, a Democrat who is estimated to be worth more than $400 million, has worked closely with leaders such as Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-New York) as well as mega-donors such as Republican Paul Singer and Democrat Laura Ricketts. He was a major force behind the strategy that led New York state to legalize gay marriage in 2011. He was also a top player in the Iowa Supreme Court fight to overturn a ban on same-sex marriage, helping to protect the seats of Democratic state legislators so that the successful legal win would be preserved by lawmakers.
Gill generally avoids the spotlight, but in a phone interview with POLITICO this week, he was emphatic about the importance of keeping the donor alliance focused on coming battles, both to advance gay marriage in the south and the west, and to preserve basic LGBT rights under threat in several states.
He said that Outgiving, which is taking place this week in Los Angeles,will in some ways be returning to the basics of the gay rights fight.
“The goal is always political. The question is what laws can we get passed and the difference is that we’re switching focus to a lot of conservative states,” Gill said of the conference, which began in its political form nearly a decade ago and which draws more than 200 people by invitation only.
The political gathering’s strength lies in its push to encourage individual donors to give en masse to specific candidates and causes, going beyond the partisan prism, Gill said. The effort connects different types of groups — including those that are not typically part of the progressive coalition, such as Chambers of Commerce in various states — with individual donors.
“It’s about the process of making relationships,” said Gill, a soft-spoken, silver-haired 60 year old who noted that, growing up in Colorado as a gay teen with Republican parents, his “peer group”generally didn’t share his views.
“That’s one of the reasons we’ve succeeded, is that people have kind of found their own voice,” he said.
When, decades ago, the Quark Inc. founder himself first entered the realm of philanthropy, he said, “I knew no other gay or lesbian philanthropists.”
Gill, who lives with his husband in Colorado, said that on the specific issue of gay marriage, he’s found common cause with people who don’t share his political views on most other issues. That includes Singer, the mega-donor who has his own super PAC focused on gay rights.
“What makes Tim a leader on this issue is that he realized early on that it need not be partisan – he and I may not agree on a number of policy issues, but Republicans and Democrats can and should agree that every American should be treated fairly and equally under the law, regardless of who they are or who they love,” Singer, who also rarely speaks about his donations, said in a statement. “Tim’s collaboration with Republicans on this issue has been extremely important.”
Gill’s funneling of more than $300 million between his philanthropic and political giving into different groups focused on gay rights issues has led to a string of victories, including flipping the state legislature to Democrats in Colorado in 2005. That win involved a strategy of inspiring respect and fear in lawmakers, who were made keenly aware they’d be held accountable in the next election.
The entrepreneur was motivated to launch the Gill Foundation in 1994, after the passage of Amendment 2, a Colorado ballot initiative that banned the enforcement of gay rights protections. But after a decade, it became clear that philanthropic giving alone wasn’t enough.
Gill and his aides’ epiphany came after the elections in 2004, a year in which the Bush administration pushed anti-gay amendments to boost turnout in critical swing states. So he set up the Gill Action Fund, and within a short while, someone suggested launching a political version of “Outgiving,” which already existed as a philanthropic donor network.
Outgiving, which is held twice a year, links donors through a series of panels and meetings, and sets the targets for which court cases to track and which candidates to back — all of them state-focused.
There are different approaches to various candidates, including aiding those trying to stay in to office, or “punishing the wicked,” according to one official involved in the Outgiving planning. In the latter cases, the idea is to either remove from office, or make examples of, legislators who have made names for themselves on anti-gay crusades.
Outgiving has “been the glue that sort of keeps us all together and very strategically, and sort of smartly, marshals our strength to have the greatest impact,” said Laura Ricketts, a part-owner of the Chicago Cubs, who was on hand in Iowa witnessing oral arguments in the successful case to overturn the gay marriage ban. The group One Iowa, which Outgiving helped direct funding toward, was invaluable, she said.
“Their advice, their rallying donors, helping to bring organizations to work together” has had an “immeasurable” effect, she said.
After 2004, Gill, founded the Gill Action Fund, and met with LGBT groups to lay out a 10-year plan — the type of thing Gill says he typically dislikes, preferring shorter-term campaigns — to legalize gay marriage, civil unions or domestic partnerships in 12 to 15 states before going to the federal level either through Congress or the courts. That came to fruition, with gay marriage legal in 17 states now and the U.S. Supreme Court making key related rulings last year.
Working with two top advisers, Patrick Guerriero and Ted Trimpa, Gill’s approach has been metric-driven and targeted, with the 10-year plan dissected into smaller, more manageable campaigns. He uses a wide range of tools, including his own tax-exempt groups, giving grants to various organizations, and hiring teams to help with state-based fights.
Gill’s strategic approach has helped put disparate gay rights groups on the same page, avoiding pitfalls that have often plagued other organizations that have been geared toward the same issue but have had trouble working together.
The emergence of Republican donors such as Singer who have moved rapidly toward favoring gay marriage has underscored the need for a “bipartisan strategy” in order to win in most places, Gill said. Singer was among the leading funders to protect pro-gay marriage Republican lawmakers.
With so much of the future of gay marriage tied up in pending U.S. Supreme Court decisions, Outgiving and the Gill Foundation are increasingly focused on fights over issues such as stopping discrimination against gays in other realms.
The “easy” states along the coasts have been won, Gill said, and it is time to expand to new regions.
“This is a point in time where we’ve accomplished a number of things in easy states and where you hear some people saying gay rights is inevitable,” Gill said, before referring to a number of bills in states such as Texas that are aimed at dialing back civil rights for LBGT people. “It’s clearly not.”