Foundations Can Support Justice Reform, If You Know How to Ask: A Conversation with James Lewis


Foundations Can Support Justice Reform, If You Know How to Ask: A Conversation with James Lewis

Foundations Can Support Justice Reform, If You Know How to Ask: A Conversation with James Lewis

Private foundations are an overlooked resource for innovative justice programs.  James H. Lewis, senior program officer and director of research and evaluation at the Chicago Community Trust, offers insight into how foundations make funding decisions and shares tips for attracting foundation investments in justice programs. The interview was conducted by the Center for Court Innovation's Director of Communications Robert V. Wolf at Community Justice 2016, where Lewis participated in a panel on "Funding Change."

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JAMES H. LEWIS: Individual foundations generally can be more flexible and creative in what they're doing than government can because you don't have, the accountability is to a much smaller group of people in a foundation who can make their own decisions, because it is private money and not taxpayer money.

ROB WOLF: Hi. I'm Rob Wolf, Director of Communications at the Center for Court Innovation and I am at Community Justice 2016 in Chicago, Illinois where over 400 people have gathered to talk about justice reform and are sharing strategies for how they can improve the justice system.

Right now I'm sitting down with someone who participated in a break-out session that focused particularly on funding. James H. Lewis is the Senior Program Officer and Director of Research and Evaluation at the Chicago Community Trust. And, James, I thought maybe you could just briefly explain to listeners what the Chicago Community Trust is.

LEWIS: The Chicago Community Trust is the Chicago region's community foundation and community foundations are an aggregation of different gifts from families and individuals that are made for the benefit of a specific place. And we take those together, we manage those funds, and then make grants from them just as any foundation would.

It's distinctive because the corpus of our money does come from a lot of different families rather than from a single family, like the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Gates Foundation where it's a single family that gave. We are about 800 of those combined.

But we make grants like anyone else. They do need to be for projects that are predominantly to the benefit of residents of Cook County here in Illinois.

WOLF: You do in fact have a geographic focus, Cook County which is where Chicago is located and surrounding suburbs?

LEWIS: Yeah, yeah. Most community foundations are chartered that way, but a lot of family ones are too. Chicago has a lot of just what you would think of as conventional foundations that have in their mission that they serve residents of Chicago or residents of a particular suburb or wherever that family had value.

WOLF: We're here at Community Justice 2016 so the word community, I don't think is a superficial nexus here, community justice programs often have a geographic focus as well. So I wonder, as programs that are activated by notions of community justice and they are focusing on particular neighborhoods, does it make sense for them to look and see if there is a community trust or a community foundation that might be servicing the same neighborhood? Is there a natural synchronicity there and might that be a potentially successful route for them to find funding?

LEWIS: I think they should certainly look to see that. Community foundations in different communities really vary by how much discretionary giving they have. We're fortunate to have an awful lot of unrestricted money that we can use for projects of our own choosing. Many community foundations are much more donor driven, and so the donors have left instructions with the foundation on how to spend it and in those cases there is less room for creativity in what you're going to do. So while I think it's great for anybody with a project to look to their local community foundation, I certainly wouldn't limit myself to that. I would also investigate other foundations of any sort that had in their mission to serve that neighborhood, community, city, region as a priority.

WOLF: Basically, you're a foundation like any foundation then. That's kind of what you were saying.

LEWIS: Yeah, from the grantee's point of view, from the applicant's point of view we look like any other. We have guidelines, we have applications, we make grant decisions periodically through the year. So from the outside we look like any other foundation.

WOLF: And so do you have any advice or suggestions for community justice initiatives, many of them are government or court or maybe police or prosecutor lead programs. They might not necessarily be eligible to obtain grant money, but they may have partners, non-profit partners that are, and they may be less familiar with reaching out to a private foundation than they are perhaps reaching out to the government or the Department of Justice to apply for grants. So do you have any advice for them about approaching a foundation versus perhaps a government agency to obtain or apply for money?

LEWIS: Yeah. I think the main difference is that individual foundations generally can be more flexible and creative with what they're doing than government can because you don't have, the accountability is to a much smaller group of people in a foundation who can make their own decisions because it is private money and not taxpayer money. And so those individual foundations aren't bound by the same kinds of laws and rules and appropriations and budgets that governments are. The decisions within the foundation on which projects to make grants on aren't bound by generally a blind reading of the applications or a jury decision, those kinds of things that are typical of the way government RFPs are usually done.

It's much more about whether in the view of a program officer or an executive director of that foundation whether something that's proposed makes sense to them, is something that they think is going to be impactful, something they think that their board of directors of their foundation will be proud to have their money on. So I think it's a place to take, my advice is to take your creative ideas, take the things that you don't think the government will fund, take the things that might be a little risky, those kinds of things are the things the foundations do best.

WOLF: And it sounds like there's more of a human touch there you're saying, rather than there being a blind review process. You're more directly engaged. Would you perhaps visit a place before you give them a grant rather than just taking a paper application and making a decision based on a blind or anonymous information?

LEWIS: Yeah. I think that's a really important factor for anyone trying to understand foundations, in fact, is that very much so. And in most instances for somebody you're funding you will in fact meet with them, and in most instances with most foundations there's an opportunity to negotiate what you want to do with that program officer. And it's not like the typical government RFP where you send in the thing and it's adjudicated and you get one bite at that apple.

With the foundation, if you send in a proposal and the foundation program officer finds it interesting, maybe it's not exactly what they were looking for but it's interesting, they'll call you up, you can have a phone conversation. You might have a meeting. You might go back and forth. You might actually negotiate what's done. They'll say we like this part but we don't like that. Maybe you could find another funder for component of this that we don't really do or aren't interested in.

I've done this many times. This is really interesting concept. I know there's two other people who are interested in this too. If you would just bring all three of them to the table I think we could do something. If you could include this neighborhood, if you could include that school, so there's a lot more room to negotiate something with a foundation. That's why again it's good forum for raising money in a creative way, because you really can evolve it and work toward what you're trying to do.

WOLF: And it sounds like because there's a community focus in it, and in a community foundation in particular and also in a community justice program there's also perhaps shared knowledge about, because they're both knowledgeable about the community, it sounds like that could be a very productive process where there's a meeting of the minds where the foundation is bringing their knowledge and concerns about the community priorities and needs and the community justice program which is looking at it through a justice lens, also is bringing knowledge and it sounds like there could be a catalyst there.

LEWIS: Yeah, I think that's very true. The working in a foundation is not a profession where you typically, where you go to school in it, you get a first job in it and then ... most people who are program officers and particularly the senior program officers are people who have long histories of their career working in that community in the fields in which they are funding.

I myself was a professor at a local university. It was a commuter type university. It was very integrated into the community before coming. Before that, I was with the Urban League here for ten years, so I came from a position of being very grounded in the types of issues that the trust is interested in. And I think that's true of most of my colleagues across different foundations. That they had professional careers in that field before they became funders in it. And so they're very grounded in what the issues are and who the players are and what the specific neighborhood and community needs are.

WOLF: And is criminal justice commonly an area of focus?  I know your trust, you described here, is interested in certain criminal justice related goals like reducing recidivism and disparities, racial disparities in the justice system. Are you seeing a trend there? There's a lot in the news about the criminal justice system.

LEWIS: I would say so. The problem of urban violence, I guess it's been with us for a long time, but I think really caught the attention of a lot of people more in the 1990s, and then the cost of incarceration across the country has become a driving force, right? I think a lot more bipartisan, I don't want to overstate it, but there is more bipartisan interest now in getting people out of jail and prisons than there would have been 10, 20 and especially, you know 30 years ago. So I think there is a lot more interest on the part of foundations, and they do it in different ways.

In the Midwest, the Joyce Foundation has a specific gun violence initiative that they do. MacArthur has been interested in various areas of restorative justice. The Woods Fund here in Chicago, restorative justice. We've been engaged in it, in violence reduction and equity issues. So different foundations have their own twist on it, but I would say in general there has been increased interest. I think it's a fairly fertile field right now.

WOLF: So if you were to give justice practitioners interested in finding out about trusts that are community focused or just any kind of foundation and applying and succeeding with their application, are there some bullet points you could share about what they should keep in mind?

LEWIS: Yeah. Well, I think it does. Because there is so much variation across foundations, there isn't any single way to know what one wants or how they're taking applications. There really isn't any substitute for getting in the internet and checking out what they're individual initiatives and programs are, and what the application process is. And people can send things in that way.

I would also really, really strongly support though taking the additional step of trying to seek out people like me in forums like this conference or in various kinds of neighborhood settings. A lot of us are going to those kinds of meetings, and we're on different commissions and task forces and committees of local government or community development, all of those kinds of things. Find those program officers and talk to them about what you're doing and equally important to find out what they are interested in. Because it's partly about what you want as someone creating a program but it's also about that program officer needs to take back to their board. And so you want to just enter into that conversation with them the best way you can.

WOLF: So I suppose it also helps to have an elevator pitch, a short, concise description of what they're doing, but one that sounds like you're saying is customized to the particular foundation or program officer that they're speaking to.

LEWIS: Yeah. It's certainly helpful to be clear in that way. On the other hand, I will give the other hand. That if you're at some conference, you find yourself sitting there at lunch, you find yourself sitting next to a program officer from a foundation that you think might be able to help you, that program officer does not like to be pitched there at that table with seven people sitting around where it's just not a good place.

That's the place to just get to know the person, like you would to be able to start the relationship building. Don't pitch your idea unless it comes up in the conversation naturally. But just treat it as a relationship building opportunity, not as a sales opportunity because partly it's hard for the foundation person to negotiate something like that in front of others, and partly because they may not be able to tell you exactly what they're thinking about it when there are others around and when honesty is important in that negotiation. And, they want to eat lunch.

WOLF: You mean they're human beings.

LEWIS: Yes. So it's a good setting to make friends, but not necessarily the moment to make the actual pitch.

WOLF: All right. Excellent advice. Thank you so much. I have been speaking with James Lewis, Senior Program Officer and the Director of Research and Evaluation at the Chicago Community Trust. He has been a panelist here at Community Justice 2016.

You can find out more about what has gone on here at the conference and listen to other interviews of other participants and attendees on our website, I am Rob Wolf, Director of Communications at the Center for Court Innovation. Thanks very much for listening.


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