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.

StiftungSchweiz is committed to enabling a modern philanthropy that unites and excites people and has maximum impact with minimal time and effort.

Follow StiftungSchweiz on