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Rethinking an African Proverb

I recently came across an African proverb: “If you want to go fast, you go alone. If you want to go far, you go together.” For the last six months, FSG has been working with stakeholders from around New York State and around the juvenile justice system in a collective impact effort aimed at developing a shared vision, goals, and strategies for reform. Given that we’ve been so immersed in this effort, upon reading this proverb, my thoughts immediately went to (what else?!) juvenile justice reform.

As my colleague Rajni points out in her recent blog post, “New York.. is still struggling to shift from a more punitive approach to juvenile incarceration to less-expensive community-based programming for youth. The state has been requesting more Family Court judges for years, but caseloads remain high. Currently, the cost of juvenile incarceration in state-run facilities is as high as $240,000 per youth per year.” Indeed, despite promising efforts around the state, the time has clearly come for reform.

But how can we help catalyze this important transformative systemic reform? 

Last week's Huffington Post called attention to the New York Juvenile justice Initiative (NYJJI) formed last year with an aim toward “better directing philanthropic efforts (and dollars) towards reform of that system.” Support of this statewide, collaborative strategic planning process, in a unique public private partnership, with funding from private foundations, many of whom are members of NYJJI, and from a public agency, is certainly an innovative role for funders to take on.

As Penny Fujiko Willgerodt, executive director of the Prospect Hill Foundation (one of the project funders) explains, “All this stuff has been happening all over the place, and it became clear that [there was a need for] one coherent, strategic planning process to get everyone on same page. A way that this could be coordinated to achieve maximum impact.”

Indeed, funders in New York are playing a range of important roles in supporting coordinated reform of the juvenile justice systems. Beyond grantmaking to individual organizations, what role can funders play in such efforts?

  1. Visibility: As pointed out in the Huffington Post, “The donor community has been great.. People pay more attention to the issue [because of their involvement].”
  2. Expertise: Key thought leadership has been provided by funders who have spent years building expertise in juvenile justice reform and in systems reform on other topics. These funders often bring a deep understanding of the players and what has and hasn’t worked in the past, as well as perspectives from their national work or work in other geographies.
  3. Different Perspectives: Timothy Silard, president of the San Francisco-based Rosenberg Foundation, the largest California-based private funder of criminal justice policy reform advocacy, recently called on the philanthropy community to draw upon their “unmatched ability to bring together both likely and unlikely allies -- not just reform advocates, but also businesses and community leaders, law enforcement, policy makers, and others -- ensuring that we move beyond issue silos to find common ground, share resources and ideas, and focus collectively on the task at hand.” Ensuring that government agencies, private organizations and advocacy organizations alike have a seat at the table for reform is a critical step.
  4. Infrastructure Support: What FSG calls “collective impact” requires significant investment of time and resources. Funders can play an important role in supporting things like backbone organizations, the creation of shared measurement systems, or aligned strategic planning processes like this one.

So, I’d offer a slight reframing to this African proverb, thinking about the groundfloor learnings of juvenile justice reform in New York State: If you want to go fast, you go alone. If you want to go far, you go together. If you want to go farther, you go together, with funders as partners, not just checkbooks.

Where else have you seen funders playing an innovative role in supporting collective impact efforts? We'd love to learn from you.

Emily Malenfant

Former Chief Administrative Officer, FSG