The Philanthropy Workshop: bringing donors and activists round the same table

Alliance magazine

For a decade now, alumni of The Philanthropy Workshop (TPW) – an international donor education programme directed by the Institute for Philanthropy – have been running the Youth Justice Funders Collaborative, or YJFC. Based in Chicago, YJFC’s grants are aimed at improving the US juvenile justice system.

YJFC’s nine-strong steering committee comprises five philanthropists and four community activists – a range of perspectives that YJFC feels is necessary to tackle an area as complex as this. As Maggie Lear, a committee member and a TPW graduate, explains: ‘YJFC is a unique model where activists and donors have an equal voice at the table; there is plenty of opportunity for shared learning.’ But what of this dynamic of donor and activist, which is a potentially difficult one to negotiate?

‘In the beginning as well as over the years that we have worked together,’ says Lear, ‘we have been building trust with one another. We manage the relationship between funders and activists by not avoiding the difficult conversations and by recognizing, first and foremost, that we have shared values with regard to juvenile justice. That’s really the most important part of the equation. We have differences of opinion all the time, and not just between activist and donor, but between activist and activist, donor and donor. That is often when the conversation is the richest and why I love being a part of YJFC. Sometimes opinions change, sometimes we just agree to disagree, but we always dive in and talk it through.’

Maggie Lear became involved with YJFC because it addressed an issue that she saw as ‘vastly underfunded’: this collaborative, which primarily funds grassroots, youth-led and youth-centred organizations, gets behind campaigns for policy reform, as well as youth activism against abuses in the current system. The benefits of funding as part of a collaborative, as opposed to as an individual, are manifold. By pooling its members’ resources – both their money and their links with various bodies – YJFC is able to support the growth of organizations and create countrywide networks of activists.

But, says Lear, the difficulty is that ‘there are so many worthy organizations to fund and we get frustrated that YJFC cannot serve them all.’ In 2003, YJFC attracted an award of $734,000 over three years from the Ford Foundation, which continues to aid its work with communities in the South of the US, with a focus on New Orleans. To meet these ambitious aims, the collaborative must develop yet further, as Lear points out. ‘We are eager to bring new activists and donors into YJFC, and are always looking for other partners to join.’

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