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Over the past several years, something fascinating has happened in the field of criminal justice reform. Grassroots movement-building—after a decade of tireless, incremental progress—reached a crescendo during the 2020 racial justice protests. Meanwhile, a growing base of legacy foundations, as well as major LLCs headed by some of the country’s wealthiest billionaires, made high-dollar pledges to what was previously a seriously underfunded issue. Arnold Ventures, the Emerson Collective, Open Philanthropy and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative all entered the arena.

So what happens when a handful of tech billionaires pledge hundreds of millions to a thriving social justice movement, and the pledged money actually goes out the door? We’re just beginning to find out.

CZI launched its Justice and Opportunity program in 2017, giving $143 million to front-line justice reform groups in the span of a few years. Then, in January 2021, there was a “game-changing” announcement: The program, which worked on both immigration and justice reform, was phasing out, while CZI’s support for both issues would deepen via two commitments. The first was a $100 million grant to the immigration and justice reform advocacy organization Forward.us. The second and substantially larger commitment was the creation of a new grantmaking entity, the Just Trust, with $350 million in funding from CZI. This cemented Chan Zuckerberg’s status as the largest justice reform funder in the U.S.

Then came a year of somewhat vague updates. There has been conjecture around the Just Trust and whether its grantmaking will echo the CZI program, which supported advocacy organizations like the Clean Slate Initiative and the REFORM Alliance, as well as constituent-led organizations like the Formerly Incarcerated, Convicted People and Family Movement. Another key question was whether the Just Trust will follow through with its stated intention to continue CZI’s signature strategy of funding 501(c)(4) advocacy alongside (c)(3) work. And perhaps the biggest of all: Would Just Trust be able to distance itself from the shadow of controversy surrounding CZI and Zuckerberg himself?

This week, we got some answers. On Tuesday, the Just Trust announced its inaugural round of grantees, with $36.3 million going to 25 organizations, half of which are 501(c)(4)s. This news came with a handful of other announcements, most notably that a new, state-based funding opportunity is launching with a focus on Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Oklahoma. Letters of intent are being accepted through March 30. According to the press release, groups working on “policy reform, organizing, base-building and narrative change work” are encouraged to apply here. (Apart from this state-level program, inquiries regarding other Just Trust grants can be made on a rolling basis via an online form here.)

We spoke with Ana Zamora, the Just Trust’s CEO, for insight into the new funder’s priorities and goals. Zamora described an independent organization that spent the past year “refining and honing” its strategy, speaking with outside advisors, building its capacity, defining its objectives, and is now prepared to assume a leadership role within the increasingly collaborative funding ecosystem for justice reform.

Supporting a movement, prioritizing state-level advocacy 

The preponderance of 501(c)(4) organizations immediately jumps out as the most unique aspect of the Just Trust’s initial grants. Zamora said that supporting (c)(4) advocacy is “one of the most important things we’re trying to do with the Just Trust.”

“Historically, there hasn’t been a lot of (c)(4) giving in the criminal justice reform space, yet our laws criminalize, our laws are overly punitive, we have to change these laws, and doing so requires the ability to speak directly to decision makers—lawmakers and voters. We’re trying to remedy this longstanding gap by investing in (c)(4) infrastructure across the movement,” Zamora said.

Many of the Just Trust’s inaugural grants focus on advocacy in select states, particularly in Kentucky, West Virginia and North Carolina, as well as national organizations. State-based grantees include the ACLU of West Virginia, the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy and the Oregon Health Justice Recovery Alliance. National grantees include the Prison Fellowship and the Alliance for Safety and Justice. Among the cohort of 25 in this inaugural round, 15 were previously grantees of CZI’s program. According to Zamora, grantees that are not CZI carry-overs include new organizations receiving seed funding, as well as some that approached the Just Trust via its rolling open inquiry form.

Zamora explained that as the Just Trust developed its structure this past year, decisions were made regarding how to create effective vehicles for both (c)(3) and (c)(4) grantmaking. The Just Trust’s 501(c)(3) program became a fiscally sponsored project of the New Venture Fund, which enables the funder to access what it calls “essential infrastructure support.” This arm of the Just Trust has a three-member board that includes Priscilla Chan; Brian Hooks, CEO of Charles Koch’s giving outfit Stand Together; and Public Welfare Foundation CEO Candice C. Jones.

The Just Trust’s 501(c)(4) grantmaking flows through the Just Trust for Action, a “fully independent, nonpartisan 501(c)(4) funding entity” with a three-person governing board composed of Jenny Kim, general counsel at the Philanthropy Roundtable; Kevin Madden, VP for advocacy at Arnold Ventures; and David Plouffe, political strategist and former Obama campaign manager and White House senior advisor.

Having board members from places like Stand Together and the Philanthropy Roundtable alongside people like Jones and Plouffe indicates a desire on the part of the Just Trust to bridge ideological divides. Especially prior to 2020, justice reform was having a bipartisan moment — albeit in a limited way — with the passage of legislation like the Trump-era First Step Act. Many funders we’ve heard from over the years have highlighted the issue’s continuing cross-ideological potential (i.e., cutting government spending by reducing mass incarceration). The Just Trust appears to want to lean into that.

The Just Trust’s somewhat novel setup and structure is also emblematic of the kinds of innovative grantmaking entities that are being cobbled together to support the giving of today’s billionaire donors. The Just Trust is on the leading edge of a very recent trend in which new organizations are spinning off from big-donor-founded LLCs that are themselves quite new.

As a case in point, the Just Trust’s break-off from CZI is remarkably similar to the story behind Just Impact Advisors, a dedicated criminal justice reform fund that formed in November 2021 with $50 million in seed funding from Open Philanthropy, the LLC of Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and his spouse Cari Tuna. Just Impact’s launch corresponded with the closure of Open Philanthropy’s successful criminal justice reform program.

Just Impact is headed by Chloe Cockburn, who previously led Open Philanthropy’s criminal justice reform program. That parallels the situation at the Just Trust — Zamora led the criminal justice reform program at CZI before taking the helm. During her pre-philanthropy career, Zamora worked as a front-line organizer and advocate, including for many years with the ACLU. As a former advocate and campaigner, Zamora understands the kinds of support and infrastructure needed to build the movement as a whole.

“CZI invested a historic amount, and entrusted me to implement an investment plan to make the most impact and build an organization that can strengthen the field now and into the future,” Zamora said. She believes that state-level advocacy will be a permanent cornerstone of that larger goal.

“The pathway to transforming the criminal justice system is long, complicated, and requires a big tent of people,” she said. “On both the (c)(3) and the (c)(4) side, we are working to change hearts, minds and laws. Organizations and people need flexible resources, and this is especially true at the state level. Advancing reform in a state like Utah is going to look much different than in California or West Virginia or Mississippi, and the only way to achieve long-term reform is to work with organizations and leaders at the state level. We are deeply committed to that approach.”

Foregrounding narrative and cultural change

One interesting aspect of the Just Trust’s strategy is that the organizing principle is advocacy, rather than a series of programming buckets like bail reform, prosecutorial accountability or trauma-informed healing. Of the Just Trust’s six stated priority areas, four are more like avenues of change than your typical philanthropic program area: advocacy infrastructure; campaign moments; partnership and coordination; and rapid response. Within these, the Just Trust is open to supporting any work that “powers justice reform”—in other words, a broad mandate.

But the Just Trust does carve out two specific types of justice reform work that it’s particularly keen on supporting: media and narrative projects, and justice alternatives. With this first tranche of grants, the trust appears to have focused on media and narrative projects in particular.

“Right out of the gate, we wanted to be clear that investing in media and narrative projects to tell stories about this work and the people that are impacted by the criminal justice system is critically important to changing the laws,” Zamora said. The approach is two-pronged, with investments in both news media infrastructure — particularly local news — as well as supporting narratives that humanize the people impacted by the legal system. Grantees include the Prison Journalism Project, Represent Justice, multiple podcasts, and Bolts, a digital magazine covering criminal justice and voting rights.

We spoke with Daniel Forkkio, the CEO of Represent Justice, about its new grant from the Just Trust. According to Forkkio, Represent Justice was previously a CZI grantee, but the Just Trust grant—$300,000 for general operating support—is a new relationship and the result of a separate application process.

Forkkio was excited to see that the Just Trust has focused on narrative change. This type of programming is perennially overlooked by funders, and as a result, Forkkio said, organizations seeking grants often adopt a fragmented strategy, approaching funders with advocacy portfolios, arts portfolios or film portfolios.

“It’s difficult to form a cogent, multi-year strategy when you’re operating in this way,” Forkkio said. “When something is difficult to measure, it requires time, sustained investment, innovative investment, and this can be at odds with how philanthropy does things. So when the Just Trust said this is a discrete funding area, that had meaning. They are setting a standard that hopefully the rest of philanthropy will follow.”

Represent Justice is a newer organization that seeks to use the power of media to “engage audiences in reimagining the justice system.” Its first social impact campaign surrounded the release of the 2019 film “Just Mercy,” based on the memoir of Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. Represent Justice has since carried out campaigns surrounding “On These Grounds,” a film about racism and policing in schools, and the recently released PBS film “Apart,” about the impact of incarceration on mothers in Ohio. It also has an advocacy program and an ambassador program in which system-impacted individuals receive training and opportunities to tell their stories.

Across these programs, Forkkio said that the interconnectedness between narrative, culture, and laws and policies is paramount. “We are always thinking about the formal structural changes we hope our storytelling and other campaigns will support,” he said. As an example, he points to the incarceration of women. Many people simply aren’t aware that women make up the fastest-growing prison population in the U.S., or of the many issues associated with that —  separated families, access to reentry services, sentencing practices, the connections with domestic violence and so on. Forkkio says that the legislation and policy ideas addressing the needs of this population are “incredibly myopic.”

So that means the narrative has to change in a way that allows and emboldens different policy ideas to take place,” he said. “If people aren’t talking about it, if the conversation and the narrative has not reached that point, you won’t get the policy solutions.”

Embracing collaboration, resourcing the field

Aside from prioritizing (c)(4) grantmaking and supporting narrative change work, the Just Trust also has an explicit goal to build out the justice reform field writ large. It’s a well-resourced funder operating in an area that has experienced a lot of growth in recent years, and Zamora and her team want to support the justice reform advocacy ecosystem—particularly among funders.

“I don’t think criminal justice reform is possible without deep collaboration and partnership… and that must extend to philanthropy,” Zamora said. “I love seeing alignment among funders and pooled funds and co-funding opportunities, and it’s a good example for the field. If we want grantees to work together and collaborate, we should be doing it, as well.”

Zamora also said that “aligning and maximizing resources long-term” is a shared goal of both the Just Trust and other significant funders like Just Impact Advisors. This type of coordination and “backbone building” for the movement as a whole “is a really important role for philanthropy in this space,” Zamora said. “And being independent gives us flexibility and independence to make an impact with the resources we have.”

This notion that nimbler, issue-focused funding organizations might be better-suited to the unique demands of criminal justice reform is one that’s been cropping up a lot lately. As Inside Philanthropy’s Philip Rojc relayed last year, part of CZI’s rationale behind creating a new justice reform entity was that an independent advocacy organization can work flexibly to create diverse coalitions and state-based strategies. “The implication,” Rojc wrote, “is that more centralized grantmaking of the sort CZI has favored may be less capable of achieving that.”

Zamora believes that with new investments in justice reform and renewed public interest in racial justice issues, now is a good time to strengthen the ecosystem of justice reform organizations in the U.S. “We have to work hard,” she said. “We have always had to work hard, and now is the time to double down on this effort.”