Ending Whack-a-Mole Philanthropy

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Ending Whack-a-Mole Philanthropy
By: Neill McG. Coleman, Chief Philanthropy Officer, Trinity Church Wall Street.

When COVID-19 hit New York City, the epicenter was the city’s jails on Rikers Island[1] . Advocates called on the elected officials to urgently release people, bail funds sprang into action and, while more could have been done, some 1,500 people were freed through pandemic-related early releases. However, in many cases those who were released re-entered society without necessities: identification, medication, COVID testing or access to stable housing.  In particular, discriminatory “permanent exclusion” policies prevent many from returning to public housing following an arrest.


In addressing one problem (pandemic-by-incarceration), another (homelessness-by-exclusion) was exacerbated. This dynamic is common, and not just in emergency contexts.  Too often in philanthropy we achieve progress or a reform, but don’t think to look around the corner. We thereby create - or exacerbate - another problem.  It’s whack-a-mole philanthropy.  Dismantling a structure or system without creating a healthier one just shifts the problem rather than fundamentally solving it. That’s one reason why in July, Faith Communities for Just Reentry, a group of religious leaders convened by Trinity Church Wall Street and including The National Action Network, Central Synagogue and Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York, released a policy agenda calling on Mayor Bill de Blasio to take specific steps to ensure dignity and security for those leaving Rikers.

Sometimes, this whack-a-mole approach may come from good intentions not fully thought through.  For example, the efforts to de-institutionalize mental health and end the warehousing of people with mental illness in asylums was - for the most part - guided by greater respect for the humanity of people with mental health needs. However, without investing in safe and better alternatives, we have seen a dramatic increase in the number of people with mental health needs who are incarcerated.  According to the National Sheriff’s Association and Treatment Advocacy Center, ten times as many mentally ill people are in prison and jail in America today than are in mental health treatment facilities. [2] Jails and prisons are terrible places for them to be. 


We risk repeating this mistake as the efforts to end mass incarceration (in which Trinity Church is deeply involved in) take hold.  The risk is that as we decarcerate we see a dramatic increase in the homeless population, and in particular those with mental health needs, already a significant percentage of people who are homeless[3] . We must not close the school-to-prison pipeline only to open the floodgates on the prison-to-streets pipeline.  


That’s why Trinity Church crafted the strategies for our two New York City philanthropic programs - criminal justice and homelessness - together, and with an overarching racial justice goal for both.

And we have put racial justice front and center because sometimes the whack-a-mole dynamic  does NOT come from good intentions.  Racism and white supremacy are pernicious, and we have seen through US history how methods of domination and control have shifted from slavery to Jim Crow to mass incarceration.  As criminal justice reform makes progress, we must be prepared and get ahead of what’s next. 
Philanthropy must consider its own role in these dynamics.  Some of our traditional ways of working exacerbate the whack-a-mole dynamic, including the tendency to invest in very specific issue areas and to measure impact through narrow metrics tailored to that space or sector. Here are five approaches to help us all do better: 

1) Invest in positive alternatives.  We should build in the creation of better alternatives as part of the strategy from the beginning.  At Trinity Church, one of three streams of work within our racial justice initiative is called “lead” and it is focused on alternatives to the criminal legal system.  For example, we are supporting a group of ten organizations to scale restorative justice approaches to intimate partner violence.  And as always in philanthropy, the truth of the commitment to building up what is better will come in actual dollars committed. Trinity intends to direct half of our racial justice funding to the “lead” work over the ten years of the initiative.  

2)  Commit to the long-term. Trinity Church has deliberately committed to ten-year strategies for this work and we know that in truth this is the work of decades.  While it is impossible to craft a detailed strategic plan that can account for where the world will be in 2030, setting a long-term commitment allows for a broader view of the work and more expansive view of the interconnecting systems.  Rebuilding the larger systems that underpin the inequities many funders are tackling will take more time than a specific innovation or policy fix. 

3)  Work across issue silos.  Success is not moving the problem to someone else’s issue area. And yet, of course, there is a value in having a focus for funding.  One way to solve for this tension is active collaboration with other funders in adjacent spaces.  For example, while Trinity has a focus on addressing homelessness through the creation of more affordable housing, we have partnered with the Mother Cabrini Health Foundation on a series of grants, knowing that better health outcomes are also deeply connected to homelessness. Key to making this work is a connection and framing of the aligned work around broader values, which could be faith-driven, or focused on racial justice or economic equity.

4) Fund policy work. Philanthropy is not the only sector that is siloed.  So is government.  Increased homelessness leads to more chronic health conditions[4]  and higher rates of incarceration[5] . Yet, while investments in affordable housing construction could lead to a big reduction in the number of people experiencing homelessness, government funding is often directed downstream towards more shelter, jail or hospital beds.  Engaging in policy advocacy can help spotlight these perverse incentives and shift funding.  


5) Center racial justice.  Whether the philanthropic focus is mental health, incarceration or homelessness a common denominator is racism.  Centering the undoing of racism and white supremacy will both necessitate, and help increase the chance of success, for the other four approaches.  Centering racial justice requires a long-term, multi-disciplinary approach that shifts government policy and moves us all to a more just society. As philanthropy recognizes its obligation to undoing racism we can also move past whack-a-mole philanthropy.


[1] https://www.legalaidnyc.org/covid-19-infection-tracking-in-nyc-jails/

[2] National SheriffsAssociation and Treatment Advocacy Center, The Treatment of Persons with Mental Illness in Prisons and Jails.” (2014).

[3] https://mentalillnesspolicy.org/consequences/homeless-mentally-ill.html

[4] https://nhchc.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/homelessness-and-health.pdf

[5] https://thecrimereport.org/2019/02/22/homeless-formerly-incarcerated-more-likely-to-be-incarcerated-study/