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The Angel Investor

Ric Weiland’s strategic bequest helped bring the LGBT movement a decade of success —
and offers a model for philanthropy aimed at social change.

By Heather Joslyn

 

Ric Weiland never had trouble making money.

"I used to kid him, ‘Didn’t you ever cut grass?’ " recalls Mr. Weiland’s partner, Mike Schaefer. "And he said, ‘No! Why would I do that? I could just write some computer code and sell it for $10,000.’ "

At 16, he sold his first software program. It paid for his first year at Stanford. At 23, he joined former high-school pals Paul Allen and Bill Gates as employee No. 5 at their start-up, Microsoft. He pocketed $4 million when he left at age 35, after the little company had taken off. Investments multiplied that stake many times over in the ensuing two decades.

But other parts of Mr. Weiland’s life proved challenging. He was diagnosed with HIV in his late 30s and he long battled depression, a fight he lost in 2006 when, at age 53, he committed suicide.

Mr. Weiland gave away $21.5 million during his life to a variety of causes including Stanford, his Seattle prep school, and environmental charities. But it was a gift he made after his death that would prove transformational.

An out gay man who cared deeply about the well-being of LGBT people, Mr. Weiland laid out meticulous plans in his will for distributing nearly $68 million among 11 organizations to make them sufficiently strong and nimble to respond to new crises and opportunities in the fight for LGBT rights. Ten of the beneficiaries received their money gradually over a decade, per Mr. Weiland’s instructions, to avoid overwhelming them.

LGBT advocates say the gift was a primary catalyst for a wave of progress for their cause: the repeal of the "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy for gay service members; the spread of anti-bullying initiatives and Gay-Straight Alliances in America’s schools; and, in 2015, the seismic Supreme Court ruling that made marriage equality the law of the land.

The Weiland bequest stabilized fledgling organizations at a crucial time for the LGBT movement, enabling them to grow and to deploy resources when they were needed most.

Wealthy donors and foundation chiefs often talk about creating social change. Mr. Weiland’s bequest offers one blueprint for doing just that.

"His gift is just about the greatest example of planned gifts having impact on any one organization and on a movement," says Judi O’Kelley, director of leadership at the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Mr. Weiland’s gift succeeded because it focused broadly on a movement’s systemic needs, says Urvashi Vaid, a veteran activist who worked at the Ford Foundation and led the Arcus Foundation.

His contribution, she suggests, wasn’t only money, but rare and timely strategic thinking. Mr. Weiland helped the LGBT movement answer a key question she sums up as, "What is the infrastructure that needs to be strengthened for us to win?"      

 

Taking Risks
 

 Ric Weiland (left) always knew how to make money, according to his partner, Mike Schaefer — and he always planned to give it away.

PLANTING SEEDS: Ric Weiland (left) always knew how to make money, according to his partner,
Mike Schaefer — and he always planned to give it away.

 

Mr. Weiland’s total charitable bequest, including gifts to Stanford, LGBT groups, and other nonprofits, totaled nearly $170 million. Of that, $19.8 million went to the Pride Foundation, an LGBT community fund in Seattle, for its endowment — which grew tenfold — and a scholarship program. Another $48 million went into a donor-advised fund at Pride, to be doled out over a decade to 10 organizations. Shrewd investing by the foundation yielded returns that effectively extended the fund’s life by a year; final payouts to the beneficiaries were made this past December.

The list of major beneficiaries from his donor-advised fund at the Pride Foundation show the broad approach Mr. Weiland had in mind for taking on challenges facing the LGBT community. The issues addressed and organizations backed included:

  • education and youth (GLSEN, which advocates for LGBTQ students from kindergarten through high school).
  • human rights (OutRight Action International, which focuses on abuses against sexual minorities).
  • leadership (the National LGBTQ Task Force, which trains activists).
  • legal services (Lambda Legal and the group now called OutServe-SLDN, which defends LGBT service members).
  • media representation (media watchdog Glaad and In the Life, a newsmagazine for public television that ceased producing new programs in 2012).
  • medical research (Amfar, which supports the fight against HIV/AIDS, and Project Inform, an advocacy group for people with the virus).
  • social services (Pflag, a grass-roots support group for the parents, relatives, and friends of gay people).
     

A Timely Gift
 

Compared to the Stanfords and Sierra Clubs that made up the rest of Mr. Weiland’s final philanthropic portfolio, this batch of organizations represented risk. The LGBT groups were comparatively new, and some, such as Pflag, were largely run by volunteers.

Perhaps no organization saw a greater return on Mr. Weiland’s investment than Lambda Legal, whose lawyers argued a number of cases that expanded LGBT rights, including:

  • a 2009 case on behalf of Janice Langbehn, against a hospital that prohibited her and her children from access to her dying partner. The case was dismissed by a Florida court but led to an executive order by President Obama that changed federal policy in such cases.
  • a case in 2011 on behalf of Vandy Beth Glenn, a transgender woman. The 11th Court of Appeals ruled that Ms. Glenn’s firing from a job violated the Constitution’s equal-protection clause, equating discrimination based on gender identity with illegal sex discrimination.
  • the Supreme Court’s landmark 2015 ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, which made same-sex marriage legal in the United States (Lambda served as co-counsel).

Lambda Legal got about $1.4 million each year from the Weiland bequest. The timing of those first payments, just as the Great Recession hit, couldn’t have been better, Ms. O’Kelley says.

As other donations slowed, Lambda was able to restrict its layoffs to only 10 percent of its staff. "It would have been 20 or 25 percent without his gift coming in at that time," she says.

The relatively modest hit allowed the organization to seize opportunities it might have otherwise missed, she adds: "We not only had all those bodies still with us, but also all that education and experience."

Meanwhile, Lambda ratcheted up its fundraising operations, in preparation for the day when it would no longer have the Weiland bequest to rely on. It hired its first-ever planned-giving director, who nearly doubled its list of planned-gift commitments to about 1,500.

Now, keeping a close eye on the Trump administration’s moves, the New York City-based organization is readying the next phase of its work. It’s about to open its first Washington branch office, which will be staffed with three attorneys by the end of 2017. And it’s turning to "enforcement and cleanup work," as Ms. O’Kelley puts it, in states that have been slow to embrace marriage equality.

"I think there’s no question that Ric’s gift helped secure marriage equality," she says. "It’s a very important piece of what we were able to do."


10 Filing Cabinets
 

Mr. Weiland left Microsoft in the mid-1980s, vowing to build up his fortune so he could one day give it all away. But first, he had some research to do — and even for a tech millionaire, that wasn’t easy in the days before Google.

His relative youth also presented challenges. When he showed up at charity galas, other attendees assumed he was there with his parents.

So he carved his own path. He gave small initial gifts to charities, $50 or so, checking out how they treated donors. He scoured annual reports and financial statements the way he did investment-fund prospectuses. ("He was a data-driven geek," Mr. Schaefer says.) Ten filing cabinets were crammed with research material; Mr. Weiland highlighted reports in three colors and scrawled notes in the margins.

"He created his own little GuideStar in the ’80s and ’90s," Mr. Schaefer recalls.

 

 

Ric Weiland 
(center) was one of the first people 
Microsoft hired when his high-school classmates Paul Allen (left) 
and Bill Gates (right) started the company in the mid-1970s.

IN ON THE 
GROUND FLOOR: Ric Weiland 
(center) was one of the first people 
Microsoft hired when his high-school classmates Paul Allen (left) 
and Bill Gates (right) started the company in the mid-1970s.

 

Mr. Weiland - shy, quiet, and humble — wasn’t interested in having his name chiseled on a building, or even helping build one. "We’re not in the real-estate business," he told his partner.

Instead, like an investor creating a diverse portfolio, he sought to balance risk, helping both established groups and grass-roots outfits. Each year, Mr. Schaefer says, Mr. Weiland would rethink and recalibrate what percentage of his philanthropy went to various causes, and what share within those percentages went to certain groups, based on their performance.

His affinity for data notwithstanding, Mr. Weiland didn’t evaluate charities by numbers alone. He would take leaders of the nonprofits he supported to lunch once a year, quizzing them about the progress they’d made and how they were adjusting strategic plans as they learned new things and new opportunities arose.

"Woe to the executive director who couldn’t talk about that," Mr. Schaefer says. "If you couldn’t do it, we’d have a short lunch."

Studying the Movement
 

Ms. Vaid, the activist and former grant maker, met Mr. Weiland in the late 1990s, when he was a guest at a dinner party in Seattle held to help her drum up support for a think tank she’d started at what’s now called the National LGBTQ Task Force.

"Our budget was $75,000, and that included my salary," says Ms. Vaid, now a consultant.

The Microsoft millionaire impressed her with his thoughtful, unassuming manner. "He looked like a nerd — glasses, kind of nebbishy looking. We hit it off." He’d read her 1995 book, Virtual Equality, a blueprint for an LGBT social-justice movement, and he asked a lot of questions.

A couple of weeks later, she phoned him. "Oh, I was just going to call you," he said. "I’ve been thinking about what I want to do. I want to support your vision. I’m going to make a gift of $40,000, for a couple of years."

Ms. Vaid recalls, "I almost fell out of my chair."

It was around that time that Mr. Weiland’s involvement in the cause started to deepen. He joined the boards of GLSEN and the Pride Foundation. In 1999, as part of a Pride committee aimed at using investor pressure to push companies to enact antidiscrimination policies, Mr. Weiland spoke at a General Electric stockholders’ meeting, citing his positive experience at Microsoft. GE was among many corporations that later enacted protections for LGBT workers.

"I don’t think he would say, ‘I’m an activist,’ but he definitely understood the power of inclusion in making the world a better place," says Audrey Haberman, who led the Pride Foundation from 2000 to 2011 and is now managing partner at the Giving Practice, a unit of Philanthropy Northwest.

Ted Lord, Ms. Haberman’s predecessor at Pride, recalls that Mr. Weiland seemed to relish the intellectual give-and-take with his fellow directors and "the robustness of being on a board that was cross-class, that was 50 percent folks of color."

"I think sometimes in social justice there’s a sense that if you bring folks of great wealth to the table, you have to treat them specially or cloister them," says Mr. Lord, now a senior partner at the Giving Practice. "That was not our experience with Ric. He really enjoyed the diversity of the LGBT community."

And, Mr. Lord points out, Mr. Weiland listened more than he talked. "Not that he didn’t have opinions, but he was very open about the fact that he didn’t know what he didn’t know."


Flooding the Zone


Ms. Haberman remembers the day she heard about Mr. Weiland’s bequest. She called Mr. Lord, to help sort out her mixed feelings: the tragic loss of a friend, bringing a windfall. "It was bittersweet," she says.

Mr. Weiland had told her that the Pride Foundation was in his will but offered no other details. She was floored at his generosity — and how carefully he’d planned its implementation.

The bequest positioned Pride, which began as a regional grant maker, as a major player in the national LGBT movement. It thought much bigger about its potential, Ms. Haberman says.

The gift also caught the attention of other wealthy people interested in the cause, she says: "We had more and more major donors taking notice in a way that we hadn’t before."

 

How One Donor Accelerated a Social Movement

Ric Weiland’s $68 million bequest does not rank among the biggest bets placed by wealthy donors on a cause,  yet it had an outsize impact on change for LGBT people. Some takeaways on how he maximized the power of his gift:

Deep Relationships With Partners

Mr. Weiland spent years forging a relationship with the Pride Foundation, the community grant maker that would become the hub for distributing his bequest. He learned how the organization worked by volunteering to help review grant proposals and serving on committees. He eventually joined the Board of Directors.

Mitigated Risk

Mr. Weiland viewed his philanthropy like an investment portfolio, mixing more established organizations with grass-roots ones. Legal aid, education, support groups for families, and media watchdogs were among the LGBT charities he supported.

Unrestricted Funds

The no-strings money from Mr. Weiland’s bequest gave LGBT groups flexibility when the Great Recession hit soon after the first checks arrived. It also helped them take advantage when new opportunities popped up, such as the rapid acceleration of marriage-equality cases in the courts.

Multiyear Contributions

Knowing that money was coming every year helped groups devise and implement long-term plans — and they didn’t have to use up staff resources reapplying for the gifts.

Limited Distributions

Mr. Weiland’s will directed the Pride Foundation to limit annual distributions to no more than 10 percent of a beneficiary’s total revenue for the year. This restriction prevented each group from becoming overwhelmed by managing an outsize windfall, yet the payouts were big enough to help persuade other donors that the groups were worthy of philanthropic investment.

Mr. Weiland’s decision to strategically parcel out his bequest had long-term repercussions. Jason Franklin, who holds a chair in community philanthropy at Grand Valley State University, suggests that approach prevented the "crowding-out effect" a megagift can have on other contributors.

"It’s always a question mark for major donors to ask, will your group become too dependent on my money? Will I crowd out other donors?" says Mr. Franklin, the former leader of Bolder Giving, a group that advocated for more philanthropy by wealthy people. "Finding that balancing line to make the transformational gift but not to undermine long-term fundraising is really important."

The structure of the bequest also prevented recipients from being overwhelmed with a one-time windfall. That was "a kindness," says Lambda Legal’s Ms. O’Kelley, allowing beneficiaries "to think about how they want to grow and in what direction."

She adds, "It’s a wise thing to do for donors who are thinking in such big terms, especially if the gifts they’re giving are vastly disproportionate to the budgets of the organizations they’re giving to."

No Strings Attached

Since 2012, Kris Hermanns, who never met Mr. Weiland, has led the Pride Foundation and overseen the distribution of his bequest. She says the lack of conditions he put on the money’s use has been the key to its impact.

"He really trusted the organizations to carry that work forward, without dictating the what, the how, the why, and the when," Ms. Hermanns says. "No one had to write any kind of annual report about how they were spending the funding."

The freedom Mr. Weiland gave LGBT groups showed a deep understanding of how social movements function, their organizations’ need to be nimble, and how supporting them differs from giving money to, say, universities and hospitals.

"It is so incredibly important for donors who are investing in social-justice work to know it is that it is long-term," Ms. Hermanns said. "You can never anticipate how quickly you will make progress, and you always have to keep in mind that there will be setbacks and there will be backlashes and you still have to be present for that."

Ms. Vaid echoes the need for long-haul funding like Mr. Weiland’s in the social-justice arena, quipping, "Eight years is longer than most funders think about an issue!"

Charitable giving and social movements are not always an easy match, she says.

"Philanthropy is very idiosyncratic. It’s not systematic, no matter how much it likes to pretend that it is," Ms. Vaid says. "With living-donor foundations, it’s very determined by the priorities of those individuals. And with more established foundations, it’s determined by boards’ priorities, by foundations’ desire to be relevant — by forces that aren’t necessarily the movement."

Furthermore, foundations operate on a corporate-boardroom model, she says, which doesn’t inspire the risk-taking that social movements need to make progress: "It is not a radical, innovative, creative model of giving, for the most part."

To a donor focused on legacy, taking aim at a social goal like making discrimination obsolete can seem like a risky bet.

"People talk about, ‘We know we’re successful if we go out of business,’ " Ms. Hermanns says. "And at the same time, people don’t necessarily want to invest in people that are going out of business."
 

‘He’d Be Proud’

Of course, the impact of Mr. Weiland’s final gift to the social movement he believed in is bittersweet. He’s not here to see gay men and lesbians serving openly in the military, or legal same-sex weddings in every state, or openly gay TV news anchors and tech CEOs, or the proliferation of Gay-Straight Alliances in American high schools.

"He saw that we were at the cusp of something great," Ms. Hermanns says, "I’m not sure he could have anticipated the enormity of that. And so I think he would be incredibly, graciously surprised. The extent of the changes, the depth of the changes, and the pace of the changes happened more quickly than he could have anticipated."

But if he were around, she says, "I sure hope he’d be proud."

Ms. Vaid believes she knows exactly what Ric Weiland would be doing today: "He’d be investing in the resistance."