After the murder of George Floyd, foundation grants came fast asadvocates pushed for overhauling police departments. While some grant makers support keeping law enforcement as it is or increasing the number of officers, much of the money is aimed at changing the way policing is done in the United States.
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After the murder of George Floyd, foundation grants came fast as advocates pushed for overhauling police departments. While some grant makers support keeping law enforcement as it is or increasing the number of officers, much of the money is aimed at changing the way policing is done in the United States.
Open Society Foundations has made $23 million in policing grants over the past year and a half. The grant-making budget for the Borealis Philanthropy’s Communities Transforming Policing Fund grew from about $1 million in 2019 to a projected $5 million this year.
In May, the Marguerite Casey Foundation said it would increase its grant making this year by $1.6 million, or 5 percent. The additional money is for efforts to end police violence and mass incarceration. In doing so, the foundation called on other grant makers to take similar steps.
Many foundations, such as the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies, gave to such efforts for the first time.
The influx of philanthropic cash helped activists like Chas Moore, a bartender and co-founder of the Austin coalition, persuade leaders in Los Angeles and Milwaukee to reduce police budgets. Often the cities used the savings to support mental health, housing, and social-service programs.
Some of the money also supported different approaches, like the grant dollars that Sylvia Bennett-Stone, who started a group for women who have lost a family member to gun violence, received. Voices of Black Mothers United works to strengthen relationships between residents and police and to end violence in neighborhoods.
There is a long history of foundations and other grant makers funding different approaches to improve police work. However, most foundations have historically avoided making grants to reduce the size and power of the police out of fear of taking an unpopular stand, according to philanthropy experts.
The surge of new grants in the past year to test new approaches to public safety is a small but important part of philanthropy’s growing interest in tackling racism. By taking a broad approach, new government support is potentially flowing to nonprofits or relieving them of some social-service and health care burdens.
However, the changing approach by philanthropy may be short lived as reports show violent crime is increasing and elected officials — Democrats and Republicans — push back against the call to defund police.
In the current political climate, grant makers may be even less willing to provide financial support for such changes despite activists who continue to call for a substantial overhaul of the role police play in the United States. Meanwhile, those activists may see a need to change their approach.
Moore, the coalition leader in Austin, has already started using different language to talk about his efforts. Instead of using the slogan “defund the police,” he started talking about how to “‘reimagine public safety’ because that was more palatable to the ears and tongues of the people that matter,” he said.
A History of Change
For years, foundations have provided grants aimed at making police departments more effective by supporting training programs and purchasing new computer systems and vehicles. In 2014, after police killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., a few foundations took a different approach and provided grants to try to eliminate actions such as the excessive use of force and stop-and-frisk practices as ways to reduce harm caused by police.
Brad Smith, president of Candid, a nonprofit that tracks foundation spending, said that before 2020, most foundations that made criminal-justice grants directed the money to advocacy on changing bail practices or sentencing rules. He said those grants seemed like a safer bet than supporting campaigns to diminish the power of police.
However, as the United States has re-examined racial injustices in the past year, more foundations have moved toward supporting what is known as the divest and invest approach, which seeks to take money from police budgets to fund methods of achieving public safety with fewer police interactions.
Smith said grants supporting issues other than changing bail practices or sentencing rules have been awarded over the past year and a half from family foundations, national and regional grant makers, and corporate donors that had previously never given to these efforts.
“We’re seeing money coming in at all levels,” he said. “New actors are entering into the game.”
The new money is important, but not enough is flowing to efforts specifically designed to curb police power, said Carmen Rojas, president of the Marguerite Casey Foundation.
She noted that while many foundations embraced the Black Lives Matter movement last summer and funneled billions of dollars to support racial equality, the response was heavy on things like computer training camps for young people of color and classes in entrepreneurship.
“Those things are really important, but they weren’t the match that started the fire,” Rojas said.
Different Approaches to Change
Some foundation grants over the past year have been directed toward reducing the number and responsibilities of police by cutting their budgets and using the money in other ways. Nonprofit advocates have proposed a variety of programs and approaches to take some responsibilities out of the hands of police officers and give them to residents.
FOUNDATION GRANTS TO INFLUENCE POLICING: A SAMPLING
Amount: $22.9 million in 2020-21; $13.6 million in 2016-19
Purpose: To provide data and research on policing and help community organizations, including the Borealis Philanthropy’s Communities Transforming Policing Fund, push to reduce the role of police in public safety
Amount: $32 million since 2018
Purpose: To stop racial profiling by law-enforcement officers and change bail and sentencing policies
Amount: $12.3 million in 2020
Purpose: To increase police accountability, reduce violent crime, and improve crisis response
Amount: $10 million in a pooled fund started in 2017
Purpose: To help a coalition of organizations that work to reduce unnecessary arrests
Borealis Philanthropy’s Communities Transforming Policing Fund
Amount: $1 million in 2019, $2 million in 2020, and $5 million planned in 2021
Purpose: To support grassroots efforts to promote alternatives to policing and increase police accountability
Amount: $5 million in 2020
Purpose: To help develop recommendations for alternative approaches to public safety
Schusterman Family Philanthropies
Amount: $3 million in 2020
Purpose: To enable groups like the Fines and Fees Justice Center and the Vera Institute of Justice to develop new approaches to public safety
California Wellness Foundation
Amount: $3 million in 2020
Purpose: To support groups, including the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and Dignity and Power Now, pushing to shrink the role of police and get people involved in policy making
Marguerite Casey Foundation
Amount: $1.6 million in 2021
Purpose: To support nonprofits working to end racial injustice in policing
Ameren Capital Trust
Amount: $125,000 in 2020
Purpose: To support the St. Louis Police Department
Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation
Amount: $100,000 in 2020
Purpose: To the Atlanta Police Foundation to maintain staffing levels during the Covid-19 pandemic
The Vera Institute of Justice was established in 1961 to support alternatives to money bail. Now instead of pushing for tactical changes in law-enforcement strategies, like rules about body cameras or how force is used against suspects, the institute advocates redefining the entire notion of public safety, said Nick Turner, the group’s president.
Securing public safety, Turner said, is complex. It involves providing services to homeless people as well as ensuring that police officers fired for misconduct can’t be hired by other departments.
Advocates, authors, and filmmakers have helped shape public opinion across the political spectrum on aspects of the criminal-justice system, such as the need for changes in making bail or finding better ways to help formerly incarcerated people adjust to life outside of prison, according to Turner. However, he said, the notion that police departments have consistently failed people of color has not taken root as a broad cultural narrative across people of all races.
Turner said about 5 percent of the institute’s $190 million annual budget helps fund research and projects related to policing. While he wants the budget to grow considerably, Turner expects getting more money that will help pay for research will be difficult.
A big hurdle is that calls for shrinking the number of officers on the beat, particularly when crime is on the rise in many places, are met with a “totally unsophisticated, reptilian, fear-based response,” Turner said.
Other nonprofits have supported efforts to build Black voters’ political power. The message spread by community organizers that Open Society supports is “not just ‘Stop killing us,’” said Jennifer Shaw, a program officer at the foundation. “It’s ‘We are also voters. We are also taxpayers. And we want a say in how our cities and states are managed.’”
Rethinking Public Safety
In Austin, Chas Moore and other community activists attempted to change the way residents perceived how government can keep them safe as they pushed to carve out one-third of the police department’s budget. In addition to leading demonstrations following Floyd’s death, the coalition hosted weekly discussions called a “World Without Police” that challenged participants to rethink their concept of public safety.
Moore said money from foundations was crucial to the success of the coalition’s campaign. The small nonprofit raised more than $2.6 million in the past 18 months, which is more than seven times what it had raised in the two previous years.
Borealis’s Communities Transforming Policing Fund, an original supporter, has given $300,000 over the past year and a half. The coalition has received new grants from corporations such as Bumble and Google and more than $600,000 from individuals. Moore also received $150,000 in fellowship money from the Nathan Cummings Foundation to help other cities make changes similar to the ones he’s successfully advocated for in Austin.
The new foundation money helped the coalition hire staff and allowed Moore to take fewer bartending shifts so he could focus on his advocacy.
A big chunk of the money came in after the city council passed the reduced police budget, when Open Society provided the coalition with a $1.6 million grant. Moore said the group will use some of the money to contest the new state law that withholds funds to localities that cut money from police budgets.
He said he respects that many in the city revere the police or may fear what could happen with fewer police on the force. The coalition’s job, Moore said, is to drive home the message that the police have failed Black people in Austin and to start discussions about how public safety can be achieved with different approaches to policing.
That starts, Moore said, with reducing the number of police officers and transferring the jobs they performed to civilians. Eventually, Moore envisions a world with no need for a police force.
“Abolition is the destination, “Moore said.
Lex Steppling, director of campaigns and policy at Dignity and Power Now, a Los Angeles nonprofit, has worked to bring some major changes to the city and California. But he said real change to policing won’t come until elected officials take government money away from police departments.
“Structural accountability only happens if we contract their presence in people’s lives, if we cut their budgets, if we take away their institutional power and we take away their political power,” Steppling said. “That needs to happen because no other public department has ever been allowed to fail this much.”
Los Angeles police have a long, bitter history with many Black residents stretching back to before the 1965 Watts uprising through the police beating of Rodney King in 1991 and then to police corruption scandals in the 1990s.
In recent years, proponents of changing policing policy in California have made headway, often relying on money from grant makers. Five years ago, for instance, activist groups, including Dignity and Power Now, successfully pushed for the creation of a civilian oversight board to investigate the L.A. Sheriff’s office.
Then last year, the Los Angeles Police Department moved to reduce the number of “pretextual stops” that allow police to use minor traffic violations as a means to investigate drivers for more serious crimes. This year, the California General Assembly advanced legislation to decertify police officers fired for misconduct, prohibiting them from becoming cops in other jurisdictions.
Steppling said he is often told that public support doesn’t exist for sweeping cuts in policing. However, in November voters in Los Angeles County approved a measure to require that at least 10 percent of the county’s general fund be spent on community programs and alternatives to incarceration.
The measure does not explicitly cut money from the police department. But “the spirit is there, even if the language is not,” according to Robert Ross, president of the California Endowment.
Last year, the endowment made $5 million in grants to Black-led organizations working on law-enforcement issues. Those grants were part of a 10-year, $225 million pledge to support racial justice.
Since the passage of the Los Angeles 10 percent measure — which is being challenged — the endowment has worked to build public support for changes to law enforcement and criminal justice. Ross chaired a panel that developed a report about how money now being spent on jails and policing could be used elsewhere without sacrificing public safety.
“This is where the pitched battle [to end] structural racism is taking place,” Ross said. “We need to have better health services, more behavioral-health services, more substance-abuse treatment, more job training and housing support, and fewer jails and police on the street. But that’s not going to happen overnight.”
Other efforts in California are also attracting foundation support. Liberty Hill Foundation manages a pooled fund called Our Kids, Our Future Fund with other grant makers, including the Ballmer Group, California Endowment, California Wellness Foundation.
The fund has raised $10 million over the past three years for nonprofits working to provide alternatives to incarceration and reduce the contact young people have with the police.
In the past year, the fund also has started a push for a similar approach for adults. Julio Marcial, vice president for strategic partnerships at Liberty Hill Foundation, said it’s been difficult to raise money for this new effort. He said he is braced for a long-term fight.
“Transforming policing in L.A. County is like trying to change the rotation of the Earth.”
In November, a coalition of grassroots groups called LiberateMKE scored a small victory in Milwaukee when legislators cut $1 million from the city police budget. It wasn’t nearly as much as the $75 million the group had hoped for, but it was combined with several increases in city social-service budgets.
For example, the Milwaukee coalition, which Borealis Philanthropy and Open Society Foundations supported, pushed to send $300,000 from a police-vehicle-replacement program to pay for emergency housing for some displaced city residents. Other newly funded programs included a pay increase for summer student interns and nearly $3 million in housing assistance.
In response, the Wisconsin State Legislature passed a bill in June similar to the law approved in Texas that punishes cities that significantly cut police budgets. A similar law was also passed in Florida, and President Biden, who has slammed the concept of defunding the police, allowed for up to $350 billion of his Covid-19 relief plan to be used to hire police and to cover the cost of other aspects of law enforcement.
Some of the pushback is driven by a rise in violent crimes across the country. Homicide rates have increased in cities around the United States whether or not police budgets had been cut, according to a June Associated Press report.
Foundation support of grassroots groups that want to take money out of police departments is creating a serious problem for centrist Democrats in political districts where law-enforcement agencies have a lot of support, said William Schambra, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank.
As fear of crime becomes a major issue in some political races, calling for fewer cops is a tough sell on the stump, Schambra said. The message from some Democratic candidates is “shut the hell up if you’re talking about the police,” he said. “And yet hundreds of millions of dollars are being poured into nonprofits whose entire mission is to pursue that goal.”
Advocates across the county who support police departments as they are operated now question why foundations and other grant makers are working to make budget cuts. Sylvia Bennett-Stone said she would prefer to strengthen the relationship between residents and law enforcement rather than reduce police budgets.
Bennett-Stone, a social worker whose daughter was a victim of gun violence, said stripping money from police budgets will result in a needlessly antagonistic relationship between residents and law-enforcement officers. She added, cutting budgets will eventually endanger people the police are meant to keep safe.
“We need police in our communities,“ she said. "[Without them], there will be an escalation of violence.”
She doesn’t accept the idea of a systemic failure in U.S. police departments, saying instead, “It’s an individual thing and not the mass of police officers.”
“With any profession, there’s room for improvement,” she said.
Bennett-Stone formed Voices of Black Mothers United with about $140,000 from the Robert Woodson Center, a nonprofit that supports grassroots groups. The group works with police agencies to improve public safety.
For instance, it promotes a program in which victims who have received crisis training go to crime scenes to be with victims after a violent crime. The goal is to comfort victims and allow police to concentrate on other aspects of investigating the crime scene.
With chapters in 13 states, the group hopes to raise $1 million this year for its work.
Open Society, the California Endowment, the Marguerite Casey Foundation, and other grant makers say they plan to make efforts to cut police spending a long-term priority. But it is not clear whether activists working on the issue will continue to attract support from new grant makers or if some current ones will scale back their support as the divisive national debate over policing intensifies.
Shaw, the program director at Open Society, said she expects backlash over some of the changes to policing that activists are pressing for, but the foundation doesn’t have an overarching strategy for how to respond to the pushback.
The foundation’s support, Shaw said, will be provided on a case-by-case basis, determined by the needs of activists in each city or state reached by Open Society’s grants.
“We are taking our lead from the field,” she said.
Despite the increased attention to the national protests that followed Floyd’s murder, activist leaders including Angela Lang, executive director of Black Leaders Organizing for Communities, say there is no guarantee that the issue will continue to draw foundation support.
Lang, whose group participated in the LiberateMKE coalition to defund Milwaukee police, said she hopes activists will press forward and not settle for small changes.
“For a long time, people have been conditioned and taught that we have to limit our thinking to what’s already been done instead of completely starting over,” she said.
Lang said that kind of thinking has changed, and people are imagining policing in a different way.
“People are dreaming now,” she said.
Reporting for this article was underwritten by a Lilly Endowment grant to enhance public understanding of philanthropy. See more about the grant and our gift-acceptance policy.