Photos: Fabian Hugo

In my view, it was imperative

From Philanthropist to Ambassador

Scott C. Miller arri­ved as the US Ambassa­dor to Switz­er­land in Janu­ary 2022. Prior to taking up this role, he served as Co-Presi­dent of the Gill Foun­da­tion, the largest LGBTQ foun­da­tion in the United States. It was set up in 1994 by his husband, soft­ware entre­pre­neur Tim Gill.

Did it take you a long time to decide whether to take the post as US Ambassa­dor to Switzerland?

I took a call from Joe Biden on 7 April 2021. I’ve known the Bidens for a long time, but it was the first time I’d spoken to him since he’d become President. 

And did you know what the phone call was about from the off?

I had an idea that he might have a role in mind for me, but I’d never imagi­ned a task of this magni­tude. I’d certainly never thought about the possi­bi­lity of moving over­seas to repre­sent the US government. He spent half an hour explai­ning his reaso­ning, then I asked him for 24 hours to think about it. It was a family deci­sion: I called my husband and told him about my phone call with Presi­dent Biden. 

How did he react?

“I hope you said yes,” was his first response… and now I’m here. It’s the most important role I’ve ever had and probably the most important role I will ever have: an ambassador’s remit is hugely broad. And I’m suppor­ted by a fanta­stic team.

Before you became an ambassa­dor, you and your husband, Tim Gill, were Co-Presi­dents of the Gill Foun­da­tion. Did you find it hard to give up this role?

Under the current admi­ni­stra­tion, you need to renounce all your exter­nal posts if you take up a posi­tion within the admi­ni­stra­tion itself, to prevent conflicts of inte­rest. But it was a really hard deci­sion. Tim star­ted the foun­da­tion in 1994: it’s his life’s work.

How did you get involved?

If your life part­ner asks you whether you want to be a trus­tee, it’s a matter of real signi­fi­cance. I was able to contri­bute fresh inte­rests, perspec­ti­ves and ways of working. This phil­an­thro­pic work was the perfect prepa­ra­tion for my role as an ambassa­dor – and I’ll probably return to the foun­da­tion once my time at the embassy is over.

Scott C. Miller, US Ambassa­dor to Switz­er­land: “Phil­an­thro­pic work was the perfect preparation.”

Was it chal­len­ging to take on such an expo­sed posi­tion at America’s largest LGBTQ foundation?

I met my husband, Tim Gill, back in 2002. He had an expo­sed posi­tion as one of the leading lights in the LGBTQ move­ment. He’d outed hims­elf when he laun­ched his soft­ware company. The mere fact that I was his part­ner, his fiancé and, ulti­mately, his husband left me in an expo­sed posi­tion, too. I never had the option of not being expo­sed, in phil­an­thro­pic and poli­ti­cal circles alike. Howe­ver, as a child, I worried that publicly coming out could have nega­tive conse­quen­ces. Conver­sely, I’d never have met Joe Biden if I hadn’t been a philanthropist and acti­vist. It’s only because the Presi­dent prio­ri­ti­sed these topics that I’m where I am today. 

You wouldn’t have become an ambassador.

I knew Joe Biden because of my invol­ve­ment in LGBTQ issues and my phil­an­thro­pic and poli­ti­cal dona­ti­ons. If I hadn’t lived as my true self and follo­wed my passion, I wouldn’t be sitting here today. Howe­ver, in my view, it was impe­ra­tive that I devo­ted myself to this cause when I left my posi­tion at UBS in 2014. Like every other Ameri­can, I wanted to marry the person I loved the most. This was worth fight­ing for.

Was the foundation’s biggest success its campaign for same-sex marriage?

We don’t want to over­state the foundation’s impact. Foun­da­ti­ons play an important role: they tell people’s stories. If I look back at the history of equal marriage in the US, I’d say foun­da­ti­ons were respon­si­ble for 80 per cent of the change in people’s hearts and minds. The remai­ning 20 per cent was down to poli­ti­ci­ans. We want to use our phil­an­thro­pic means to put across messages, collect data and trans­mit know­ledge. To this end, the Gill Foun­da­tion works with other move­ments invol­ved in simi­lar topics, like women’s bodily auto­nomy. We know we’re stan­ding on the shoul­ders of giants, such as the women’s rights campai­gner Gloria Stei­nem or former Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Gins­burg. These people laid crucial ground­work in their respec­tive fields.

And foun­da­ti­ons can conti­nue this work?

They can prepare the ground for all kinds of deve­lo­p­ments. But it’s important to remem­ber that foun­da­ti­ons aren’t allo­wed to be invol­ved in poli­tics in the US: that’s why we always have a strong fire­wall between the foun­da­tion as a legal entity and the entity with poli­ti­cal involvement. 

“It takes time for social chan­ges to take root and for civil rights to develop.”

Scott C. Miller

How did the Gill Foun­da­tion contri­bute to the shift?

When Tim Gill star­ted his foun­da­tion, just 20 per cent of people said they knew someone who was gay or lesbian. That’s why it was, and still is, important to say that homo­se­xual people are part of society day in, day out, share the same worries and are invol­ved in the same issues, like culture and educa­tion. We want to support them with coming out. The Gill Foun­da­tion is indeed the biggest donor to LGBTQ causes, but it’s all a team effort. We need the acti­vists who do the hard work in every city, every muni­ci­pa­lity. It’s a whole ecosy­stem. The phil­an­thro­pists are the fuel, the acti­vists the fire: ever­yone needs ever­yone else.

Society has become much more open over the last 20 years. At the same time, howe­ver, it’s also become more pola­ri­sed. Has this chan­ged how the foun­da­tion works?

It takes time for social chan­ges to take root and for civil rights to deve­lop. You reach a point where they’re accep­ted, and then there’s a step back­wards – as shown by the US Supreme Court ruling regar­ding abortion. 

What does this mean for the LGBTQ movement?

We cannot stop fight­ing for our rights. We need to work with every genera­tion to under­stand that a society that accepts ever­yone is a better society. Ever­yone deser­ves a fair chance. We need to keep this in mind as phil­an­thro­pists and activists. 

As an ambassa­dor, are you able to conti­nue your campai­gning on LGBTQ matters?

It goes without saying that I repre­sent all the inte­rests of the US government. Howe­ver, I think there was an unspo­ken agree­ment that I would use this plat­form to promote the LGBTQ commu­nity. I took part in Pride in Zurich and in Liechtenstein’s very first Pride. 

What should the next steps be?

The corpo­rate sector is curr­ently the loudest voice for these issues in the US. It really boosts your morale and resi­li­ence when people from fami­lies with diverse back­grounds, people with all kinds of varied expe­ri­en­ces, come toge­ther. Today, the labour market poses great chal­len­ges: no company wants to restrict its pool of poten­tial talent by discri­mi­na­ting against certain workers.

What can Switz­er­land learn from the US in terms of diversity?

Not many people know this, but Switz­er­land is the seventh largest inve­stor in the US – to the tune of 300 billion dollars. We have a strong connec­tion. Swiss compa­nies opera­ting in the US can adopt Ameri­can values via their offices there and inte­grate them into their acti­vi­ties. I am noti­cing some chan­ges. For example, there are more female board members now than there were a few years ago. Howe­ver, we need to accept that this change won’t happen over­night. We need
to give people time to learn, and the oppor­tu­nities need to be out there, too. We can’t simply fire all the old white men: that’s not the way to reach hearts and minds, and it’s not how we’ll change society. We need to take it step by step.

Have you had contact with foun­da­ti­ons in Switz­er­land already?

I’ve been in touch with a few so I can fami­lia­rise myself with their struc­tures. I’m curr­ently a trus­tee at the Fund for the Afghan People – the only exter­nal role I was allo­wed to take on. In this joint project, we work with the Swiss government and the Bank for Inter­na­tio­nal Sett­le­ments (BIS) to support people in Afgha­ni­stan. The foun­da­tion mana­ges frozen funds from the Afghan central bank, with the goal of retur­ning the money when the central bank is deemed to have regai­ned its inde­pen­dence. The fact that this foun­da­tion was set up in Switz­er­land also serves as an acknow­led­ge­ment of the coun­try: the over­ar­ching condi­ti­ons in Switz­er­land are very favoura­ble for philanthropy. 

Globally, though, foun­da­ti­ons like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foun­da­tion play a signi­fi­cant role. Their size and the power they exert can also attract criti­cism. How can these foun­da­ti­ons fulfil their respon­si­bi­lity towards society?

I’ve always been amazed by Bill and Melinda Gates. They deci­ded to put a large part of their assets into a foun­da­tion at a very early stage. That money isn’t theirs anymore, even though it’s a private foun­da­tion. Plus, they ensu­red that the foundation’s stra­tegy focu­ses on areas such as health­care and educa­tion: they fulfil their respon­si­bi­lity without them having any poli­ti­cal power.

“We need to work with every genera­tion to under­stand that a society that accepts ever­yone is a better society.”

Scott C. Miller

They’re role models?

Every philanthropist should do this. My husband also dedi­ca­ted half his assets to the issue close to his heart, the LGBTQ move­ment. I wish more people gave up some of their assets and used them for projects they care about to make the world a better place.

That’s how foun­da­ti­ons and phil­an­thro­pists perform their role?

They help improve the lives of people who are margi­na­li­sed in our society and are not looked after well enough by their commu­nity or the government. Giving these people a voice and a fair chance of having a decent life will always be one of the most important issues that foun­da­ti­ons can get invol­ved with. Of course, they also under­take other tasks and bridge gaps, e.g. in culture or preser­ving our history. 

Lots of foun­da­ti­ons around the world pursue simi­lar goals. Is there scope to improve collaboration?

Abso­lutely. Whenever you can learn from a peer and share things with them, ever­yone bene­fits. The Gill Foun­da­tion laun­ched the OutGi­ving Confe­rence with this in mind. 

What was the goal?

We wanted all LGBTQ phil­an­thro­pists to come toge­ther and share their experiences. 

Was it hard to get phil­an­thro­pists and foun­da­ti­ons to take part?

Tim ran the confe­rence for the first time in 1996. He’d reali­sed that he didn’t have any peers. Back then, lots of people still didn’t want to be openly invol­ved with the LGBTQ move­ment. Lots of dona­ti­ons were made anony­mously. It was clear that you could move people if you set out goals that were achiev­a­ble in the short term, goals that they agreed with, if they could see the bene­fit and contri­bute to it. 

Was the confe­rence worth it?

One of its major outco­mes lay in coor­di­na­ting efforts among one anot­her. Ulti­mately, this had a hand in the intro­duc­tion of same-sex marriage in the US. There are also other topics, like the fight against climate change, where foun­da­ti­ons work toge­ther. But we need things to be better coor­di­na­ted, which requi­res time and money. We’ve got to have these discus­sions – this is our future. The problems facing our world are no longer limi­ted to speci­fic regi­ons. As a global commu­nity, we cannot conti­nue to grow at this pace without first finding solu­ti­ons to the problems. If I, as an ambassa­dor, can help create a better network for foun­da­ti­ons, I’d be more than happy to do so. 

Do you have a speci­fic concern you want to focus on during your time as an ambassador?

Switz­er­land and the US have a good bila­te­ral rela­ti­ons­hip and have achie­ved a great deal. I’m deeply passio­nate about the appren­ti­ce­ships model, some­thing that’s firmly estab­lished in Switz­er­land. I’d like to see this in the US, too: working with young people and supporting them, which lets them take on respon­si­bi­lity and hone their social skills. I think that Swiss compa­nies with subsi­dia­ries in the US, speci­fi­cally, could intro­duce this model to the States. It’s an invest­ment in the work­force of the future – every coun­try should do this.

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