50.50: Investigation

Revealed: Major US banks are funding anti-LGBTIQ groups

Goldman Sachs and Bank of America foundations gave over $600,000 to ultraconservative groups

Lou Ferreira Khatondi Soita Wepukhulu
11 July 2023, 11.23am

Foundations linked to major US banks have funded ultraconservative groups opposing abortion access and LGBTIQ rights


Norberto Cuenca / Getty / Pexels / Composite by James Battershill

The Bank of America and Goldman Sachs have both been lauded for their LGBTIQ-friendly workplaces. But tax filings uncovered by openDemocracy show nonprofit foundations linked to the banks have also funded ultraconservative groups fighting to roll back civil rights for the queer community worldwide.

From 2017 to 2020, the Bank of America Charitable Foundation handed out more than $390,000 to eight such organisations who between them have resisted same-sex marriage laws and anti-discrimination protections for LGBTIQ people, challenged contraception and abortion access, and sought to ban gender-affirming healthcare for trans people.

openDemocracy also uncovered donations by the Shell Oil Company Foundation and the Motorola Solutions Foundation, as well as charitable foundations of the US Chamber of Commerce, and Pharmaceutical Research & Manufacturers of America lobby groups.

Between them, the six organisations donated $1.3m to anti-rights groups over three years, according to the publicly available financial filings in the US, where they are registered as nonprofits and must disclose some information about their income and spending.

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RaShawn Hawkins from the Human Rights Campaign urged the companies to remove funding for anti-LGBTIQ groups, and “reckon with how damaging and harmful those donations are to the community, including their own LGBTQ+ employees”.

“The LGBTQ+ community, particularly trans and non-binary people, are experiencing a relentless wave of attacks and vitriol from far-right extremists,” she told openDemocracy.

“Employees who see their company giving to hate groups and extremist politicians want their employers to be held accountable. We do too.”

Funding hate

Between 2017 and 2020, two charitable foundations of Goldman Sachs – the Goldman Sachs Philanthropy Fund and Charitable Gift Fund – donated $286,300 to six ultraconservative groups. This includes a $10,000 grant in 2019 to Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a Christian legal group that has intervened in dozens of US court cases challenging same-sex marriage and adoption laws and others backing doctors and businesses that refuse to offer services to LGBTIQ people.

The group has also worked to restrict the rights of trans people – advising US public schools to ban trans pupils from accessing facilities in line with their gender identity; and bringing legal action against school districts for having trans-inclusive policies.

In 2020, openDemocracy revealed ADF’s US branch has spent more than $21m opposing women’s and LGBTIQ rights around the world since 2008, including more than $20m in Europe. Its UK arm has challenged protest-free “buffer zones” around abortion clinics, and supported calls for ‘freedom of conscience’ provisions to allow medical staff to independently refuse to provide legal abortion care.

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) civil rights group has described ADF as an “anti-LGBTQ hate group” and “one of the most influential groups informing the [former Trump] administration’s attack on LGBTQ rights”.

Groups are listed as “hate groups” by the SPLC if they “depict LGBTQ people in dehumanising ways or explicitly target them with discrimination”.

Over three years, Goldman Sachs’ charitable funds also donated:

  • $141,200 to the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that has opposed anti-discrimination protections for LGBTIQ people in the workplace; lobbied federal lawmakers to ban gender-affirming healthcare for trans young people; and celebrated former president Donald Trump for adopting its policy recommendations to defund abortion care.
  • $58,000 to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which donated $30,000 to the Episcopal Conference of Malawi (ECM) – a local assembly of Catholic bishops in Malawi – for purposes including the “advocacy of members of parliament”. Some of these funds were used to lobby MPs against a proposed abortion bill, which was withdrawn by parliament following opposition by anti-abortion groups (including ECM).

Between 2017 and 2020, two charitable foundations of Goldman Sachs donated $286,300 to six ultraconservative groups

Other donations included:

  • $47,400 to Focus on Family, an anti-abortion group that the SPLC has described as an anti-LGBTIQ “hate group” and one of “a dozen groups which help drive the religious right’s anti-gay crusade”.
  • $12,200 to the Leadership Institute, an anti-LGBTQ organisation that helped to lead a summer training school in Rome, organised by the Spain-headquartered anti-LGBTIQ group CitizenGo. Last year, CitizenGo started an online petition to prevent Disneyland Paris from holding a Pride event. It was also implicated in an investigation in Kenya into the manipulation of Twitter algorithms to spread disinformation around a piece of reproductive health legislation that made a provision for access to safe abortion.
  • $17,500 to the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies, a powerful conservative legal organisation with ties to six of the nine sitting Supreme Court justices who helped to overturn Roe v Wade. Its members include Mississippi’s solicitor general Scott Stewart, who argued against abortion in the Dobbs v Jackson case (which saw the overturn of Roe v Wade).

Between 2017 and 2020, the Bank of America Charitable Foundation donated:

  • $375,000 to the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank that campaigns against abortion and the inclusion of contraception in the US Affordable Care Act. The organisation is active in anti-reproductive rights litigation and in cases opposing anti-discrimination laws, holding religious liberties for corporations above LGBTIQ rights and protections. Their funders include the Koch family and a foundation of Trump’s education secretary Betsy DeVos.
  • The rest of the funding went to: the American Center for Law & Justice (ACLJ) ($6,850) the Heritage Foundation ($1,300), Focus on the Family ($2,429), The Leadership Institute ($1,850), Bethany Christian Services ($500), the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops ($555) and Human Life International ($200), which the SPLC has also described as an anti-LGBTIQ “hate group”.

Human Life International has published articles claiming that homosexuality isunhealthy” or linked to paedophilia, and that abortion is “the ideal cover-up for incest”. In 2020, openDemocracy revealed that Human Life International has supported anti-abortion projects accused of spreading misinformation in Latin America.

Telecommunications company Motorola Solutions Foundation has given at least $1,300 to the ACLJ, Focus on the Family and the Heritage Foundation. The US Chamber of Commerce foundation donated $112,000 to two ultraconservative groups in 2019 – including $42,000 to the American Legislative Exchange Council, whose Back to Neutral coalition challenges corporate initiatives aiming to advance racial and gender equality, and advocates for companies to maintain ties with anti-LGBTIQ groups. The company also gave $70,000 to the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies.

In response to openDemocracy’s findings, human rights advocates said these companies should pledge to remove funding for anti-rights groups, but none of the funders have committed to doing this.

Diversity claims

The Bank of America’s website describes the company’s “commitment to LGBTQ+ colleagues and families”, including a “workplace ally” programme, and claims it was the first financial services company to extend anti-discrimination policies to protect LGBTIQ employees, and offer benefits to their same-sex partners. In 2019 and 2020, it was named “corporation of the year” by the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce; and in 2019, Fortune Magazine listed the bank among its “100 best workplaces for diversity”.

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The Bank of America also donated money to groups viscerating abortion access and LGBTIQ rights around the world

The company shared posts on social media showing support for Pride Month, and has been celebrated for such displays of allyship and maintaining “a strong commitment to visibly supporting the cause” despite right-wing backlash.

However, over the same period, the bank also donated money to groups viscerating abortion access and LGBTIQ rights around the world, including the ACLJ – another Christian legal group that has intervened in dozens of US court cases challenging same-sex marriage and adoption laws, and has submitted written arguments to the European Court of Human Rights in defence of Italy’s same-sex marriage ban.

These companies are “not pro-LGBT, they are pro-money,” said Reverend Alba Onofrio, executive director of SoulForce, an LGBTIQ group challenging faith-based discrimination.

“It is entirely unethical for a company to claim to be pro-LGBT, to make money off of our labour as employees, and our dollars as customers and clients, but also make donations to people who are seeking our exclusion from society and withholding our foundational human rights.”

The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) has celebrated Motorola Solutions and Shell Oil Company for their workplace inclusion practices, and awarded Goldman Sachs a perfect score in its Corporate Equality Index, which ranks US companies by LGBTQ+ inclusion, such as whether they extend anti-discrimination policies to protect LGBTQ+ employees, and offer benefits to their same-sex partners. In 2022, this Index named Goldman Sachs among the “best places to work for LGBTQ+ equality”.

Hawkins, director of the HRC’s programme for workplace equality, told openDemocracy that the Index includes guidelines “to ensure companies are asking basic questions around their giving in ways that will reduce harm to our community”. She added: “We expect companies to live into these guidelines and will work with them to provide consultation as they update their policies and practices.”

No accountability

openDemocracy wrote to each company with evidence of these groups’ anti-rights activities, and asked why they gave funds to charities challenging abortion access and LGBTIQ rights around the world – in apparent conflict with their own equalities commitments.

A Shell spokesperson told openDemocracy the donations were made under its “matching grants” programme whereby the company makes donations on behalf of its employees, to charities of their choosing. Between 2017 and 2019, Shell employees directed $65,685 to seven US groups that challenge abortion laws or LGBTIQ rights including the ACLJ, ADF and Heritage Foundation; as well as Human Life International and Heartbeat International, another leading anti-abortion lobby group.

“At Shell, we aspire to sustain a diverse, inclusive culture where everyone feels respected and valued, from our employees to our customers and partners,” a spokesperson said. While Shell “encourages” employee giving, it “does not endorse any organisations [employees] choose to support”.

“Giving is a personal decision, not directed by the company”, they added, and employees’ requests are fulfilled so long as recipients are “in good standing with the IRS” tax regulator.

Motorola Solutions operates a similar matching grants programme. However, charities are not automatically eligible to receive funding. Unlike Shell, Motorola reviews nonprofits “to ensure the groups and causes supported through our employee matching program are aligned with our commitments to diversity and inclusion”, a spokesperson told openDemocracy.

“We regularly review and update the eligibility of organisations to ensure the groups and causes supported through our employee matching program are aligned with our commitments to diversity and inclusion.”

When asked why, in 2020, Motorola donated $1,300 to three ultraconservative groups including the ACLJ, Focus on the Family and the Heritage Foundation, a company spokesperson told openDemocracy that two of these groups are no longer eligible for inclusion in its grants programme, but did not say which of these groups was still eligible to receive funding.

A spokesperson for Goldman Sachs, who did not wish to be quoted, explained that the Goldman Sachs Philanthropy Fund is a donor-advised fund whereby clients direct donations to charities of their choosing in exchange for a tax deduction. The bank does not review charities’ eligibility to receive funds.

The Human Rights Campaign has contacted Goldman Sachs, Motorola Solutions and Shell Oil Company with questions about openDemocracy’s findings. A spokesperson said: “We are actively working on it.”

The Bank of America did not respond to openDemocracy’s request for comment.

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