March 17, 2022

Funding Gap in Criminal Justice Reform Movement Underscores the Urgency for Philanthropy to Step Up, Protect Past Victories and Pursue Increased Equity and Justice

New Bridgespan research on movement building and transforming the criminal legal system offers guidance to funders on how to invest resources to effect transformative change.

BOSTON, MA—March 17, 2022—Philanthropy has the opportunity to resolve the chronic underfunding of many of the organizations operating across the criminal justice reform ecosystem, according to a new report by The Bridgespan Group. Aimed at funders interested in criminal justice reform, the study asserts that movement building is central to the effort because it strives to transform an entire system—the criminal legal system—and the exponential harm that it causes far beyond the 2 million individuals who are currently incarcerated.

According to  one of the study’s co-authors, Allana Jackson, a partner and head of The Bridgespan Group’s Boston office, “We write in this report about those who are ’justice impacted’ —referring to people who have been formerly incarcerated or otherwise negatively impacted by the criminal legal system.  Studies estimate that more than 600,000 are released from prison annually and more than 77 million Americans have some sort of criminal record. Each of their experiences affects their families and communities.”

Although Jackson acknowledges that there was an increase in interest expressed in funding racial equity  issues in the past couple of years, she says that there has been a gap between what was promised and what has been given, and that even some of those who did give to racial equity, shied away from investing in the core issues of criminal justice reform. According to Bridgespan’s analysis of Candid data, in 2019, (the most recent year that data is available), funding to criminal justice reform accounted for just $343 million compared to the $2.3 billion bail bonds industry, which it points out is just one slice of the system that has a strong interest in maintaining the status quo.

Compounding the lack of financial resources to make progress, Bridgespan’s study emphasizes that just defending already hard-earned gains of the past requires a huge effort. “Movements involve challenging power structures and power structures will inevitably push back. Without defending past victories, the risk is that criminal justice reform ends up worse off than where it started,” said Alexandra Williams, co-author and a Bridgespan case team leader.

Another challenge: many leaders working in this space were formerly incarcerated themselves and are people of color. “We found that the struggles faced by these leaders were similar to the stories we heard in previous research from leaders of color at large, but amplified because justice-impacted CEOs are often unable to get past the initial hurdle of making connections to the philanthropic community,” said Jackson.

Williams also noted, “We recognize that we are far from the first to raise these issues. Much of our work builds from others’ efforts, especially those led by people of color, to emphasize the importance of movements and what it takes to support them.”

Informed by interviews with more than 40 movement leaders, funders, and others across the criminal justice reform ecosystem, as well as a review of literature to understand how social movements can achieve equitable change, Bridgespan’s authors cite three critical areas of the ecosystem that are most deeply under-resourced: leadership development, organizing, and direct advocacy. Further, it shows that the gaps in funding are especially potent across the South and the Midwest—the regions where philanthropy resources are already lower and the criminal justice system challenges are more daunting.

“Movement leaders and funders we spoke with who have successfully moved toward funding movement actors suggest mindset and tactical shifts funders can make to overcome common barriers to supporting this ecosystem,” said Jackson. The study highlights them:
  •  Embrace the uncomfortable: Issues related to the criminal legal system can be particularly polarized and dynamic—but avoiding things that are uncomfortable impedes progress. Instead of fearing funding that feels political, focus on alignment of values and explore support for advocacy and 501c4 organizations.
  • Rethink progress and possibilities: Funders need to recognize that transformative change takes time, often decades. It may require giving grantees more flexibility, including: emphasizing progress over wins; connecting small goals to organization's strategy and vision; asking grantees to measure their progress and; giving grantees the freedom to fail without risk of losing funding.
  • Promote the ecosystem: No one expects a single funder to support an entire ecosystem but if they take a holistic view of connectivity within the system that can ensure that its entirety is well resourced, something that does not happen much now. They can do this by: resourcing national and local organizations; building understanding of systemic racism, the prison industrial complex, and needs of the movement ecosystem; and collaborating with other funders.
“Philanthropy can play a catalytic role in the transition from our current state of inequity to a more equitable and just world,” said Williams. “Our conversations with movement leaders and funders suggest that it starts with the democratization of power. The time to act is now.”

About The Bridgespan Group

The Bridgespan Group ( is a global nonprofit that collaborates with social change organizations, philanthropists, and impact investors to make the world more equitable and just. Bridgespan’s services include strategy consulting and advising, sourcing and diligence, and leadership team support. We take what we learn from this work and build on it with original research, identifying best practices and innovative ideas to share with the social sector. We work from locations in Boston, Johannesburg, Mumbai, New York, San Francisco, and Singapore.

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The Bridgespan Group would like to thank the JPB Foundation for its generous and ongoing support of our knowledge creation and sharing work.