Can a Small Organization Have a Big Impact?

I get asked this question often.  How can a small foundation with few staff really catalyze large scale social change?  In fact, how can a foundation of any size play this role?  At The Tow Foundation, we have attempted to play a significant role in juvenile justice reform, an issue that seems like an intractable problem and not easily tackled by a small family foundation.

The United States leads the world in the rate of incarcerating its own citizens.  We imprison more of our own people than any other country on earth and stand alone as the world’s leader in incarcerating young people.  Every year, juvenile courts in the U.S. handle an estimated 1.7 million cases in which the youth was charged with a delinquency offense, approximately 4,600 delinquency cases per day.  On any given day, over 70,000 juvenile offenders are not living in their homes but are held in residential placement (e.g., juvenile detention facilities, corrections facilities, group homes or shelters). An estimated 250,000 youth are tried, sentenced, or incarcerated as adults every year across the United States.  Most of the youth prosecuted in adult court are charged with non-violent offenses.  These statistics are shameful.

The Tow Foundation, a family foundation based in Connecticut, is committed to the vision that all people deserve the opportunity to enjoy a high quality of life and have a voice in their community.  And that includes those who have made mistakes in their lives and who may have gotten in trouble with the law.  We believe that no child is beyond help.  We could not stand by and say this problem was too big for us to tackle.  So we set off to find out how we could make a difference.

In the late 1990s, the age of the so-called ‘youth super predator,’ The Tow Foundation made a strategic decision to focus a portion of our grantmaking budget on trying to change the way court-involved youth are treated.  We started in our home state of Connecticut with a small portfolio of grants.  At that time, we had just two full-time staff.  Through an open dialogue with system leaders, advocates, community-based nonprofits and families affected by the system, we identified this population of children as worth saving.  And, considering that no other local foundation was funding in this area, we saw an opportunity to really make a difference.  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.   Over fifteen years, approximately 300 grants and $12 million later, we can confidently say we have gotten an excellent return on our investment.  In late February, a report was released by the Justice Policy Institute (JPI), a Washington DC-based research institute, documenting 20 years of progress in juvenile justice reform in Connecticut. That report, released along with JPI’s Common Ground report and Annie E. Casey Foundation’s KIDS COUNT Data Snapshot, identify our state as a national leader in reducing confinement.  Connecticut also leads the nation in investing in evidence-based, family-focused treatments that get better results for youth and keep the public safer.

This was not always the case.  When The Tow Foundation first identified this area of focus, 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 Tow Foundation is a proud, long-term investor in this effort.  There was a tremendous amount of work to be done, requiring us to commit to a multi-faceted, multi-year strategy that is uncommon amongst our peers.  It 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.  No three years and out, no hard and fast rules about what we so and don’t fund, and the acknowledgement that the world does not always move in accordance with our grant cycle.  We were nimble and responsive when our colleagues could not be.  We were committed, not just to the changes we hoped to see, but to doing whatever it takes to get there.  That pursuit took us down a path we could not have anticipated.  To focus on funding advocacy, to be advocates ourselves, to use the unique power we have as a foundation to convene, build networks and coalitions of both public and private partners, and to truly let the mission guide the work.

But can an individual or a foundation really have an impact against such a shameful, yet overwhelming problem?  It seems impossible that philanthropy alone could address this, or any comparable crisis.  And that is very true.  No one entity can create large scale social change alone.  It requires a collaborative effort where public and private partners work together toward a common vision for change.  Recently this type of framework has been termed collective impact.  And whether it happens organically or through a facilitated process, this recipe for engaging a diverse group of stakeholders around a shared vision with measureable goals to address a deep social problem they all care deeply about can be the way to truly make progress.

In order for our foundation to play a role in the successful reforms in Connecticut, we needed to contribute to effort in several ways:

  • Scanning the landscape and building relationships:  First we set out to get a full understanding of the scope of the problem and identify points of entry where we could play a unique role.  Our board hosted a series of roundtable discussions where we invited groups from state government, the court system, service providers, advocates and youth and families affected by the system to speak to us, share their insights, and suggest ways in which a foundation could add value.  This was an important first step both in building our knowledge of the problem as well as developing relationships with stakeholders and leaders in the field.  It allowed us to be seen not as outsiders who were coming in to fix them, but as partners willing to take risks and roll up our sleeves alongside them to do the work.
  • Supporting Advocacy:  Like many foundations, our previous work had been limited to funding direct service.   We had felt the need to count individuals who were helped through our funded programs.  But we quickly found that helping small groups of individuals was not enough to satisfy our desire to catalyze systems change. To do that we realized we must support the advocates who were willing and able to lobby, write new legislation, and organize for change.  In 2001 The Tow Foundation became a founding member and the first funder of the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance, a coalition of advocates, public defenders, service providers and parent-led groups that has led the collective fight for reform in the state.  This group was able to lead the charge on a series of legislative wins that now ensure that each year tens of thousands of Connecticut’s justice-involved youth are now treated in a more fair and equitable manner.  And this success empowered our board to support the building of new advocacy networks and coalitions at both the state and national level with the hope to amplify effective change on an even larger scale.
  • Leverage and nontraditional investments:  We quickly learned that this work could not be a solitary pursuit.  We shared our successes and challenges with our national philanthropic partners and encouraged them to invest in Connecticut.  We vetted grantees and served as our colleagues’ eyes and ears on the ground.  We also actively engaged with the leaders of our state agencies, asking for their commitment to scale successful programs we tested by picking up future funding if they proved effective.  Several programs and services that we seeded and measured outcomes for have now been replicated and contracted by the state.  We also funded valuable studies such as one that identified who the kids in detention really were and found that most of them were in for low-level, non-violent offenses.  In fact, many of them had never even committed a crime.  Information and data revealed from this and other studies, one of which documented that the majority of kids arrested in Bridgeport were picked up during school hours on school grounds, contrary to the theory that most arrests happen in after school hours, inspired significant changes in police and court practice.
  • Thinking beyond the grants:  In all aspects of this work, our foundation’s board has empowered the staff to play active roles in the field such as convener, facilitator, organizer, mediator and most significantly, partner.  We have committed countless hours of staff time to bringing groups together to strategize and find common ground, to lead conversations around new and innovative programs and policy, and to hone new skills such as effective storytelling, facilitative leadership, and positive youth development.

These and other strategies worked for The Tow Foundation.  We took on the problem of our state’s failing juvenile justice system and catalyzed real and substantial systems change.  And now we are taking that success to scale by applying the insights and lessons learned to guide a similar effort in the state of New York.  And JPI’s report will be used to help other states and jurisdictions advance juvenile justice reform 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-serving agencies and advocates.  And, of course, to the kids and families who inspired us all.  My hope is that our experience will inspire 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.