A national network of funders supporting strategic, innovative, and effective solutions to homelessness

Featured Member Profile: Arcus Foundation

 November 2015


At Funders Together, we make it a goal to share the work of funders across the country so you can learn what's working and adapt these strategies to your own community. One way we do that is through our Featured Members. Some are featured because of their innovative grantmaking. Others are featured because they are making connections and bringing new people into the conversation about ending and preventing homelessness. Still others are featured because they are challenging the very systems that allow homelessness to persist. In each case, our Featured Members are an integral part of the solution to homelessness.

Founded in 2000 by Jon Stryker, the Arcus Foundation strives to achieve social justice inclusive of sexual orientation, gender identity, and race; and to ensure the conservation of, and respect for, the world’s great apes. It is a leading global foundation dedicated to the idea that people can live in harmony with one another and the natural world. Arcus believes that respect for diversity among peoples and in nature is essential to a positive future for our planet and all its inhabitants. Arcus works with experts and advocates for change to ensure that LGBT people and fellow apes thrive in a world where social and environmental justice are a reality.

We spoke with Jason McGill, Vice President, Social Justice Programs and Desiree Flores, U.S. Social Justice Director, about the foundation’s LGBT work, and about its deepened focus on homelessness.

1. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today. Looking at the Arcus Foundation and what programs you support, some might wonder about how homelessness fits into your mission. Could you explain a little bit about how your social justice program addresses the issue of homelessness?

Jason McGill (JM): At the Arcus Foundation, we have a core concern for the lives of all LGBT people, which leads us to acknowledge long-standing, structural disparities across many markers such as legal protections, access to financial and social resources, and cultural acceptance and inclusion. We know, for example, that LGBT youth, and particularly those of color, face especially negative inequities and disparities in educational opportunity, criminal justice involvement, homelessness, and labor market access.

For our US programs, we have three core goal areas:

  1. Positive culture change
  2. New and networked leadership
  3. Social and economic protections

Homelessness emerges for us as a focal issue in this third goal. It is the “miner’s canary” of so many other challenges facing LGBT youth: economic insecurity, juvenile justice involvement, drug use, and many other challenges. We have also been particularly impressed by seeing the broad, sincere commitment among homelessness funders—many of which are not LGBT-focused--to connect authentically with LGBT lives; it was this level of interest and commitment convinced us to get involved.

Desiree Flores (DF): The Arcus Foundation’s U.S. program is about LGBTQ culture and policy change, putting youth and people of color at the center. At this point in the evolution of LGBT movement, we are celebrating marriage and many are wondering “what comes next?”. Arcus understands “post-marriage” work has been happening for some time and will continue, often led by youth, the trans community and people of color. We are highlighting the work and lived experiences of these communities that include various intersecting issues – homelessness being one core area. We are using our resources as strategically as possible to help move the needle on youth homelessness within the larger domestic homelessness field.

2. What do you consider one of your proudest accomplishments within your social justice program (either within homelessness or the LGBT space)? What were some key ingredients to making it successful?

DF: Two partnerships comes to mind:

The Ruth Ellis Center in Michigan is a long-term partner because of the unique approach that provides services to youth in Detroit. But more so, it is a very smart strategic player at both the state and county level. Their model can be lifted up as an example because of how they integrate and build leadership. They promote a core group of their youth to influence what they are trying to change at the county and state level, via targets such as Child Protective Services. This group goes beyond service delivery and uses the voice of its young people to facilitate systematic and structural change

Another example is True Colors Fund. We made a learning grant early on in its development and it has turned out to be worthwhile investment. We have gotten a lot out of learning how they have been doing the work in Cincinnati and Houston while modeling their program nationally. They have been a key bridge to other advocates and other funders as well. We appreciate the way they acted a key partner in this area in terms of youth homelessness and how they are coordinating with many other partners in the field who have been doing this for years.

Arcus prioritizes models that go beyond providing services and integrate leadership of communities most affected in order to advocate for sustainable change. We also prioritize relationship building and partnership with colleague funders in order to strategically leverage dollars and knowledge. Learning from others in the field who have or are currently supporting innovative models is highly important to us.

3. What advice would you offer to other foundations who are just starting to focus on LGBT homelessness? Where is the best place to start?

JM: I think the most important thing funders can do is to authentically listen to and learn from others who are actually doing the work on the front lines. We’ve really succeeded best when we start out by getting to know the leaders in the field. You discover there are a lot of brilliant and passionate people who have all the skills they need and community tie-ins to help advance both systems and policy change that strengthen the lives of LGBT communities. It is crucial to ensure that whatever you are trying to accomplish comes from a sincere engagement with and the guidance of the movement.

This commitment to listening-and-learning also informs our efforts to structure both our strategic grantmaking and our leadership—in ways that puts the wind at the back of the movement we support, and that strengthens leaders and fosters coordination and partnership. Our colleagues in the movement see this as a “long-horizon” effort, and we want to ensure that our funding and other efforts keep them fueled to reach that horizon. 

DF: When focusing on youth homelessness, funders need to work together and listen and learn as authentically and intently as possible. Further, we should see young people themselves as experts and trust they have good perspectives on how to solve social issues affecting them.

4. What role does advocacy play at the Arcus Foundation?

DF: Arcus does not directly advocate, nor do we define a specific agenda. It is so important to have the voice from those who are experiencing the problems that need to be addressed through advocacy. Our grantees represent that community and have more credibility in the movement towards long-term change. As funders we can help them build power over time by supporting their work and efforts at collaboration and coordination across the movement. We also know that culture change can contribute to policy change—consider the fast-evolving changes that led to marriage equality. But this sort of culture change is also something that is most effective when it comes from the voices of lived experience.

5. The Arcus Foundation lists one of the foundation’s priorities as “catalyzing support from other funders and sectors.” Can you talk about the work you have done to engage and partner with other funders? What were some of the benefits and challenges?

DF: The absolute number one opportunity is Funders Together End Homelessness! I’ve been a grantmaker for 15 years, long enough to know that affinity groups, when they work well, are crucial to making sure you are doing your work as effectively and efficiently as possible. We have appreciated and benefited immensely from the connections and knowledge FTEH network has already provided. Becoming a part of this group – including Jason’s nomination to the FTEH board - has been important and given us the partners and tools needed to forge ahead in this field as smartly as possible.

6. How can groups like Funders Together support the work of foundations like yours?

DF: So far we’ve really learned a lot by listening. It was very helpful speaking with Anne Miskey to get her perspective about the climate of homelessness as well as talking with other organizations about pilot models and their experiences. We look forward to continuing that dialogue and identifying key partnerships through which to make grants.


The Arcus Foundation has been a member of Funders Together since March 2014. Take a look at our other members here and our entire network here.

Interested in past featured member profiles? Check out our archive here.

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