How Philanthropy Can Create Public Systems Change

February 21, 2020

By Rebecca Silbert & Debbie Mukamal, Stanford Social Innovation Review

Recently, publications ranging from Rolling Stone to The Wall Street Journal have been promoting the value of college in prison. Most incarcerated men and women will eventually return home, and they are as capable and deserving of college opportunities as anyone else. Plus, the fact that a college education can reduce recidivism and is cost effective makes it politically attractive to both the Right and the Left. The critically acclaimed 2019 Ken Burns and Lynn Novick documentary, College Behind Bars, builds on the momentum with a compelling four-part series that follows a small group of incarcerated men and women as they earn their college degrees through the rigorous Bard Prison Initiative in New York State prisons.

It is notable, then, that in less than five years California has transformed its public higher education system to serve incarcerated and formerly incarcerated men and women statewide. In 2019, California’s community colleges were teaching in-person classes in 34 of the state’s 35 prisons, serving almost 6,000 students each semester. Five years ago, no community colleges were teaching face-to-face in the state’s prisons. Incarcerated students seeking something other than correspondence courses had to await transfer to the only prison with an in-person college option, San Quentin, where the private Prison University Project served a few hundred students. Now, thousands of students in prison are enrolled in the same courses that the local community college offers, with identical standards, learning outcomes, and degrees.

This represents astonishing growth in a short period of time. But these five years saw more than just an increase in prison programs. California engaged in a coordinated and intentional shift in public policy, which resulted in a new landscape for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated students. In this new landscape, California’s community colleges align their degree pathways so that incarcerated students who are moved from one prison to the next—an unfortunately common event—do not have to start from scratch in the new prison but can continue building toward a degree. For those who finish their associate’s degree, Cal State LA offers an in-person bachelor’s degree completion program at Lancaster prison, where the incarcerated students are fully matriculated as if they were on the college’s main campus.

The effort has focused not only on providing access to students in prison but also on ensuring degree completion and addressing the entire continuum through release and reentry. Students who are released prior to degree attainment can complete their degree at the community college closest to their home no matter where they were imprisoned, because the community college courses in prison are academically aligned and transferrable. Approximately 30 of the state’s community colleges also now offer support programs or clubs for formerly incarcerated students, up from about five in 2014. Alternatively, the students can continue on to a bachelor’s degree at a California State University (CSU) or University of California (UC) campus. Nine of the state’s 23 CSU campuses now have a Project Rebound support program for formerly incarcerated students, and another seven campuses are in the process of adopting the program. Six of the 10 UC campuses host the Underground Scholars Initiative for formerly incarcerated students on campus; two additional campuses plan to add the program. California State University of Los Angeles (Cal State LA) students who have been earning their BA in prison but are released before degree completion are automatically and seamlessly enrolled on the main Cal State LA campus, where peers support them in the Project Rebound program.

This enormous change in the state’s public higher education system was neither accidental nor ad hoc. Rather, it resulted from deliberate actions and policy changes made by a group of stakeholders working in partnership with each other. Behind many of those partnerships, actions, and changes was a unique initiative, funded by 13 foundations and groups, called Renewing Communities.

On the surface, Renewing Communities may not have appeared to be a wise or novel philanthropic investment. It was a classic example of funding an intermediary. It did not promise any direct services. It lacked a strong public presence and communications agenda and allocated significant staff time to following up on weedy, mundane implementation details, leaving little for funders to publicize. But these very peculiarities were what drove the initiative’s success by catalyzing sustainable change in the state’s criminal justice and higher education systems.

Creating Public Ownership

In 2013, the Ford Foundation, which had been funding college in prison programs in New York and a few other states, came to California to investigate how the state was offering higher education to students in prison. The program officer behind the inquiry, Douglas Wood, had supported the other states’ programs, which were almost entirely privately funded.

California’s offerings at the time were sparse: One prison had a face-to-face college program run through a private university, two prisons had small independent hybrid programs, and scattered correspondence courses were the only other option for incarcerated students. On campus, a handful of community colleges and one CSU (at San Francisco State University) hosted support programs for formerly incarcerated students, and UC Berkeley had a student club. All operated in isolation, built to serve the students who happened to be at that prison or on that campus at that particular time.

Recognizing an opportunity, the Ford Foundation supported the Stanford Criminal Justice Center at Stanford Law School and the Warren Institute at UC Berkeley’s School of Law in an 18-month strategic landscape analysis, which identified a dilemma: The state’s public higher education system had the capacity and mission to serve incarcerated and formerly incarcerated students statewide, but it was not reaching or serving these students. How could a single foundation spur the public system to change and, equally important, ensure that the change was durable so that the system would continue to serve the students once the grant ended?

The answer became Renewing Communities, a five-year, multi-funder initiative with a singular goal: to instigate and support change in California’s public colleges and universities so that they would serve incarcerated and formerly incarcerated students as part of their mission, then and after the end of the five-year period.

Realizing that one foundation could not solely fund the desired scope, Renewing Communities began conversations with numerous foundations and groups. Some were one-on-one and some were group pitches; some were formal and some were casual; some were targeted and some were broad. Subjects ranged from the benefits of college in prison to the challenges of systems change to the focus on scalability and sustainability. In the end, after a series of meetings with more than 20 potential funders over the course of a year, 13 chose to participate: Art for Justice Fund, Ballmer Group, Bank of America Charitable Foundation, California Endowment, The California Wellness Foundation, Roy and Patricia Disney Family Foundation, ECMC Foundation, Ford Foundation, Heising-Simons Foundation, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Rosenberg Foundation, and Weingart Foundation.

They were unlikely collaborators with different motivations. Some prioritized criminal justice reform, some focused on higher education, some supported employment and mobility, and some centered their investments on community renewal. Many were new to criminal justice, as only in the past few years had criminal justice reform bubbled to the top of philanthropic awareness. They sought different outcomes, from increased public safety to public systems change to individual opportunity and transformation. But they all agreed with the basic premise: Higher education is a proven way to increase social mobility, open career pathways, and reduce recidivism, and the state’s public higher education system could and should reach these unserved students. This common agreement united the funders in their support for the initiative.

It was not a wholly untested strategy, as high-quality prison-college programs at private universities—like the Bard Prison Initiative—are scattered throughout the country. But these programs are largely privately funded and, unlike the public system, cannot be scaled to sustainably serve the thousands of men and women whom mass incarceration affects.

It was not a small ask. In California, an estimated eight million people are struggling with a history of arrest or incarceration; the vast majority of them are people of color. The state has 35 prisons holding more than 120,000 people on any given day, 58 county jail systems holding about 75,000 people on any given day, and hundreds of thousands of people under probation and parole supervision. California also has the nation’s largest public higher education system, with more than two million students in 115 community colleges, almost 500,000 students on 23 CSU campuses, and more than 250,000 students on 10 UC campuses.

Individual programs offer enormous benefit to those who participate, but thinking systemically meant reconceiving the entire public higher education structure. It meant asking the state’s public colleges and universities to respond to a societal challenge that did not arise out of higher education; it meant asking them to fold thousands of new students into their fabric not as a separate or novel side project, but as a fundamental part of the schools’ mission to provide educational opportunities to all.

The 13 funders pooled their investments: $9.2 million over the five-year period, with contributions ranging from $200,000 to $2,000,000. Funding ran through a single nonprofit, the Opportunity Institute, which could manage the funds more nimbly than either Stanford or UC Berkeley, since it did not have, for example, a sponsored projects office or contracts and accounts payable departments with multiple layers of review, paperwork, and procedure. The Stanford Criminal Justice Center and staff from the Warren Institute at UC Berkeley, who had moved to the Opportunity Institute in 2015, codirected the initiative. In addition to the co-directors, the initiative was supported by two full-time staff members, adding one or two part-time staff, graduate students, or contractors with outside expertise at various points in time.

Renewing Communities ran from 2015 through 2019. Five years was sufficiently long to bear the fruits of the work but short enough to avoid losing track of the end goal: public systems ownership of the work. The explicit end date, made public to stakeholders and funders alike, ensured that the ultimate goal—that the work would be adopted by the public system and not be dependent on private foundations in the future—could not be overlooked.

Staying Student-Centered

A set of principles developed in the planning period guided the effort. Renewing Communities framed it as a higher education initiative, instead of as a new criminal justice strategy, because the goal was to change the public higher education system and to incorporate these new students into the existing higher education structure, rather than to create a criminal justice project. Beneficiaries were (and are) students who happened to have criminal records, rather than “offenders” in a new recidivism program. The team worked at the local level, meeting with college students, faculty, and staff, as well as at the statewide level, looping back with senior leadership in both the higher education and criminal justice systems. It invested time and resources in colleges, students, programs, and stakeholders throughout the state to ensure that a small group of true believers, who might move on or burn out, were not the only ones driving change. The team also intentionally involved students whom the criminal justice system had directly affected. To that end, it employed a formerly incarcerated college graduate to lead efforts to amplify student voices statewide, and policy and other positions incorporated the perspectives of students and graduates with lived experience in the criminal justice system.

Through continuous interaction with the field, the team determined how, where, and when to focus staff time and resources. The ultimate goal of public ownership remained steady, but the group chose and prioritized activities based on feedback about what was needed, what was hampering success, and where opportunities for change could be leveraged.

The team’s activities ranged widely and included providing technical assistance to colleges, prisons, and jails; educating regulators and legislators both privately and publicly about new policy language; working hands-on with college staff to resolve challenges; facilitating meetings between the colleges and local or regional criminal justice agencies; and building a statewide consortium and website. At any time, the team might be working with students statewide to create a training tool kit; meeting with the chancellor’s staff to explain the need for a specific regulatory change; cohosting an event; responding to questions from the field; negotiating a disagreement between a college and prison over issues as minute as shared use of the classroom stapler; weighing in on changes to internal higher education or criminal justice policies and practices; or convening the colleges to identify challenges, share solutions, and build a community of practice.

About two-thirds of the funding was passed through in sub-grants to colleges or universities working to serve these new students. The remainder was used for staff support, travel, and outside contracts for evaluation and other expertise along the way. The sub-grants were made in 2016 after a rigorous applications process, with awards based on evaluations from a team of 28 independent readers, including experts in higher education, experts in criminal justice, and formerly incarcerated college graduates. Seven sub-grants were awarded, covering 14 different college and university campuses, and all received three years of support, with the expectation that they would work to become self-sustaining after the three years. Priority was given to colleges and universities that focused on expanding the number of students reached and the ways in which students were supported to credential. Rather than concentrating solely on college in prison, which serves the universities but not the needs of all students, the sub-grants were distributed intentionally among colleges serving students in prison, colleges serving students in jail, and colleges supporting formerly incarcerated students on campus. As with the Renewing Communities model itself, colleges and universities receiving the sub-grants were asked to focus on the end goal of serving students, and to not be bound by a specific plan or process. They were encouraged to take risks and court failure, with full flexibility to use the funding for anything they believed would serve students and no requirement to conform to a particular spending plan.  

In awarding the sub-grants, the team was following the well-trodden path of funding pilot or demonstration sites for “proof of concept.” And, indeed, the idea behind funding pilot sites worked, as in the end the sites fostered programs that have continued to serve students with little to no private financial support. CSU’s Project Rebound, for example, used the sub-grant to replicate the program throughout the CSU system and to obtain an ongoing allocation in California’s state budget.

Within the first year, however, colleges and universities throughout the state were clearly beginning to serve these new students whether or not they had received one of the sub-grants. Concentrating Renewing Communities staff time on the pilot sites did not meet the end goal of statewide public systems change, because new programs were developing and the entire public higher education system was reaching new students. The team quickly pivoted to target Renewing Communities activities for the benefit of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated students statewide, regardless of the student’s college, university, prison, or jail. Incarcerated students can be moved from prison to prison, across the state. They come home to communities far and wide and should have access to higher education opportunities no matter where they are. Thinking of California’s incarcerated and formerly incarcerated students as one large statewide student body, rather than as certain students studying in certain colleges, was the best way to ensure that the team’s activities aligned with the end goal of statewide public systems change.   

Notably, a number of colleges that did not receive a sub-grant have told the Renewing Communities team that the availability of the grant—both the publicity and the process of applying—was what catapulted the work on their campus. The momentum from the grant awards, and the ensuing hands-on support from the Renewing Communities team, enabled them to build new programs despite the fact that they had not received the funding.

Sustainability Through Flexibility

The co-directors maintained an awareness of the initiative’s end date and the need to ensure that students would continue to be served once the initiative ceased. In its first year, for example, the initiative launched the Corrections to College California website. Renewing Communities designed it specifically to be independent of any particular nonprofit, college, or university, so that an entity within the public system could adopt the site once Renewing Communities ended. (The group met its goal, as the Foundation for California Community Colleges will absorb the website this year.)

Since the goal was public ownership, Renewing Communities undertook most activities with the aim of putting the initiative out of business. For example, in year one, the team participated in many of the community college professional development conferences in California, advocating for the colleges to serve incarcerated and formerly incarcerated students, and sharing best practices and lessons learned. The next year, the team wrote and submitted proposals for joint presentations with colleges doing the work, and covered all costs to enable representatives of those colleges to travel to and present at the conferences with the Renewing Communities team. A year later, the team helped colleges submit their own proposals and offered to cover costs if the colleges would or could not. By the end, the colleges were submitting their own conference proposals, highlighting their own work with incarcerated and formerly incarcerated students, and covering their own costs. The public system had adopted the goal—that is, sharing best practices and innovations for reaching incarcerated and formerly incarcerated students.

Another significant component of the initiative’s philosophy was a commitment to pivot as it identified needs. For example, about two years into the initiative, the team learned that many community colleges were declining to hire formerly incarcerated students and graduates, not because they weren’t qualified, but because of their criminal records. College hiring pathways are inextricably intertwined with student access and success. For students, income from work study and other campus jobs can alleviate the food and housing insecurity that so many college students face, and a job provides much-needed work experience to build a professional résumé.

For a campus as a whole, hiring students and graduates with personal criminal justice experience helps the campus better respond to the needs of its students and reflects a commitment to diversity, as does hiring women and people of color. Renewing Communities’ goal was to change the public colleges so that they welcomed and supported men and women who had been involved in the justice system. Ensuring that the community colleges opened student, faculty, and staff positions to qualified applicants with records contributed to that goal.  

The team approached the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office and offered to write a first draft of new employment policies for the community college system. The office could edit or adopt any policy it chose, but the Renewing Communities team, in partnership with the National Employment Law Project, would save the Chancellor’s Office the step of researching relevant state and federal law, identifying promising practices, and writing the first draft. The Chancellor’s Office agreed, and in December 2018 and February 2019, the chancellor issued a legal opinion and policy guidance that opened hiring pathways, emphasized that fair-chance hiring is a matter of equity and is core to the mission of the state’s community colleges, and established California’s community colleges as a national leader.

Similarly, in 2018, the team learned that college faculty teaching in prison were suffering from unusually high turnover and were complaining of compassion fatigue and burnout. The turnover threatened the sustainability of the college programs, as the cost of finding and training new faculty each semester quickly becomes prohibitive. In 2019, the team partnered with the McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research at New York University to help faculty build a trauma-informed and resiliency-based community of practice. Fifteen colleges applied and were selected to meet regionally and one-on-one with the McSilver experts throughout 2019. Each college team spent the better part of the year identifying and implementing practices that support incarcerated students and the faculty working in the correctional facilities. They institutionalized strategies to monitor faculty wellness, enabling them to respond before faculty reach the breaking point. Almost all have incorporated new practices that they will continue on their own into the future.

Equally important to the Renewing Communities mission was an intentional focus on details and implementation. Identifying a policy gap is easy, but systems change is real only if the men and women on the ground experience a change for the better. For example, the team knew from the beginning that textbook costs were going to be a challenge for colleges serving students in prison. Textbooks are expensive, and incarcerated students have little or no income and no access to financial aid that might cover that cost.

The simple solution was to have the students use Open Educational Resources (OER), a policy that both the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) and the colleges agreed on. Renewing Communities could have declared a policy victory when CDCR said it had e-readers for incarcerated students. The team, however, went back a few months later to ask the students and the colleges if the e-readers were working. They were not. To comply with security concerns, CDCR had modified the e-readers to such a degree that they could not load course material and took up to two minutes to turn a page. In addition, CDCR had allocated them throughout the state but not necessarily to the particular prisons or yards that housed the face-to-face college students.

CDCR committed to upgrading the e-readers, but the team learned that a corrections vendor, not an education vendor, supported the devices and that they were not compatible with major OER platforms. Consequently, although the original goal had been to use the e-readers for free open-source texts, CDCR was paying full book-rental price each semester in order to use the e-readers. Moreover, the e-reader vendor was unable to provide a list of downloadable textbooks, and the process of trying to find appropriate texts took so much time that e-books could not be obtained before the beginning of the semester.

The colleges gave up on the e-readers and tried to print out their own OER materials. But copying thousands of pages was outside the job description for classified college staff and required too much toner. And even when the copies were made, the prisons weren’t permitting the students to have the types of binding that the college had available. In one prison, where the only permissible option was curly ribbon, a college team had to spend an entire weekend making copies, going to the dollar store to buy curly ribbon, and threading the ribbon through thousands of pages. It was not a sustainable practice.

Eventually, a tentative solution was reached when a public funding stream was identified that allowed colleges to be reimbursed for copies or to purchase textbooks, and, at the same time, CDCR made both vendor and equipment changes. The entire process, however, required a significant investment of Renewing Communities staff time over three years, including numerous phone calls, meetings, and visits to the field. The challenge of providing textbooks to incarcerated students had been new and potentially debilitating, given the high cost. Declaring a policy victory when the e-readers were made available would have been easier, as the solution was apparent and all parties were committed to it. But implementation was not smooth, and neither the colleges nor CDCR had enough staff to invest in the necessary follow-up and problem solving.

The original Renewing Communities proposals did not identify any of these activities—the hiring guidance, the trauma work, or the time spent on textbook details. All, however, were essential to the long-term sustainability of the public programs serving these students.

Rejecting Five Common Practices

Renewing Communities’ success drew in part on rejecting many common practices that traditionally shape the relationship between funders and grantees.

Activities | Because the initiative was goal-focused, not activities-driven, its proposals described what it hoped to achieve, rather than what it would do. Although some proposals required specific deliverables or activities, Renewing Communities quickly abandoned those deliverables or activities if it determined that they would not have the desired effect, that they were not necessary, or that someone else was doing them. It undertook new activities as it identified needs or opportunities, whether or not they had anything to do with the activities that the proposal set forth.

Independence | Renewing Communities intentionally did not affiliate with any particular college, university, or program; it did not rely on replication of a proven model. In California, the state’s prisons, jails, colleges, and universities are diverse: They are rural, urban, and suburban; conservative, progressive, and moderate; poor and rich; and everything in between.

The Renewing Communities team worked toward a goal—that is, having the colleges and universities serve these new students with quality—but the team was not prescriptive. It was available to help solve problems, support the work, and respond if a college was struggling. But the particular makeup of a college’s program—such as its staffing structure, its relationship to its faculty union, and its curricular choices—had to reflect its own particular ecosystem.

Reporting | With 13 funders—each on a different grant reporting schedule, each with different questions, and some requiring multiple reports each year—Renewing Communities would have found that complying with all the reporting requirements took too much staff time. Instead, the team hosted an annual in-person meeting with funders. Throughout the year, the team kept track of large and small acts that demonstrated public ownership of the goals and movement toward systems change. Once a year, the team conversed with the funders frankly about what the initiative was doing, how the landscape was changing, what Renewing Communities had tried that was or wasn’t working, and what were to be upcoming priorities.

Although preparing for these annual in-person meetings took longer than writing a standard grant report would have, and although many of the program officers were not accustomed to spending a day in conversation with cofunders and a grantee, the practice resulted in more successful philanthropy because it rooted funders in the details, kept them engaged in their shared philanthropic agenda, and offered the team interdisciplinary perspectives on the work. Renewing Communities then used the materials for the annual meeting to complete grant reports throughout the year.

Spending | Renewing Communities calibrated spending to the budget it submitted with a proposal only when the funder required it. The Ballmer Group, for one, allowed for fully flexible spending, and a few others permitted changes in spending without prior notice. Had all 13 funders required adherence to the original budgets submitted with the proposals or contemporaneous budget modifications, the time required to manage the budgets on all 13 grants would have substantially interfered with the team’s ability to get anything else done. The initiative would also have been fundamentally impossible without the Ballmer Group’s adaptability, which allowed for pivoting and for constant recalibration of staff time, resources, and spending priorities.

Success | Renewing Communities always defined success not by how many students it served, but rather by the sustainable changes that the public system (colleges, universities, prisons, and jails) made. It counted growth in the number of programs and growth in the number of students because some of the funders required it, but for the directors of the initiative, the more important question was whether the changes that occurred between 2015 and 2019 would continue into 2020 and beyond, after the initiative ended.

By that measure, the initiative has been successful. Opportunities and support programs for these students both inside and outside custody have grown statewide and do not depend on grant funding. The chancellor for the California Community Colleges included an ongoing $10 million request for colleges serving incarcerated and formerly incarcerated students in his 2020-21 budget request (although, as of January 2020, California Governor Gavin Newsom did not include this request in the state’s proposed budget). The number of community colleges that explicitly mention incarcerated or formerly incarcerated students in their state-mandated Student Equity Plans increased from 7 in 2017 to 33 in 2019, meaning that those colleges have publicly committed to using their budgets to support these students. The Project Rebound support program in the CSU system received an ongoing $3.3 million state budget allocation in 2018, which allowed the program to expand to almost all campuses. CDCR has assigned a postsecondary coordinator at every prison, ensuring that the colleges have a CDCR-funded point of contact who can coordinate classroom space and student assignments. And Governor Newsom’s January 2020 proposed budget includes funds to expand Cal State LA’s bachelor’s degree program to more prisons in the state. From the local level to the state capitol, colleges and prisons are using their resources to staff and support the work.

Although everyone agrees that these positive changes have occurred, the initiative did not operate in a vacuum. Among other things, it benefited from a strong economy, a welcoming political climate, and a 2014 legislative change that allowed community colleges to budget and account for students enrolled face-to-face in prison just as if they were on campus, as well as the fact that when the initiative started, community colleges were funded on an apportionment basis, so additional students translated into some additional funds. And the California College Promise Grant, which has always been available for all low-income students, even those who are incarcerated, covered community college tuition.

But these foundational elements would not on their own have led to the coordinated, sustainable systems change that took place. Virtually all of the public actors had limited capacity; they focused primarily on the students within their reach, one college or one prison at a time. The Renewing Communities team, in contrast, endeavored to address and achieve what the entire student body needed statewide, both in custody and after release. The statewide focus did not always directly align with what was best for a particular college or prison, but it intended to create the best landscape for the most students, then and into the future.

Moreover, change is tedious. It takes time and work, and most staff working within public systems lack the bandwidth to tackle it. The Renewing Communities team was a trusted advisor, present to lend expertise, put in the necessary time, and ensure that the work was done. The team was available to accomplish what the public stakeholders lacked the capacity to do, whether that was drafting a new policy, identifying a shared hurdle and presenting the solution to the decision maker who could make the necessary change, or following up on promises made. The team bridged the gap between good intentions and changed actions, leading a member of CDCR leadership to comment, “You are the glue that holds us together.”

Lessons for Philanthropy

California has been able to provide college opportunities to thousands of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated students only because the public higher education system changed. That public system was designed to serve all who could benefit from it. The fact that the colleges weren’t fulfilling their missions did not mean that philanthropy needed to build something new. Instead, it meant investing in bringing about public systems change—not just in advocating for change, but in forging change. Scaling a response to meet the need meant investing in the public system, albeit indirectly, rather than investing in alternatives to government.

Thinking of existing government agencies as partners who present opportunity, rather than as entities for friction, may be foreign to some advocacy groups and foundation staff. The criticism heaped on government for its failures is well earned. But those same government systems are here for the long haul. They will outlast grant-funded advocacy organizations; they will still be here after advocacy organizations lose their champions and philanthropy moves on to different priorities.

Indeed, over the course of the Renewing Communities initiative, more than half of the funders changed program officers, giving strategies, or both. Had the initiative asked these same 13 funders to support the initiative in 2019, rather than in 2015, at least half might have declined (and, conversely, many that expressed no interest in 2015 would likely have been interested in 2019). California’s public colleges and universities served students prior to 2015 and will remain a consistent presence after 2019. They predate philanthropy’s interest in the issue, and they will still be serving students after philanthropy moves on.

Moreover, government agencies have the scope, reach, and longevity to change the daily lives of millions. The end user—that is, the individual who most needs opportunity and support—is almost always going to interact with the public system before a privately funded alternative. For those living in poverty or facing the social challenges that philanthropy seeks to solve, interaction with government agencies is unavoidable. Instead of giving up and acting outside the public system, philanthropy can catalyze government to fulfill its mandates more effectively.

This is a simple argument to make: One of the important roles philanthropy can play is to complement public systems by steering change when those systems are not fully actualizing their missions. The harder question is how. Philanthropy has long supported changemakers, invested in organizing and advocacy, and funded research reports and convenings that call out government’s failures and demand better. These are valuable investments, but they do not necessarily change people’s lives on the ground. Most of the time, sustainable public systems change takes more than a new law or policy. It requires more than a public statement, new public principles, or a press release.

Rather, ensuring sustainable public systems change requires the investment of time. It means following up months or even years after the new policy or press release to monitor implementation on the ground. It means following through at the most mundane and bureaucratic levels, because that is where things go wrong. It means asking about the smallest details, and it means going into the field to talk to the end user time and again. It requires empathizing with, rather than attacking, those working in public agencies, because they can be the best source of information about how and why real change is so difficult.

For Renewing Communities, change came about by interacting constantly with students, staff, colleges, universities, jails, and prisons to determine what was working and what wasn’t. This required following up on details; allocating time to build partnerships with government actors; being willing to pitch in and do their work for them while letting them take the credit; and being ever present as advocate, watchdog, and cheerleader for government staff at all levels to make sure that changes were happening not just in word, but in deed.

Counterproductive Practices

Forging sustainable public systems change means rethinking not only how philanthropy invests but also how grantees qualify for and report on those investments.

Asking grant-funded organizations to report on what they did—how many documents they published, how many events they hosted, how many people attended their events, and how many hits and likes their social media garnered—may provide little, if any, information about the impact of those activities. Government agencies and actors may change without those events, or, more often, those events may take place without any resulting change. Indeed, most grantees can easily regurgitate a list of their own activities to appease a funder. Receiving such a list does not mean that those activities led to the desired result. Proposals that ask potential grantees to identify their intended activities and actions, rather than their end goals and implementation plans for change, can similarly be counterproductive.

Furthermore, some activities that foundations often laud as indicators of success—such as when a grantee is published or gets its name on the marquee or in print—can inadvertently obstruct public systems change. This can happen by distracting attention from the issue, creating a public battle between the grantee and government over who can claim ownership of the change, or by backing government actors or agencies into a corner. Activities that foster effective and long-lasting implementation of new policies are often not sexy or flashy; indeed, sometimes they aren’t even public. They require deep dives, not broad strokes.

Hoping for long-term systems change but providing annual, rather than multiyear, grants, and asking for reporting and proof-of-success metrics on a quarterly or even annual basis, can similarly disincentivize the work. Change takes time, and ensuring sustainability takes time. In Renewing Communities’ case, the Ford Foundation funded 18 months of planning and research prior to launching the initiative, and the initiative lasted five years. Grant reports filed before the end of the initiative, even those that were final reports, indicated that the work was not done.

Finally, philanthropy can stymie change by requiring that the grantee’s activities be directly tied to a causal result at scale, when a visible causal chain may not exist between advocacy and true systems change. If systems change is the goal, funders must become comfortable with a level of ambiguity and lack of accountability, as determining whether a particular government agency’s change is a direct result of what an outside organization did is often impossible. More often, change arises as a result of many different partners, pressures, and priorities aligning.

Fully investing in sustainable public system change requires investing in the grantee staff time required to identify and fix the small and mundane details that hobble progress in the real world. It rarely looks attractive on a grant proposal or progress report, and it means valuing both what activities grantee organizations perform and what changes as a result. It means being comfortable with ambiguity about causality and results, and it means striving to invest in outcomes that often can’t be quantified or written into a grant proposal or reported as a metric. As appealing as those metrics are, therefore, philanthropic organizations may be more effective when they invest their program officers’ time in getting to know grantees and their work in the field, rather than in proposals and reports. Fundamentally, investing in public systems change may require rethinking the purpose and content of grants and reporting systems.


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