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Justice Reform Funders: Stop the Poverty Pimping

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If You’re Really Behind Grassroots Movements, Get Out of the Way

By: Lorenzo Jones via

Over the past 10–15 years, the political landscape in the U.S. has undergone monumental change with the rise of a broader, deeper movement to end mass incarceration. During this period, local, state-based movements have expanded through national developments including the rise of Black Lives Matter, the Women’s March in 2017, and the uprisings in response to George Floyd’s murder, and have persisted through the COVID-19 pandemic. Local groups are building momentum and winning reforms at the state level.

Philanthropy is a major player in the growing justice reform space, stepping up to provide resources, capacity, and support to new and established groups. More resources have flowed into the field, enlarging the philanthropic space itself, and many funders have struggled to keep up. There are more resources — and more funders allocating them — but not necessarily more understanding or responsible behavior among funders.

Under the guise of partnership or support, some people in philanthropy are undermining the efforts of groups on the ground working to build the movement and its momentum. Some of these funders may be well intentioned, but are stomping around in big, loud shoes, without recognizing that they’re stepping on people on the ground, especially Black and brown people and their groups. Other funders “get it” — they appreciate the leadership of Black and brown people, particularly Black and brown women — but have struggled to understand or otherwise respect what the new political reality means, including what the movement has produced and now needs.

This can be seen in states across the country, and New York is a telling example. The movement here has grown, winning huge victories during this period: from the rollback of the Rockefeller Drug Laws in 2009, to the launch of the #CLOSErikers campaign in 2016, to passage of Raise the Age in 2017 and bail reform in 2019, to last year’s victories on cannabis legalization, #HALTsolitary, and the #LessIsMoreNY parole reform act. Justice reformers closed the gaps between local fights in cities and counties and the state-wide fights in Albany, with Black and brown people increasingly shaping, leading, and winning both policy and political campaigns.

In the face of these movement-won victories, some funders — whether experienced, new, or in between — have taken to developing their own reform plans and strategies, and then allocating grants accordingly. These plans are decidedly not movement-oriented plans. Funders devising the justice reform strategies they expect their grantees to implement and provide cover for like to call it “collaboration” or “partnership.” The funding they provide comes with a caveat: community groups receiving these funds are obligated to implement the funders’ plans, not to carry out their own plans as part of the movement.

This dynamic is nothing more than the “poverty pimping” of directly impacted people, especially the Black and brown women who have been at the forefront of expanding the base of people in this fight. As billionaires and pop culture personalities have descended on the issue of justice reform, we have seen this problem exacerbated.

Some funders approach the work this way because they genuinely do not understand what is going on or why. But others have the hubris to believe that they are the only ones who understand what is going on, and that their plan is the right plan. Either way, these funders operate with the assumption that grassroots groups should be props to the “real” reform agenda, as outlined by the funders themselves.

Although this increased funding is being marketed as progressive, without accountability these practices inhibit the development of the powerful grassroots social movements needed to win systemic change. Grantees are not worker bees for people who give away other people’s money. It is hard enough to build credibility and political power without having funders skim the cream off the top of the pot for a strategy that ignores the groups doing the work. People trying to improve their community are often accused of being puppets for funders, and that’s rarely the case. But some funders seem to believe this is exactly what local groups should be: puppets.

Power comes in two forms: organized money and organized people. The history of social movements has shown that organized people can beat organized money — and that’s why organized money constantly works to disorganize people. What many funders and billionaires don’t seem to understand is that in their zeal for driving the justice reform agenda, they are undermining the work of the groups on the ground that are doing the laborious organizing work necessary to build people power. In most other areas of advocacy, including housing, health care, and immigration reform, these dynamics between funders and grantees are familiar and continue to be an issue. Justice reform is no exception, but it is one of the youngest movements for system change in the country, so its funders are not especially self-reflective about this problem.

The criteria for leadership in the justice reform movement has evolved to center those who are incarcerated or once were, their family members, trans and LGBQI people, Black and brown people, women and especially Black women, and young people. In New York as elsewhere, many groups that have launched or have undergone leadership changes in recent years are led by people who reflect one or more of those identities. When these groups apply for funding and are approved, they become grantees. When grantees are coerced into following funder-driven strategies instead of being accountable to their members, their demise is inevitable, because it is the classic deal that a community group “can’t say no” to. Given the number of projects funded and expanded during the past decade and especially in the last 5- 7 years, funders are exerting this pressure on the most vulnerable leaders in the field.

“Getting it” but not doing it won’t work. The movement’s victories are not mere opportunities for funders. We have seen and heard Black and brown women’s voices increase in number — in funding roles, director positions, statewide advocacy, political office, and service organizations. This is obviously a vital gain for the movement. But when funders — be they white or Black or brown — use the agency of historically excluded people to further their own political strategies, they are not being accountable to the people they claim to support. This reduces the movement’s political power and leverage in negotiating toward our demands.

It is unethical for funders to take advantage of political opportunities created by the grassroots if they aren’t accountable to the groups and campaigns that make the movement viable and powerful. The groups doing the work are led by people taking real, serious risks to advocate for their rights. It is wrong for funders in ivory towers to misuse their influence with vulnerable community groups and service providers. Philanthropists must be our partners in this work. If funders want to run campaigns or drive the movement agenda, they should leave philanthropy and build organizations that can manage relationships in the field with other groups doing the same work.

For more than a decade, the justice reform movement across the country has won major victories for systemic change, passing laws and changing narratives, freeing hundreds of thousands of people from cages, and building power in local communities. Groups on the ground know what next steps are needed in their states. But we need to be able to take those steps without being tripped up or derailed by the funders who use movement-building rhetoric as a camouflage for their own agendas. For funders seeking guidance about what’s needed now, it isn’t complicated: Fund groups on the ground, leverage support to build authentic people-powered movements, and exercise the basic humility and responsibility necessary to follow the lead of the grassroots.

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