In February 2018, guests converged on a swank uptown hotel for the Human Rights Campaign’s annual North Carolina Gala. Some no doubt hoped to rub elbows with honoree actress Tatiana Maslany, while some longed to snag a choice item from the silent auction. They all could well have made it to bed happy that night, provided nobody had their heart set on outbidding their peers for a flowchart illustrating how the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) actually functions.
It’s not such a bizarre thing to want from the monopolist of national-scale queer advocacy.
So how does it work? Who’s running this thing? There’s a president, a board of directors, a board of governors, an emeritus council, dozens of steering committees, not to mention advisory councils focusing on specific areas of concern…so who’s instructing whom, and on what? Who paid for the room rented to host Maslany and, when attendees dropped major dollars for auction items, who took home the cash?
If we’re going to discuss leadership, it’s natural to start with HRC President Chad Griffin. You may recognize the name from your email inbox; if you’ve ever made a donation, joined a mailing list, or otherwise provided that bit of contact information, you’ve likely received messages with him as the sender. He’s the chief executive and the public face of the organization. He’s also listed as a member of the boards of directors of both the Human Rights Campaign and the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, its charitable affiliate.
As with almost any corporation — and we are, strictly speaking, dealing with a corporation here — it’s the board of directors that’s meant to wield ultimate authority over pretty much everything. HRC’s all-volunteer board is composed of 31 members, chosen for their histories of corporate and community leadership. They set the group’s agenda, shape its policies, approve or veto its proposed actions, and decide what it does with its money. If you find you’re less than thrilled with one of those endorsements of political candidates — as you may have been when it chose to back Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders, despite the latter’s near-flawless record on LGBTQ issues, or when it initially passed over now- Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), who’d earned a perfect rating on HRC’s own Congressional scorecard while serving in the U.S. House of Representatives, in favor of incumbent Republican Mark Kirk, whom it argued it had to recognize for breaking with party tradition in his support for marriage equality — take it up with them. (While we’re on the subject, it’s important to note that HRC holds IRS 501(c)(4) status, a designation reserved for “social welfare organizations” which are not operated for profit but which, unlike 501(c)(3) pure philanthropies like the HRC Foundation, are legally permitted to engage in political lobbying so long as it directly serves the group’s stated objectives.) North Carolina’s representation on the board of directors consists of Shelly Schoenfeld of Charlotte, Ames Simmons of Raleigh and Tina White of Asheville.
Members of the board of governors, meanwhile, are the local liaisons. They’re tasked with community engagement, volunteer initiatives and region-specific membership expansion. They build and strengthen relationships with related local non-profits and other groups whose interests align with those of HRC, and they often earn their seats partly on the strength of their existing ties to those sectors. Charlotte’s Christina Adeleke, for instance, has history with Equality North Carolina and RAIN (formerly known as the Regional AIDS Interfaith Network)and currently holds a high-ranking post with the NC Aids Action Network. Governors report to their higher-ups on the needs and accomplishments of their individual communities, simultaneously rallying local troops in support of national causes and lobbying the national organization to devote resources to local issues. Along with Adeleke and Schoenfeld, the latter of whom is both a director and a governor, board members serving North Carolina are Ann Hooper, Dan Mauney, Fidel Montoya, Robert Bronke, and Mark Falgout. Bronke and Falgout hail from Durham; the rest are based in the Queen City.
HRC’s Emeritus Council, by far the smallest of the three delegations, consists of a dozen or so former board members who remain in an advisory capacity and occasionally represent the Human Rights Campaign at various events. None call North Carolina home. South Carolina has no representation on any of the national boards, nor does it qualify for a regional steering committee, of which there are 32.
Now back to that gala. One common criticism of the Human Rights Campaign — along with their documented diversity issues, which they appear to be working on — is that the money they raise in one community doesn’t necessarily go to support initiatives in that same community. In the opposing camp, however, are those who contend that a certain amount of leeway in the apportionment of funds is not merely justified, but necessary. Take HRC’s Project One America. Led by director Ben Needham, it’s a major undertaking designed to improve the lives of LGBTQ people in Alabama, Arkansas, and Mississippi, three of the toughest states in the nation to be queer. It’s fair to say donations roll in a little more swiftly from the Upper East Side of Manhattan than they do from Little Rock, and it’s arguably okay, even vital, to redirect some of that capital. The centralized fiscal decision-making that sustains initiatives like Project One America means that proceeds from a major fundraiser like the North Carolina Gala have to go, at least temporarily, back to the head financial honchos in Washington. Appropriations to steering committees, which are determined geographically but not strictly by, for instance, city or state (Charlotte has its own steering committee, another governs the entire state of Utah and a third covers Orange County, Long Beach and Palm Springs) are at the discretion of the board of directors and executive-level leadership. The same procedure applies to HRC’s five national advisory councils: the All Children — All Families initiative, the Historically Black Colleges and Universities Project, Parents for Transgender Equality, the Business Council, and the Religion Council.
The bottom line is that HRC is a national organization that is based in Washington, D.C. and has arms and legs that stretch out and work all over the country. They are the only organization that does what they do on the scale in which they do it. The work they do requires the money and influence of all their committees, boards, plus staff and volunteers.