By Christina Stavale
Fusion staff writer
On the car ride home from a Human Rights Campaign fundraiser in 2000, a group of active LGBT community members from Akron came up with an idea that has since become a source of funding for promoting equality and awareness in the city.
“What we had noticed was that there were a lot of Akron-area participants at the HRC event,” says Steven Schmidt, a former president of the Gay Community Endowment Fund’s advisory board. “A number of us in the car had been involved in community organizations in Akron. We realized there were supportive individuals, but no system to support it. That’s how it all got started.”
The only question was how.
They returned to Akron and began throwing house parties, thinking they might raise money like the HRC. But then they decided: Why not raise money and put it into a fund to give Akron a permanent source of income designed specifically to benefit the LGBT community?
That source is now known as the Gay Community Endowment Fund of the Akron Community Foundation. From funding the arts to simply putting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender literature in public places, the GCEF funds a variety of causes throughout the Rubber City, with an emphasis on youth, arts and cultural issues.
“We were all college students once, we were all community activists once, and we knew that it was tough to get grant funding and get money for gay-related causes,” says Christopher Hixson, current chair of the board.
Schmidt says the group’s affiliation with the Akron Community Foundation, an endowment fund for the greater Akron community, has been a two-way street.
“They help us manage our fund and provide professional oversight of investments. We were not professional money managers,” he says. “… From their point of view, they recognized, to their credit, that LGBT folks lived in the Akron community, and they should be serving our interests and our needs as well.”
Hixson says the affiliation has also added credibility to the GCEF.
“We’ve just become part of the city, just like anyone else, and that’s what we’re going for: full inclusion,” he says.
The biggest grant in the endowment’s history — $10,000 — was awarded last year to fund the Akron Pride Center, which will open, at least partially, this fall.
“It was a big thing for them, as well as us,” says Steven Antalvari, chairman of the Board for the Akron Pride Center.
He says the two organizations did a little bit of seeking each other out because of their similar missions. And when the Akron Pride organization originally applied for a grant of $7,900, the endowment fund advisory board suggested they raise their request to $10,000.
Because most of the work done to get Pride Center running has been by volunteers, he says the donation will help a great deal.
“The community wants the doors open,” he says. “The economy is rough, and even though the economy is rough, we’re still going.”
And Hixson doesn’t deny that the nation’s financial slump hit the endowment fund — but it will still be able to fund organizations in the next year. The endowment fund is unique, he says, in that it looks at the past three years of income when determining how much it can give to fund requests. Therefore, even though donations have been down this year, the previous two years’ weren’t.
Also, Hixson notes foundations lost an average of 29.1 percent of their value this past year nationally. The GCEF has lost only 26 percent of it. They’ve also collaborated with the Gill Foundation, which is based in Colorado. This foundation matched each dollar that the endowment fund raises for up to $25,000, and they recently reached this goal this past February at their annual dinner.
“It’s a great way to raise money because for every dollar that you raise from your own constituents, it doubles the investment,” Schmidt says.
Hixson says it’s good the foundation gives those in the gay community who don’t have children a place to leave their money when they die. But the largest source of money each year is the Sugar Plum Tour, a holiday fundraiser. Community members decorate six homes throughout Akron and open them to a daylong tour raising about $30,000 each year.
“The cool thing about it is that it’s not a gay event,” Hixson says. “It’s families, it’s grandmas and grandpas and mom’s and dad’s. It’s just a big community-building event where all the money goes to the Gay Community Fund, but everybody has fun doing it.”
For more information on GCEF, visit its Web site at gaycommunityfund.org.