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
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.