Elevating Philanthropy's Impact: Grassroots Leaders' Perspectives on Advancing Criminal Legal Reform and Sustaining Movement Support

Friday, September 29, 2023

Elevating Philanthropy's Impact: Grassroots Leaders' Perspectives on Advancing Criminal Legal Reform and Sustaining Movement Support 

Ariane Cruz, Manager of Public Policy & Collaboration at Philanthropy New York interviews Darren Mack, Co-Director, Freedom Agenda, and Psyco Wilson, Youth Development Coordinator, Youth Represent 

In a recent Bridgespan Group report, it was revealed that out of a total of $427.1 billion in philanthropic giving in 2019, only $343 million was allocated to criminal legal reform. This statistic underscores a troubling reality: the portion of the philanthropic pie devoted to criminal legal reform is not only remarkably slim but also subject to unsettling fluctuations. 

These trends raise pressing questions about the state of funding for criminal legal reform, particularly as some foundations opt to spend down or reshape their portfolios, resulting in significant cutbacks in support for these critical initiatives. Amidst these challenges, the profound impact of philanthropic dollars on the lives of millions of people and families affected by the criminal legal system cannot be overstated. It is a reverberation that echoes through all our communities, making it imperative to explore how funders can better support grassroots efforts in criminal legal reform. 

Below Ariane Cruz, Manager of Public Policy & Collaboration at Philanthropy New York interviews Darren Mack, Co-Director at Freedom Agenda, and Psyco Wilson, Youth Development Coordinator at Youth Represent, on how the philanthropic sector can work to better meet the needs of the grassroots organizers continuing to fight for a more just criminal legal system.  

Ariane Cruz (Interviewer): Thank you for taking some time to chat with us Darren and Psyco! As someone familiar with fundraising and development after a few years spent working for a nonprofit that sat at the intersection of higher education access and criminal legal reform, I've observed that philanthropic support for criminal legal reform is both limited and volatile. Despite the significant impact of the criminal legal system on communities, this sector receives only a small slice of the philanthropic pie, with fluctuating funding levels. Additionally, many foundations and corporate donors pledged substantial amounts during moments of public protest in response to police brutality and mass incarceration, but not all of this money is being effectively utilized and some of it still sits on the table. As leaders of the movement, how does this context sit with you?  

Darren Mack: I'd like to highlight the issue of foundations cutting back on funding for mass incarceration reform efforts. Campaigns in this space often span multiple years, yet many grants are awarded for only one or two years. To achieve meaningful change, organizations need sustained funding until their campaigns reach fruition. This highlights the need for longer-term, multi-year grants to support the complex, long-haul work of criminal legal reform. Campaigns like "Close Rikers" will take several years to achieve their goals, and foundations need to adapt their funding models accordingly. Additionally, bringing individual donors with the capacity to write substantial checks to the table can provide crucial support for these efforts. 

Psyco Wilson: In my role, I frequently interact with organizations engaged in various aspects of criminal legal reform, and I've witnessed firsthand the impact of funding cutbacks. Some organizations have lost critical components of their work due to insufficient funding. As a result, they struggle to maintain their operations and continue advocating for change. It's crucial for funders to recognize that campaigns in this field often require extended efforts and provide support accordingly. Grant funding for capacity building is vital, especially for newer organizations or those undergoing significant growth. This funding can help build the infrastructure necessary for effective advocacy and community engagement. 

Ariane Cruz: How can funders and philanthropies best support your efforts? Are there specific types of support or resources that have proven particularly impactful? 

Darren Mack: Capacity building is a key area where philanthropic support can make a significant difference. Many organizations in the criminal legal reform space are still in their early stages or undergoing rapid growth. Granting funds for capacity building can help organizations streamline their operations and focus more on advocacy and organizing. Additionally, foundations could facilitate connections between other foundations and individual donors to foster collaboration and provide comprehensive support to these efforts. 

Psyco Wilson: In my experience, access to training and resources is invaluable for organizations like ours. Legal service organizations, for example, often require specialized training for their teams. Philanthropies can support these efforts by making training programs accessible and funding ongoing professional development. This ensures that organizations can effectively serve their communities and stay up to date with evolving legal and advocacy strategies. 

Ariane Cruz: Definitions of success in grant applications often emphasize quantitative metrics, which may not fully capture the complexity of the work in criminal legal reform nor the meaningful impact on people and communities. How do you define success, and how do you perceive funders' definitions of success? Are there ways to bridge this gap? 

Darren Mack: Success, for us, is multifaceted. It involves growing our grassroots organization and expanding our membership base. It means building a diverse and engaged community of activists who are passionate about criminal legal reform. Funders sometimes focus on quantifiable metrics, like the number of individuals served or the dollars spent on specific programs. While these metrics are important, they don't always align with the long-term, systemic change that we seek. To bridge this gap, funders should appreciate the importance of capacity building and the need for sustained support for multi-year campaigns. 

Psyco Wilson: Our organization defines success by the impact we have on our community. It's about engaging with people, motivating them, and providing resources and opportunities. Funders often prioritize easily measurable outcomes, which can be limiting. Our work is about building relationships, educating, and motivating individuals, which doesn't always yield immediate, quantifiable results. It's essential for funders to understand the complexities of grassroots organizing and the time and effort required to drive systemic change. 

Ariane Cruz: In the criminal legal reform field, campaigns can be long and challenging. How can funders better understand the nature of this work, what you’re up against, and provide sustained support? 

Darren Mack: Funders can gain a deeper understanding of this work by immersing themselves in the process. This means acknowledging that criminal legal reform campaigns are often lengthy battles against powerful opponents. For instance, if you read or watch the news, you will witness the building and perpetuation of a culture of fear and punishment in New York City and beyond; you will also witness the decoupling of criminal legal reform and public safety, which, in reality, go hand in hand. Funders should recognize that progress may not always be linear, but funding should be consistent and long-term. By engaging with the work, funders can appreciate the resilience and determination of those involved, understand the need for sustained support, and join us in this uphill battle. 

Psyco Wilson: Funders should also consider the broader context of criminal legal reform, which involves challenging deeply entrenched systems and institutions. These campaigns face opposition from well-funded and influential entities. Achieving change requires not only funding but also ongoing education and relationship-building within the community. Funders should be prepared for the long haul, provide consistent support to organizations committed to this challenging work, exercise empathy, and trust leaders like us. 

In summary, criminal legal reform organizations face strong headwinds in securing sustained funding that allows them to succeed in an increasingly challenging fight. To bridge the gap between funders' expectations and the realities of this work, philanthropies can adopt a trust-based approach, prioritize capacity building, offer multi-year grants, and engage more deeply with the communities and campaigns they seek to support. By understanding the complexities of grassroots organizing and the persistence required to drive systemic change, funders can play a more effective role in advancing criminal legal reform and stand firmly in allyship with movement leaders. 

Watch the recording of Philanthropy New York's roundtable conversation, “No Justice Without Love” & Community: A Roundtable Discussion on Criminal (In)Justice in NYC and How to Disrupt the System, and hear from nonprofit and philanthropic leaders - including Darren and Psyco - on key criminal legal issues including youth justice, #CloseRikers, bail reform; as well as how leaders are addressing these issues using credible restorative and healing justice approaches. You'll also learn more about how philanthropic leaders are organizing to stand in allyship with nonprofits to maximize impact.  

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