Raising the Funds Needed to Fuel the Movement

When Evan Wolfson started Freedom to Marry in 2001, he set the bold vision of building the campaign that would win marriage for same-sex couples nationwide. In order to fulfill that vision, we knew that we would need to raise the funds to fuel the movement.

Development of the Program

Funding the Campaign

Development & Fundraising from the Central Campaign

Read about the broader development program to understand how Freedom to Marry raised the funds needed to sustain the work of the central campaign and function as a movement-funding engine.

Read More

From 2001-2015, Freedom to Marry raised and invested close to $60M for its successful campaign. Approximately 80% of the funding was secured for 501c3 (tax-deductible public education) purposes including and 20% for 501c4 (political/lobbying) purposes. More than 90% of the funding came from individuals and private foundations with the remainder coming from corporate gifts and in-kind contributions. Of the $60M Freedom to Marry raised, just over $45M or more than 75%, was raised between 2011 and 2015. 

25 donors had total lifetime contributions of more than $100K to Freedom to Marry, and four of these 25 donors each donated a total of $1M or more. Five of the donors in this top 25 group were Republican; as a group, they contributed close to $5M.

Here are the ten largest contributors to Freedom to Marry:

Jon Stryker/Arcus Foundation
Evelyn & Walter Haas, Jr. Fund
Paul Singer and Family/American Unity Fund
Gill Foundation/Gill Action
The Ford Foundation
David Maltz
Timothy and Michele Barakett
Sean Eldridge and Chris Hughes
Esmond Harmsworth and James Richardson

Corporate support reflected a smaller amount of funding.  The largest cash partner was SKYY Vodka with a total investment of $155,000 over the course of 2 years (2014-15). Comcast was the largest in-kind partner with an estimated lifetime in-kind donation of more than $4M. 

How Development Evolved Over Time

From 2001 through 2003, annual revenues were well under $1M, and Freedom to Marry operated as a fiscally sponsored project of the Astraea Foundation. In 2004, Freedom to Marry funding surpassed the $1M mark and didn’t eclipse the $2M mark until 2009, once we began morphing from a catalyst and strategy center to the front-facing central campaign we became.  From 2010 to 2011, funding doubled, increasing from $2.5M in 2010 to $4.9M in 2011. Funding nearly doubled again in 2012 to $8.5M, then to $9.9M in 2013, and to a peak of $12.2M in 2014. 

The following is a paraphrased recap of the funding history related by Evan Wolfson and summarized by development director Juan Barajas.

Evan secured seed funding for marriage work from the Evelyn & Walter Haas, Jr. Fund in 2001. It was going to total $10M to be paid out over 4-5 years. He was expected to raise money to match it, and at the time, it was the largest gift to the movement. Unfortunately, raising the matching funds didn’t work out since nobody was really giving to our movement in these amounts and were more timid to donate significantly to the marriage work. So, this initial model gave way to the second model of: if you build it, they will come. This 2nd model kicked off in January 2003 with about $800K in funding and stayed in the annual revenue range of $1.2 M to $1.5M until 2009. During this time period, it was mostly foundation support from non-gay sources for 501c3 purposes and was “cobbled together and built up over time.” During this period, Evan helped bring together multiple foundations together to form the Civil Marriage Collaborative in consultation and guidance by Freedom to Marry. Evan served as the principal advisor.

In 2010, in the wake of the ups and downs of the marriage movement, Evan was pressed to create the campaign that he tried to get others to create. It was clear that if Evan didn’t do it, nobody else would. So, Freedom to Marry morphed from an internal convener, coach, and cajoler into the ground retail campaign. The campaign needed more money to do this, and it needed 501c4 political money to really amp up its work; thus we needed to go beyond the handful of funders, primarily foundations, who had supported us to this point. 

A Powerful Partnership

The Role of Philanthropy and the Civil Marriage Collaborative

Check out this full history of the Civil Marriage Collaborative, the powerful grant-making initiative dedicated to advancing the freedom to marry in states and building momentum for national resolution.

Read More

Freedom to Marry became a real organization in 2010 with a c3 and c4 component and with real Boards of Directors. The funding model changed to include major donor support and individual donation support. Funding doubled in the first year (2010 revenues were $2.5M and 2011 revenues were $4.9M). 2012 was the highest year for cash revenues with 2013 and 2014 coming in slightly lower. Freedom to Marry was the lead funder for the 4 state marriage ballot measures in 2012 when we won 4 out of 4 marriage campaigns. By the time it reached the Supreme Court and then close down, victorious, Freedom to Marry had become the  largest funder of marriage work in the US, and the world.

How Development Contributed to “Our” Victory

It takes money to fuel the work, pay the talent, and execute the wins. Freedom to Marry not only raised money for its own direct work, but also for other organizations and programs in order to fund all the work needed to drive our strategy to victory. Our aim was to serve as a funding engine, whether the resources flowed through our “watering can” or directly to other colleagues in the field. Freedom to Marry used its expertise, credibility, and connections to help large donors strategically channel their investments into the right efforts at the right time – including, for example, the guidance provided for the ballot campaigns in 2012. 

Freedom to Marry leveraged both the emotional appeal of marriage with really smart strategy and work. Combining the “head and the heart” made fundraising for this more personal and engaging for our supporters.

We pitched donors on achieving a clear and ambitious goal using a clear and constituent strategy in a time-limited campaign rather than asking for support for ongoing activities without a clear connection to strategy and goal.

Freedom to Marry leveraged both the emotional appeal of marriage (a nearly universal understanding of falling in love and wanting to get married) with really smart strategy and work. Savvy donors responded well to this and both understood the “return” on their philanthropic investment (winning marriage in states and ultimately nationwide) while also seeing it do good in the world and often times in their own lives. Combining the “head and the heart” made fundraising for this more personal and engaging for our supporters.


Fundraising is an organizational effort that the development team strategically and thoughtfully leads, manages, and tracks.  Staff leaders and Board members play key roles in identifying, cultivating, soliciting and stewarding donors.  Additionally, major donors and foundations often played key roles in helping bring in other new donors. 

Key Lessons Learned

  • Ask supporters to fund a strategy with catalytic points (not just an activity or tactic like field work or capacity building). 
  • Leverage urgency and clarity of purpose help garner large donations.
  • Pitch donors on achieving a clear and ambitious goal using a smart strategy in a time-limited framework.
  • Partner with donors to strategically channel large investments.