Five Years after the Pulse Massacre: Lessons for Philanthropy in Healing and Empowering Communities in Response to Crisis

By Ben Francisco Maulbeck and Marco Antonio Quiroga

Five Years after the Pulse Massacre: Lessons for Philanthropy in Healing and Empowering Communities in Response to Crisis - Proteus Fund

As the nation marks five years since the Pulse shooting, which took the lives of 49 friends, siblings, and loved ones on Latin night at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., we will never forget how we were both left reeling. We spent hours searching on social media for clues about the well-being of friends and in a state of disbelief that someone would attack LGBTQ people with such violent hatred.

In the weeks that followed, through a collaboration of the Arcus Foundation, Funders for LGBTQ Issues, Our Fund Foundation, and other grant makers we led the founding of the Contigo Fund, a philanthropic effort led by and for LGBTQ people of color to support the longterm healing and empowerment of people touched by the violence. With several other efforts already at work to address the urgent needs of supporting survivors and the families of victims, Contigo—which means “with you” in Spanish—filled a complementary and unique niche: addressing the deep disparities faced by the region’s LGBTQ people, immigrants, Latinx, and other people of color that were most affected by the tragedy. Since its founding, Contigo has distributed over $2.3 million in grants and responded not only to Pulse, but also other crises that have affected LGBTQ people of color, such as Hurricane Maria and Covid.

Five years after Pulse, each week seems to bring a new crisis: the ripple effects of Covid, police killings of Black people, murders of transgender women of color, and more mass shootings. Often, as with the Pulse massacre, these crises disproportionately affect people in the South and others who rarely benefit from philanthropy or government. Our experience in the past five years has taught us three promising practices for philanthropic responses to crises:

  • Give the people most affected by the challenges the authority to drive grant making.
  • Work toward long-term empowerment while supporting healing and mutual aid.
  • Draw on the capacities of a diverse range of institutions and individuals.

The approach we took is often known as participatory grant making and it is an ideal way to support people who are too often marginalized.

Launching a participatory philanthropic fund in response to the Pulse shooting was not easy. It was hard working professionally on the launch of the Contigo Fund while tending to our own mental wellness and that of those dealing with a tragedy that was deeply personal and tied to our identities as queer Latinx people.

When we conducted our initial needs assessment in the summer of 2016, we spoke to people with deep roots in the communities most affected by the shooting–including people who were at Pulse on the night at shooting. This process helped us identify several under-recognized grassroots leaders who ultimately became members of Contigo’s community advisory board. Nearly all these leaders were in a state of shock and grief that mirrored our own. Even so, it was healing for us as a group of diverse LGBTQ people of color and allies to work together building a fund that reflected both our shared sorrows and our shared vision for a better future.

Five years later, the power of the participatory grant-making process is even more evident. Members of the community advisory board felt ownership of Contigo from the start, shaping our grant making to respond to needs that they understood deeply. The advisory board also created a mechanism for recognizing under-valued leaders who work with marginalized communities —and often provided a stepping stone to other formal leadership roles with local government, nonprofits, and other advisory bodies.

As grant makers build philanthropic responses to the calamities of the future, they should consider using a participatory approach to the greatest extent possible. The wisdom of those closest to the crisis will increase the efficacy of your response—and the participatory process will be an instrument of healing and change in its own right.

Combine Advocacy and Healing

Too often, grant makers divide “direct services” and “advocacy” into separate silos—and create stringent requirements for grantees to separate the two, as if a bit of services might spoil your advocacy program or vice versa. The work in Orlando over the past five years has demonstrated that services and advocacy can and must be intertwined, with a focus on healing and empowering people holistically.

In the months following Pulse, Contigo grantees such as QLatinx—a grassroots LGBTQ Latinx group that emerged from the tragedy—worked to heal and build community among a population that was still reeling from the tragedy and previously had minimal formal infrastructure. In the years following Pulse, Contigo funding helped create a stronger ecosystem of grassroots groups like QLatinx—groups that built power while they built community. Ultimately, this coalition of groups became a formidable force for change in Central Florida, leading to several concrete victories: the passage of the Trust Act, which made Orlando the first sanctuary city for immigrants in the South; the launch of community alternatives to policing programs in Orlando; and the city’s formation of a trans taskforce advisory committee, with a strong focus on transgender women of color and sex workers.

In the past year and a half, the challenges of Covid, economic hardships, deportations, and continued police killings of Black people, and escalating violence against transgender people, mutual aid funds have become an essential tool for people left out of mainstream relief efforts. Nonprofits and philanthropic organizations have an opportunity to use the resources, databases, and connections of these mutual aid funds to build the power of those who are too often overlooked.

Build Connections

When Contigo was established, there was no LGBTQ fund in Central Florida—much less one with cultural competence in supporting Latinx people. No single institution had the exact mission or skills to respond appropriately to the tragedy—but multiple organizations and individuals could do so together. The Arcus Foundation, the founding supporter of Contigo, galvanized the initial group of grant makers. Funders for LGBTQ Issues drew on its expertise in grantmaking and LGBTQ people of color to lead the initial philanthropic assessment. Our Fund, the LGBTQ community foundation of South Florida, served as the initial fiscal home for Contigo and provided crucial capacities in philanthropic and financial systems—a role now filled by Proteus Fund, a national social justice organization. Beyond institutional capacities, through the community advisory board, local LGBTQ leaders of color and allies provided the knowledge to shape the fund according to the community’s needs.

A history of chronic underinvestment means that there are rarely large-scale institutions led by and for the communities most affected by a tragedy. Strong fiscal systems are essential for the responsible distribution of funds, which often leads to philanthropic efforts being established at institutions led largely by straight, white people—even when people of color and LGBTQ people are the groups most affected. We encourage grant makers responding to crises to draw on the capacities of large-scale institutions as well as small organizations led by the communities most affected. If no formal infrastructure exists, seek out grassroots leaders deeply connected to communities who may have undervalued skills and leadership. Help these leaders and groups connect with fiscal sponsors and other resources—and give them their first grant.

In recent years, the world seems to move from crisis to crisis. Some grant makers have launched multiple rapid-response funds to address the resulting urgent needs—while others have focused on long-term change. The work done transforming Orlando in the five years since Pulse has taught us that these two approaches are not mutually exclusive. In a world where democracy, the climate, and basic human dignity are under siege, it is vital that we help people recovering from trauma while also placing them in leadership roles to effect long-term change. Ultimately that is how we build a world that is defined not by crises of violence and division, but by our shared humanity.


Ben Francisco Maulbeck is a philanthropic consultant who previously served as president of Funders for LGBTQ Issues and vice president of Hispanics in Philanthropy. Marco Antonio Quiroga is the founding executive director of the Contigo Fund.