• October 31, 2014

Small Foundations Can Spur Big Changes: One Grant Maker Shows How

Tackling the world’s most vexing social problems is a challenge for even the biggest foundations but much more daunting for small ones. Nonetheless, it is possible for small foundations to bring about large-scale change.

At the Tow Foundation, created by my parents, we learned this when we decided to take on one such problem—our state’s failing juvenile-justice system. 

The United States leads the world in incarcerating young people. Every year, juvenile courts handle an estimated 1.7 million cases in which a youth is charged with a delinquency offense. That’s about 4,600 delinquency cases a day. Over 70,000 juvenile offenders are not living in their homes on a typical day but are held in group homes, shelters, and other juvenile-detention facilities. An estimated 250,000 youths are tried, sentenced, or incarcerated as adults every year across the country. Most of the young people prosecuted in adult court are charged with nonviolent offenses. 

These statistics are shameful and not in sync with the mission of our foundation: that all people should have the opportunity to enjoy a high quality of life and have a voice in their community, even those who have gotten in trouble with the law. 

Before we got started working on this issue 15 years ago, no other foundation in our home state of Connecticut was focused on it. We could not stand by and say this problem was too big for us to tackle. So we set out to figure out how we could make a difference.

With just two staff members, we decided to focus our grants on local organizations that were working to change how the courts treated young people. It was a decision based on our board’s desire, in fact our sense of obligation, to accomplish the most we could with our assets (both human and financial) for the people who needed us the most.

Some 300 grants and $12-million later, we can confidently say we have gotten an excellent return on our investment. Two influential reports released in recent weeks have called Connecticut a national leader in reducing the number of young people who are placed in detention facilities and prisons.

A third report details over a decade of transformation and tells how Connecticut has also channeled much of its resources into programs that work with troubled youths and their families, using treatment services that have proven effective not just to help children stay out of trouble but also to keep the public safer. 

This was not always the case.

When the Tow Foundation first started examining the situation, Connecticut’s system was one of the worst in the country, with deplorable conditions of confinement. It was one of only three states that prosecuted and punished all 16- and 17-year-olds as adults. 

The approaches we took can be useful for other foundations taking on all kinds of tough social challenges. Among them:

Scan the landscape and build relationships. Our board hosted a series of roundtable discussions to which we invited groups from the state government, the court system, service providers, advocates, and youths and families affected by the system to speak to us, share their insights, and suggest ways a foundation could make a difference.

This was an important first step both in building our knowledge of the problem and in developing relationships with people who shaped the debate and who cared most about changing the system. It allowed us to be seen not as outsiders who were coming in to fix how state agencies and courts operate but as partners willing to take risks and roll up our sleeves alongside them to do the work. 

Support advocacy. Like many other foundations, we had spent most of our grant money financing direct services to individuals. We measured our success based on the number of people who had been helped by the services we paid for. 

But we quickly found that helping small groups of individuals was not enough to satisfy our desire to change how the juvenile-justice system worked.

To do that, we realized we needed to support the advocates who were willing and able to lobby, write new legislation, and organize for change. 

In 2001 our foundation became the first grant maker to support the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance, a coalition of advocates, public defenders, service providers, and parent-led groups that has fought for change and achieved numerous legislative victories that now ensure young people are treated in a more fair and equitable manner. 

Our foundation now supports many advocacy networks and coalitions at both the state and national levels, with the hope of amplifying effective change on an even larger scale.

Work collaboratively. We knew we would fail if we treated our mission as a solitary pursuit. We shared our successes and challenges with our colleagues at national foundations and encouraged them to invest in Connecticut. We vetted potential grant recipients and served as the eyes and ears for foundations outside our region.

We also reached out to leaders of state agencies, asking for their commitment to expand programs if we proved they worked. The state is now paying for several that we tested. We also financed research, including studies that found many kids were put in detention for minor offenses or had never committed any crime at all. Those studies have led to significant changes in policies and practices.

Think beyond the grants. The foundation’s board has encouraged staff members to work actively on juvenile-justice issues and not just monitor grants. We have committed countless hours of staff time to bringing groups together to strategize and find common ground, to lead conversations about new and innovative programs and policy, and to offer our grantees training in effective storytelling and leadership development.

We had a lot of work to do, requiring us to commit to a multifaceted, multiyear strategy that is uncommon among our peers.

This approach has required persistence, flexibility, openness to the fact that we might not have all the answers, and willingness to stick with the issue—and our grantees—for the long haul.

We could not adhere to the common practice of limiting an organization to three years of grant support or set hard-and-fast rules about what we do and don’t support.

We needed to acknowledge that the world does not always move in accordance with our grant cycle. So we were nimble and responsive when our colleagues could not be.

What’s more, we understood that no one entity can create large-scale social change alone. It requires a collaborative effort in which government and nonprofits work together toward a common vision for change. 

These and other strategies worked for the Tow Foundation. We took on the problem of our state’s failing juvenile-justice system and catalyzed substantial change in how our systems work. We are now expanding on that success by applying what we learned to guide a similar effort in the State of New York. And we hope to help other states and jurisdictions advance changes in juvenile-justice systems across the nation.

Now, I’m not writing this to be self-congratulatory. The credit for the transformative change in Connecticut’s juvenile-justice system goes to our partners in the state legislature, judicial branch, state agencies, youth charities, and advocates. And, of course, to the kids and families who inspired us all. 

My hope is that our experience will encourage other foundations, no matter the size, to believe that they, too, can have a big impact on a social issue that may appear too daunting to tackle. The opportunity awaits for us all to be bold and use our unique role as philanthropists to spark, and even drive, large-scale social change. 

Emily Tow Jackson is executive director of the Tow Foundation

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