Fund the Long Game and Stay Bold: What’s Next for Astraea?


The Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice has been around for about 42 years and continues to be a leader in supporting frontline grassroots LGBTQI organizations. During this time of heightened political and social risk and strain for these communities, how is the foundation directing its efforts? In short, Astraea appears to stay true to its core mission to “shift power” to LGBTQI people and organizations by maintaining established funding channels and also by innovating in response to current needs and opportunities. It continues to make grants through its four key funds (U.S., International, Intersex and Global Arts) while also recently branching into novel veins, including a responsive Fertile Ground Fund, a collaborative fund supporting women in the Caribbean, and new grants for Healing Justice.

Also, Astraea Executive Director J. Bob Alotta, who had been in the position since 2011, recently left the foundation and now serves as vice president of global programs at the Mozilla Foundation. We’ll take a quick look at her legacy and what Interim ED Sandy Nathan generally hopes to accomplish in the next nine to 12 months.

Nathan recognizes this is a pivotal time to be leading Astraea as the “election year approaches.” She says the foundation “has been bolder and taken much deeper risk in terms of how we articulate and live our values; we've always been out there… at the forefront with regard to gender, racial and economic justice and equity. It’s in our DNA. As we move into 2020, it will be important for us to not lose that boldness.”

A Belief in Core Support for Frontline Groups

Astraea is known for its commitment to funding under-resourced, LGBTQI-led groups and for providing long-term, core support. “Because the organizations we support are deeply connected to their communities and constituencies, we trust them to set their own priorities,” it states. Along with grantmaking and advocacy, Astraea carries out capacity building, which can be particularly important for under-restored and threatened groups. It also operates media and communications initiatives. Since its inception, it has granted more than $40 million. Funders for LGBTQ Issues’ latest funding analysis tells us Astraea was one of the top 10 funders of LGBTQ issues in 2017, both by dollar amount and number of grants.

While LGBTQ funding rose again in 2017, Funders for LGBTQ Issues President Ben Francisco Maulbeck told IP, “The small cadre of LGBTQ funders just don’t have the collective resources to support the many needs of our communities across the country at any kind of scale.” This is why the affinity group is always looking to engage more funders, especially “at the local level, who are closest to the ground and can offer more sustainable resources for LGBTQ grassroots groups.” Like local philanthropies, Astraea plays a crucial role as a funder that reaches out to frontline community nonprofits.

In 2018, Astraea gave out $4.6 million through 256 grants. The U.S. Fund is Astraea’s oldest and has a current grantmaking focus on anti-criminalization and migrant justice. In 2018, 99 percent of this funding went to groups led by LGBTQI black people and people of color. And Astraea’s International Fund has worked with organizations in 101 countries during the last 20-plus years—in 2018, it funded 102 organizations in 49 countries. Astraea’s Global Arts Fund supports and amplifies art by LGBTQI people and organizations that use creative expression as “a tool for social transformation.” Through this fund, Astraea has backed more than 500 people and groups, including notable creatives like Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich.

Astraea’s grantmaking through the Intersex Human Rights Fund remains vital. Less than 10 percent of global LGBTQI funders supported intersex organizations between 2015 and 2016. In 2016, more than three-quarters of intersex groups had an annual budget of less than $10,000. Astraea’s Intersex Fund is the first of its kind and accounts for about 73 percent of all grants to intersex organizations in the world.

New Funding Ventures

In 2018, Astraea launched the Fertile Ground Fund, which supports grantees’ flexibility and responsiveness—a total of $212,000 went to 43 organizations in the United States and around the world.

“Closing civil society spaces, increased violence against organizers and human rights defenders, heightened discrimination and police violence against LGBTQI, Black, Brown, Indigenous, migrant, and other communities around the world make this an extremely challenging political time for grassroots activists,” the foundation states regarding the motivation behind this responsive fund.

In the fall of 2019, Astraea announced that in partnership with the MATCH Fund, it will operate a program directly funding women’s rights groups and networks in the Caribbean. This five-year initiative arose out of the Global Affairs Canada’s Women’s Voice and Leadership Program and Feminist International Assistance Policy. MATCH is Canada’s only global fund for women, girls and transgender people. Just as Astraea often brings funders and funding to nascent LGBTQI groups, MATCH serves as a crucial intermediary for grassroots women’s organizations around the world.

Also in 2019, Astraea awarded its first Healing Justice grants ($60,000 to 14 organizations). Healing Justice seeks to address trauma, crises, grief, healing and wellness within movements. Astraea published a report on this branch of the funding and nonprofit world. It describes healing justice as “resiliency and survival practices that center the collective safety and well-being of communities” and are “an integral part of our fight for collective liberation.” Astraea also held a Healing Justice Funder Convening, in which funders heard from organizers and healing practitioners from across the U.S. and were exposed to several healing modalities like Reiki and acupressure. The organizers emphasized that healing justice work must be locally grounded and culturally specific.

Of late, Astraea has also supported the first Africa Intersex Regional group (the Africa Intersex Movement), transgender funder initiatives, sex workers and other causes.

A Change at the Helm

Under the leadership of Alotta, Astraea doubled its staff and grew its budget from $3 to $13 million. It significantly expanded its global philanthropy, including through the Global Development Partnership, the first relationship between the federal government and a public foundation created to expand international LGBT rights. Under Alotta’s watch, Astraea also gave attention to the possibilities and threats of the digital age, like communications and security, including through programs like its CommsLabs, which connect LGBTQI activists and technologists. This work aligns with Alotta’s new role with the Mozilla Foundation, a nonprofit “dedicated to keeping the internet a global public resource that is open and accessible to all.”

“In her eight years at Astraea, she both expanded their work globally and created a model for consistently building real partnerships on the ground,” Mozilla Foundation Executive Director Mark Surman said. Alotta was not available to contribute to this article. But she stated in her parting letter that, during her tenure, Astraea “has shown up and spoken up for philanthropic action that embodies the best of what we have learned as an institution: fund the long game, respect the steps, fund without restriction, trust the innovation in our communities, center the voices at the intersections of lived experience, know we are the ones we’ve been waiting for. In short, be bold. And we have.”

Astraea Interim ED Sandy Nathan recently served as the Interim ED for Philanthropy Southwest, and she has extensive leadership experience in philanthropic, nonprofit and government sectors. Along with overseeing Astraea’s day-to-day operations and supporting its bold mission, she envisions a time of reflection for the foundation. One of her general goals is to help Astraea “embed” its “feminist-led, grassroots-oriented LGBTQI social justice values” into all of its activities, “from how we exercise leadership to how we make decisions, to how we interact with our stakeholders and grantees.”

“We need to strike a balance between [meeting] emerging needs and, at the same time, slowing the organization down so that we can be thoughtful and authentic in the changes that need to happen internally,” she says.

Nathan says, during this crucial political moment, “There is a tremendous desire to advocate for additional support to grow Astraea, given the challenges we’re up against… but there is also a need for us as an organization to take a pause in this time of transition and prepare us well for the next step.”

And, importantly, Nathan feels personally in tune with Astraea’s work.

“What is there not to be excited about here at Astraea? Amazing staff. And the most compelling vision and mission for an organization—one that is just so aligned with every aspect of who I am. It's a dream opportunity for me.”