By Elaine Gast Fawcett, Four Winds Writing, Inc.
The Ohio Transformation Fund (OTF) wants to change its state’s justice system from one of mass jailing, particularly of young people and people of color, to one based on stable families, economic security, and access to health care and education. It began with the vision of a national funder building a model together with local funders and key partner organizations.
In early 2015, after considerable research of criminal justice reform, the Ford Foundation identified Ohio as a place with potential for statewide change.
“Whereas criminal justice reform is getting a lot of attention at present, in many states, the issue has historically been an issue that politicians and funders don’t want to touch,” says OTF executive director Judy Wright. “In Ohio, leaders on both sides of the political spectrum agree that we have the opportunity now to get something done.” Pair that with Ohio’s long history of organizing capacity, grassroots strength, and committed group of funders invested in safe communities.
Inviting Fund Partners
The Ford Foundation invested $1M to the Fund, with a matching requirement to raise half that amount. The Fund then approached Ohio-based funders, or those who have invested in Ohio, in any of three areas: community organizing, policy/advocacy work in criminal justice, and civic engagement. “Our theory of change is that, whereas each of these areas is important and necessary, none on its own can create sustainable, statewide change,” says Wright.
But how could the group make the effort more meaningful than a few individual grants? The immediate answer was to co-create their work with practitioners on the ground—“that was an important value that everyone agreed on from the start,” says Wright. They worked with two anchor organizations—the Ohio Justice & Policy Center and the Ohio Organizing Collaborative—to learn what was most needed and ensure strategies are community driven.
Beyond recruiting partners, OTF focused on informing and engaging the funding community as a whole.
“People don’t always connect that mass incarceration is entwined with other issues, such as job accessibility, school policies, and healthcare access,” says Wright. “In addition, community organizing is an edgier approach to making change. It’s a longer, slower investment that doesn’t offer immediate metrics, or fit the short-term, results-oriented philanthropy that most people practice.”
Yet this is the right climate for criminal justice reform, she says.
OTF held convenings and conversations for funders to talk about criminal justice reform and how it’s rooted in building safe and healthy communities. What has emerged, Wright says, is an eclectic group of nine funding partners. Some are local and some national; some have a background in social justice or community organizing and others are place-based funders. Some have a small funding capacity and others have the ability to contribute much more.
Wright’s best piece of advice for other funder collaboratives? Keep the entry point low.
“We kept the threshold for participating purposely low for partners to be voting members,” says Wright. “We wanted smaller funders to come in and feel like equal partners.” In the first year of the Fund, voting partners gave a minimum of $50K, which they could contribute as two $25K grants.
She says that has created a sense of partnership without hierarchy. Whether a funder gives $50K or $100K, they have the same vote, the same power and authority. “A big national funder may be able to move more resources, but the smaller state-based funders are in it for the long haul. There’s a real respect for that.”
In addition, the Fund is open to non-voting participants as well. “If it makes more sense for people to invest in specific work versus the pooled fund, that doesn’t preclude them from being a partner and participant,” says Wright. “We want it to be an open learning space for people who are stakeholders, and we welcome anyone who can help inform our work.”
Learning and Growing
“What’s different about this collaborative is that it’s more than a simple pass-through of funds,” says Wright. “We care about capacity building for the philanthropic sector in addition to capacity building for our grantee partners. We hope to grow a longtime, progressive funding infrastructure in Ohio—a network of funders and donors who are informed and motivated to support this work.”
Ultimately, OTF hopes to serve as a model for state-based criminal justice reform that is replicable for funders in other states, and replicable in Ohio for other issues.
Today, little more than a year after it started, the Fund has brought more than $2M to Ohio, passing the original funding goal. The largest grant it has given is $100K, and it also offers rapid response awards of up to $25K, which give it the flexibility to move funds fast. The first round of funding offered general operating support, and also paid for retreats, convenings, and capacity building for organizations to attract even more resources.
The challenge, says Wright, is to find a balance between something that’s still being created, and being concrete enough so that people can understand what it is. “We want to be a funnel to support this work—to create a center of gravity—and at the same time, we don’t want to be an extra layer or wall between funders and the organizations.”
Five Tips for Starting a Funder Collaborative
- Identify the interests of potential partners and find out where your interests and values overlap. What do you share? What can you learn from one another?
- Make it easy to participate. Set reasonable thresholds for money and time so smaller funders can participate as equal partners.
- Play to one another’s strengths. Don’t expect anyone to know everything or do everything. Approach the collaborative as a learning opportunity, not an expression of expertise.
- Test your assumptions. As a funder, it’s easy to do what you’re used to doing. Ask questions at every step of the way.
- Tweak as needed. Stay flexible and change as you go. Continue to define who fits where. Talk with other collaboratives about how they operate and what they would do differently.
Elaine Gast Fawcett helps foundations tell their story, educate their stakeholders, and move their mission forward. She works nationally to strengthen the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors as a communications and grantmaking consultant. You can reach her at email@example.com or on Twitter @4WindsWriting.