Steve Pepple/shutterstock
Steve Pepple/shutterstock

A new fund that aims to help nonprofits make major changes in Michigan’s criminal justice system announced its first grants in June. The initial $2 million-plus in grants to 12 organizations is good news for activists and organizations working to curb the number of Michigan residents who are arrested and incarcerated, and support those who are.

Funding will go toward a mix of efforts across the state, addressing issues including better understanding how prosecutors’ decisions impact racial minorities; reducing racial disparities across one county’s juvenile and adult criminal legal systems; and providing services for incarcerated people who are pregnant. The funded programs also address a mix of geographic areas, from a single county to statewide reforms.

But just as interesting is the story around how and why the Michigan Justice Fund collaborative came together, and the wide-ranging, and in some cases, unlikely list of participants who are now engaging in regional criminal justice issues as a result. If the initiative’s organizers have their way, the impact of the work they’re doing today may well end up inspiring stories long after the fund itself is gone.

Bringing funders and providers together

The effort that would eventually become the Michigan Justice Fund began in 2018 when four organizations—the Michigan League for Public Policy, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, the Michigan Committee on Juvenile Justice, and the Detroit-based Hudson-Webber Foundation—hosted a convening at the historic Westin Book Cadillac Hotel in Detroit.

The participant list for that convening consisted of several funders and a who’s who of professionals and advocates from across the spectrum of the justice system. There were judges—including a Michigan Supreme Court justice—alongside justice advocates, and organizations providing services to justice-impacted people alongside representatives of the courts and the police systems that often make both advocates’ and service providers’ jobs more difficult. Two separate reports with overlapping goals resulted from that original event; one dedicated to the issues and challenges in Michigan’s adult system, and the other addressing the problems unique to the state’s juvenile justice system.

The group’s work didn’t end with those reports, however. On the funders’ side, said Hudson-Webber Foundation President and CEO Melanca Clark, “we saw that there was a shared interest, at least initially, to learn together. It’s very hard to put your arms around these issues by yourself as a funder,” particularly the funders that had been traditionally more concentrated on smaller geographic areas. “We knew that to have leverage, we had to have a statewide view, and we couldn’t do that by ourselves.”

Getting the band together

After holding the convening and issuing the two reports, it was time to get to work. The initial organizers did this by recruiting representatives from 26 organizations, all of which have deep experience with the problems in Michigan’s justice system and the challenges in the way of fixing those problems, and spending a year with them defining the new fund’s overall goals and specific objectives.

The organizations weren’t expected to lend their expertise and time for free. Instead, each participating group was awarded a $20,000 general operating grant.

Not only were the participating organizations enthusiastic about the project, they were also impressed by the way the funders behind it invited their involvement from the beginning.

“[The advocates said,] ‘Wow, it’s so great that philanthropy is starting with us! You never do this—it’s usually foundations decide something,” and then tell the nonprofits to do it, said Surabhi Pandit, director, human services initiatives with the Community Foundation of Southeastern Michigan (CFSEM).

CFSEM administers the Michigan Justice Fund and is a member of the fund’s steering committee. Today, representatives from 10 advocacy and “base building” organizations serve as partner advisors to the funding collaborative, which currently has 14 participating foundations including CFSEM, the Community Foundation of Greater Flint, and national funders including Ford, the Joyce Foundation, JP Morgan Chase, and the Kresge Foundation. So far, Clark said, more than $17 million has been contributed.

And while funder collaboratives are hardly new, Pandit said that the collaborative behind the Michigan Justice Fund is unique. Combining geographically based community foundations with other place-based, national and regional funders “is in itself a pretty big deal.”

Despite the usual expectations of these different kinds of funders, Pandit said, “everybody’s in, because we realize to move the needle in justice work, you have to think of this from a statewide, and in some cases, national perspective.”

The COVID pandemic brought an unexpected benefit. Pandit said that the switch to virtual meetings has allowed funders that aren’t based in Michigan to take a more active part than they may have when attending meetings meant making travel arrangements.

Limited shelf life, potential long-term impact

Notably, the people organizing the Michigan Justice Fund expect it to last only about six years. After that, Pandit said, the plan is “to see how it goes.”

“I don’t think that this fund was ever designed to be something that lasts for 100 years, but something that can really infuse resources in this short term and plant the right seeds so that there are long-term impacts through the work,” she said.

The bulk of those long-term impacts, Pandit hopes, will come from a change in how funders in related arenas (for example, poverty) approach criminal justice work. Instead of saying, “we don’t fund that,” through this work, Pandit hopes that funders will come to realize “the interconnectedness of all the issues that philanthropy should care about and does care about.”

Clark from Hudson-Webber is also optimistic about the potential long-term impacts of the work being done now by the fund.

“We also assume that when the fund ends, that one of the leave-behinds beyond what’s happening in the policy space is that we will have a cohort of Michigan funders that have spent these years being champions for these issues,” and will continue funding reform work as part of their own regular programming.

If current experience is any guide, chances for that happening look pretty good. According to Clark, the funders are already “finding opportunities and learning about grantees they may not have otherwise. And landing investments with them, even outside of the fund.”

CFSEM is one of those funders. Thanks to its involvement with the fund, Pandit told IP that her organization has made grants to organizations including the Michigan Center for Youth Justice and Neighborhood Defender Service, which represents indigent people facing felony charges.