11-Advancing Reform1

Advancing Justice Reform: The Role of Philanthropy

Advocates, policymakers and justice stakeholders play critical roles in promoting youth justice reform and building public awareness and the will to bring about necessary changes. But effective and sustainable reform requires the involvement, leadership and financial support from philanthropy. Funders large and small have played pivotal roles in justice reform at the local, state and national levels for more than two decades. Through investments in education, advocacy, programming, training and technical assistance, and research, foundations have become integral partners in the reform movement. More funding partners are needed to sustain the momentum.

What roles can funders play?

  • Thought Partner: Encourage systems reform and seed innovation by supporting data collection, research, evaluation and implementation of promising and best practices, including the promotion of public health, racial equity, and youth well-being frameworks.[i]
  • Innovator: Incubate creative, and even risky, pilot projects or initiatives with the potential for real policy and practice improvement. Two of the most transformative efforts – the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative[ii]  and the MacArthur Foundation’s Models for Change Initiative[iii] – have successfully used research and best practices to redefine the landscape of youth justice nationally. Smaller, targeted efforts, like the Sierra Health Foundation’s Positive Youth Justice Initiative in California,[iv] also can change lives and offer opportunities for replication on a broader scale.
  • Convener: Create opportunities for policymakers to come together with community partners, experts in the field, and justice-involved youth and families to learn from each other, better understand problems, and develop multidimensional solutions.
  • Champion: Help re-frame and shape the public discourse about youth justice and related issues and support effective advocacy and communication aimed at building public awareness.
  • Connector: Engage in networks and coalitions and urge fellow philanthropic colleagues, grantees, and systems and community partners to work together to prioritize youth justice within their portfolios and their daily work.
  • Sustainer: Focus strategic, intentional, and thoughtful financial investments on advocacy and policy reform efforts over the long term to achieve systems change, strengthen non-profit infrastructure, and develop leadership in the field.

The Youth Justice Work Group (YJWG) of the Youth Transition Funders Group (YTFG) comprises local, regional and national funders who are dedicated to promoting fair, effective and age-appropriate treatment and interventions for young people up to age 25 involved in the juvenile and criminal justice systems.

YTFG is a national network of foundations whose mission it is to help all youth make a successful transition to adulthood by age 25. We believe that the well-being of young people is significantly impacted by the supports and opportunities that are available and accessible to them, the extent they are supported by nurturing families and communities, and how public policies, systems and practices are crafted and implemented. YTFG’s Well-Being Framework, which informed the Blueprint, serves as a guide for initiatives aimed at supporting the healthy development of young people across a broad set of domains, including cognitive, social and emotional development, mental health and wellness, physical health, safety, and economic well-being.[v]

We invite foundations focused on youth development, education, child welfare, human services, housing, workforce development, and health to explore and share with us how their investments are serving or can support the well-being of justice-involved youth. Through our collective efforts, we can invigorate the dialogue and capitalize on the momentum for justice reform that currently exists across the nation. Together, we can help eliminate the failed policies of the past and support the future success of our youth and communities.


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[i] These categories were adapted from Badeau, S., Philanthropic Engagement with Community Youth Violence Prevention Initiatives, Making the Link, Issue 2. Washington, D.C.: Grantmakers for Children, Youth and Families, 2012.
[ii] Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, Baltimore, MD: Annie E. Casey Foundation.
[iii] Models for Change: Systems Reform in Juvenile Justice, Chicago, IL: John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
[iv] Positive Youth Justice Initiative, Sacramento, CA: The Sierra Health Foundation.
[v] Langford, B., Badeau, S., Legters, L. (2015). Investing to Improve the Well-Being of Vulnerable Youth and Young Adults: Recommendations for Policy and Practice. Washington, DC: Youth Transition Funders Group.