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Philanthropy and policing

Policing in America is fundamentally flawed. And philanthropic foundations can help fix it.

Convicting ex-police officer Derek Chauvin of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter in killing George Floyd could be an inflection point. Widespread activism, growing recognition of systemic racism and inequality, and societal weariness with gun violence have converged to create an opportunity to take a hard look at policing and take action to address its failures. As America slowly begins to emerge from pandemic isolation, the will, energy, and, due to unusually strong financial markets, philanthropic resources may finally be available to tackle policing as a critical element in deep criminal justice reform.

My own experience with police reform

Some 20 years ago, when working as vice president for peace and social justice at the Ford Foundation, I was approached by the Vera Institute of Justice about a global initiative focused on prosecuting the police. When we began talking with our field offices in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, it became apparent that, as difficult as it was to prosecute police in the U.S., it was next to impossible in many other countries. Colonial history, long periods of authoritarianism, endemic corruption, poor training, and lack of resources had eroded any sense that there was a constructive role for law enforcement to play in democratic societies. We made the decision to focus on a broader police reform agenda, with the Vera Institute functioning as a technical resource for Ford Foundation field offices and grantees around the world.

We knew from experience that academic research alone was not enough. We had also learned that direct funding to police organizations for reform had limited impact. And, although the “document and denounce” approach of human rights was essential, it was not sufficient. We created a central funding mechanism within the Ford Foundation to support projects by field offices and their grantee partners that brought together activists, researchers, and reform-minded elements of the police. I remember visiting a university in Brazil where a police reform course was being taught with a classroom of students and police officers. One of the officers told his classmates how he had refused an order to wear his uniform on campus. He did so by summoning the courage to tell his captain that students’ experience with police in Brazil had been one of repression and that they would run from anyone in uniform.

That global initiative on police reform was impossibly large on ambition, but it broke down barriers and left behind some important networks, particularly among police officers in different countries who were fighting lonely battles to reform the culture of their own institutions. Attempts to formalize that network and create some kind of global secretariat were not sustainable, but the initiative inspired collective efforts of reform and justice that live on.

Foundation grants on policing are not new

A quick check of Candid’s databases shows slightly more than $1 billion in grants involving the police and policing have been made since 2006. This is a fraction of what philanthropy spends each year in support of education, for example, but it is something to build on. Foundations have a long history of supporting local police infrastructure and charitable activities that is as old as organized philanthropy itself. Literally thousands of grants over the years have supported building renovation, purchased helicopters, upgraded technology, and provided social services by organizations, like one by the Police Athletic League “to provide academic assistance, college and career readiness, and enrichment activities to Bronx youth.”

Funding for police reform is on the rise, however, with unprecedented levels of grants and pledges to promote racial equity in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. In 2020,, Reed Hastings, and YouTube made $3 million in grants to Policing Equity “to produce analyses that identify and reduce the causes of racial inequality in law enforcement and promote racial justice.” And the Heinz Endowments supported POISE Foundation’s “Alliance for Police Accountability to advance a set of transformative policy changes around criminal justice and restorative practices.”

This history of police-related grantmaking shows that foundations have another tool to promote police reform: relationships. Foundations can create safe spaces to bring reform advocates, government officials, police organizations, and other stakeholders to the table. This kind of convening power is an underutilized asset in philanthropy. Combined with the right grants at the right time, it has the potential to catalyze lasting change.

What works (and what doesn’t) is already known

Philanthropists are as driven by the news cycle as the rest of us, and some new players will now be inspired to support police reform efforts. Fortunately, they won’t have to start from scratch. Though knowledge production, distribution, and sharing take a backseat to grantmaking in most foundations, policing is one field in which a substantial investment in research has been made. Much of this is available in the Race and Policing collection of IssueLab (a service of Candid). There you will find more than 170 case studies, evaluations, and reports published or funded by foundations that detail what is known, what works, and what has been tried and failed. Just a few of the titles will give you an idea of the breadth and depth of the knowledge there: Hidden in Plain Sight: Racism, White Supremacy, and Far-Right Militancy in Law Enforcement; What Police Spending Data Can (and Cannot) Explain Amid Calls to Defund the Police; and Police Body Cameras: What Have We Learned Over Ten Years of Deployment? The time to search through those reports, read the abstracts, and take a deep dive into specific issues will be more than compensated by the running start it will give those wishing to initiate or increase funding related to police reform.

Closing thoughts

Policing is far too intertwined with race, privilege, ideology, and history for the “moonshot” approach sought by some philanthropists. As Vice President Harris remarked, the Chauvin conviction “will not heal the pain that existed for generations.” But when I think about what this moment represents, I also recall the words of one of the most iconic leaders in our sector, John Gardner: “We are all faced with a series of great opportunities, brilliantly disguised as insoluble problems.” Police reform would top most people’s lists of insoluble problems, but philanthropy has always been about hope. Philanthropists and their foundations have the resources, experience, relationships, and knowledge to help turn this brief moment of justice into a lasting opportunity for change.


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