The Focused Founder
This is the story of one donor who, with his first major philanthropic gift, created an organization that The Advocate magazine called “The Most Important LGBT Group You’ve Never Heard Of.” Of course, it is very unusual for a donor to make such an impact on his or her first major foray into giving. In the case of Chuck Williams, this success did not happen by luck or simply being in the right place at the right time. The success of the Williams Institute rests on solid and strategic thinking, research, planning, and a laser-like focus on behalf of the founding donor.
Chuck Williams’ desire to create the first and only academic research center focusing on sexual orientation law was driven by two overarching priorities – the desire to end discrimination and a commitment to long-term, sustainable impact.
For much of his adult life, Chuck was concerned with discrimination. Even though he acknowledges that he did not experience significant discrimination personally, he has seen many friends harmed – either by being fired from a job or physically hurt – due to their sexual orientation. Chuck has always known that discrimination is not a problem that is easily solved. He recently stated that “discrimination is a very embedded issue. It is not superficial. It is embedded in society, law, regulation, culture. People don’t change laws and regula- tions just because it is nice.” To change minds, he continued, “you need to have sufficient clarity of logic and research that supports that logic.”
So it was clear from early on that Chuck’s philanthropy would focus primarily on ending discrimination. Now he needed to figure out how he was going to do this. He was always drawn to philanthropy that had a significant and measurable impact over the long term. He was more interested in solving societal problems than just addressing today’s issues, and he had seen the success of academic research centers in reframing issues and impacting the laws of the land.
The confluence of these factors inspired Chuck to create the Charles R. Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Law and Policy at the UCLA School of Law. The Williams Institute is a national think tank that advances sexual orientation and gender identity law and public policy through independent research and scholarship, and disseminates it to a variety of stakeholders, including judges, legislators, policymakers, media and the public.
It is the only think tank of its kind at a major research university, and it is the brainchild of Mr. Williams, a former senior executive at Sperry Corporation. Mr. Williams’ inaugural donation of $2.5 million to create the Williams Institute was the largest donation ever given to any academic institution in support of a gay and lesbian academic program in any discipline. Over the past decade, Mr. Williams has given over $13 million to fund the Institute.
Clearly, Chuck has always been an active philanthropist – simply writing a check is not for him. He favors large investments focused on a few discrete areas, determined after doing significant background research, defining the problem, and fully understanding the path toward solving the problem. This is the approach he took to starting the Williams Institute.
When Chuck talks about the Williams Institute, he beams like a proud father. He always had high hopes for the Institute and understood its potential early on, but he appears to be a little surprised at how quickly it has made a difference in people’s lives.
After consulting with experts in the field, Chuck decided that there was a critical need for a well-respected academic think tank focused on research impacting LGBT people and issues. But after a long search of other colleges and universities, he could not find one. He wanted the think tank to be housed in a research university so that the Institute’s work would have clout and be seen as non-political. He was very clear that he did not want to create an activist organization or one that might be seen as only interested in furthering gay and lesbian causes. It needed to be broader.
Chuck decided to place the think tank at UCLA – and not just because UCLA was his alma mater (and where he played on the Bruins football team). One of the factors in making this decision was the great enthusiasm on the part of the Chancellor. When he spoke to the Chancellor about his vision for an academic research center focused on sexual orientation law and policy, the Chancellor responded “this is an idea whose time has come.”
The next step was to decide where in the university the Institute would be housed. There were thoughts about having the Institute in the Department of Sociology or perhaps the Anderson School of Management. Ultimately, Chuck decided on the law school because, as he says, “Attorneys are practical. This will be a think tank, but we are not going to be thinking about thinking. Whatever we do has to have a practical result.” In addition, the Institute aligned well with the intellectual agenda of the UCLA Law School, which already had on its faculty a leading scholar of sexual orientation law, and several other faculty members who did research in the area.
Chuck is quick to point out that none of this might have happened if his partner hadn’t encouraged him to give money away during his lifetime. Originally, Chuck figured he’d make the gift to create the Institute after he died. But while Chuck acknowledges that there is “nothing wrong with testamentary gifts,” the experience of creating the Williams Institute taught him that when you give after you are gone, you “miss out on the fun of watching the work done. You want to see the fruits of your labor.”
And ultimately, giving a gift after he was gone wouldn’t have been consistent with Chuck’s track record of active involvement in his philanthropy. For example, when he was asked to become involved in the AIDS Research Alliance, he joined the board because the organization was most in need of Chuck’s business acumen. And he gave much of his time as an early organizer and supporter of Human Rights Campaign (although he gave his support in secret, as he was not out at the time).
The impact of Chuck’s giving has been remarkable. Experts at the Williams Institute have authored dozens of public policy studies and law review articles, filed amicus briefs in key court cases, trained over 2,500 judges in the area of sexual orientation law, provided expert testimony at legislative hearings, and have been widely cited in the national media. In fact, much of the research that was cited in the court case that determined that Proposition 82 was unconstitutional came from the Williams Institute. In his decision striking down Proposition 8, U.S. District Judge Vaughn R. Walker cited Williams research more than 30 times. And the success of the Williams Institute extends beyond marriage; it has performed ground-breaking research affecting a variety of critical matters, including the employment and health of LBGT people.
As for the future of the Williams Institute, Chuck is certain that its work will be needed for many decades. He is so sure that he has focused most of the Institute’s fundraising on endow- ment gifts in order to reduce or even eliminate development costs, and to ensure the long term survival of the Institute. This is important because Chuck doesn’t see discrimination going away any time soon.
It is clear that Chuck is willing to stick with the goals of the Institution for as long as possible, as he is greatly enjoying the work. When asked to reflect about what the Institution has given him personally, he said: “It has been a beautiful experience, joyous and beautiful. It’s been fun, and exciting to see what has occurred. It has given me a sense of fulfillment that I never would have seen otherwise.”