The Criminal Justice Initiative (CJI) now known as The Circle for Justice Innovations is a cross-class funding collaborative of community organizers and activist donors working together to fund grassroots organizations working to end mass criminalization, mass incarceration and state violence.

A Structure that Reflects Our Values

How do you do your funding?

The Criminal Justice Initiative (CJI), now known as The Circle for Justice Innovations, is a cross-class funding collaborative of community organizers and activist donors working together to fund grassroots organizations working to end mass criminalization, mass incarceration and state violence.

We meet twice a year, once to do political education together and once to make grant decisions. For our political education meetings, we invite organizers and activists with specific expertise around issues we see/experience as pressing in that moment. In one meeting, there will be externally-focused programing to learn about the issues and internally-focused programming designed to deepen our relationships with each other. Engaging in political education together helps us develop trust and a shared language and allows us to hone our funding strategy based on the expertise of organizers working on these issues on the ground. Based on what we learn, we put out a Request for Proposals and receive grant applications from organizations from all over the country. At our grants meeting, we meet to discuss the applications and make grant decisions together by consensus. Throughout the year, circle members work together on committees to make organizational decisions and deepen our work.

There was a moment when your story began. Tell us that story?

CJI formed in 2000 at The Funding Exchange, a national community foundation that housed activist-advised funds and donor-advised funds. CJI was the only fund in which donors and activists collaborated and shared power. It was initiated by a donor, but the story of the CJI circle that exists today began when the circle made it through its first deep conflicts together. Because of the cross-class/race/gender/sexual orientation nature of the circle including people with and without experience of incarceration, conflicts arose early (and still arise) around imbalance of power. Our work together has remained possible because we have created institutional responses to these conflicts that allow us to move into the space of discomfort our work creates and grow there, individually and together. For many circle members, CJI has been an experience that heals us from the way we were taught to dehumanize each other and ourselves and changes our lives by making a space where we can be our whole selves.

Have you ever been met with resistance or criticism?

We have definitely been met with resistance. People have questioned the impact of small grants and the type of organizations we fund (small, grassroots, led by people most impacted by the issues they are working on) though clearly, our funding has been impactful. The biggest critique we’ve met with is our prioritization of activists and donors working together to which we commit a lot of resources. We all want more money to go to grants, but giving away money in a way that offsets the power imbalances that allow some to accrue wealth while others don’t have basic needs met–the power imbalances we are trying to address with our funding–requires structure and structure is costly. We believe that the way we give away money is as important as what we give away. As we have prioritized our organizational and circle program needs in addition to our grantmaking budget, we have been able to raise more money to grant while supporting directly impacted leaders in philanthropy.

You likely encountered challenges as you started implementing your strategy. What happened?

The biggest challenges we have faced have been developing and committing resources to our organizational structure. It is challenging to create philanthropic structures that deeply enact the values of social justice funding, and there are not many models similar to CJI. Charting a new path while also making decisions as a large collective of people with very different relationships to the movement and to our resources has been a challenge and is a daily practice. We have been developing the right structure and best practices to support our grantees and be a powerful model for other funders for a long time. For many years in lieu of investing in a structure that fully supports the work we do, we relied on the under-compensated labor of circle members. But this is not an organizational mode that reflects our values. The lesson for us in this has been that circle members are putting so much into this work because it is important to us. If it is worth all that circle members have put in over the years, despite challenges, then it is certainly worth continuing to face these challenges and work through them.

What can you achieve through CJI’s style of funding that might not be possible using conventional philanthropic funding models?

We achieve so much! Conventional philanthropy is based on the idea that those in control of resources (often not those facing the issues funding seeks to address) know what is best for people facing these issues. Conventional philanthropic structures often reinforce this idea intentionally and unintentionally through application and reporting requirements. A dynamic emerges in which organizations on the ground need to prove their legitimacy to donors and funders who might not have any relevant experience to what they’re doing and may only have expertise in funding. CJI’s style of funding enacts a vision of a world in which people with access to money do not control the destinies of people with limited access to money by centering the experience of those impacted both in our work as a grant making circle and in what we fund. The impact that we have been able to achieve by doing this is indisputable. People who work in the movement as activists and organizers know what work is essential, innovative or effective. They know what kind of support, application process, etc is most helpful to organizations on the ground. Anyone participating in CJI’s program for one day experiences first hand the truth that all of our liberation is bound up with each others, and that when those most criminalized and incarcerated are free, we all will be. Though this idea may make sense to many in the funding world, the reality of this vision is limited if the philanthropic structure does not have a structure in which people most impacted are actually in power.

At CJI, our power and effectiveness also comes through learning and working together as a collective that represents people on all sides of the deep inequities that perpetuate injustice and dehumanization and make philanthropy, rather than social services the way resources are distributed. By working together, we have created a loving and committed community leveraging our varied resources for social change while embodying a vision of that change.

What is the most important insight you gained specifically through funding in this way?

The most important insight we’ve gained through funding this way is that building trust is essential. Nothing that we do together would be possible if we had not spent years (and more than a couple messy and painful situations) really getting to know each other deeply and building trust. It also never ends, even between people who may have worked together for many years. Working in an ethical way with people on all sides of the racial wealth divide of our society brings up a lot for everyone involved. And, strong leadership as well as a structure that can hold what comes up is essential to getting deeper through conflict rather than breaking apart.

Why does community-based decision-making matter to you?

CJI’s version of community-based decision-making matters to us because it gives us hope and a sense of possibility about what happens when people with vast difference and shared values work together toward a shared vision in ways that affirm everyone involved. We live in a world that dehumanizes and falsely separates all of us through inequity in service of white supremacy, hetero-patriarchy, capitalism and imperialism. Though how this manifests in each of us is often very different, many people from all walks of life see and feel the injustice of our current system and are deeply invested in working to change it. Rare are the spaces in which we can honestly discuss and work through difference and stay in over a long period of time. The fact that CJI is one of these spaces while offering us the opportunity to share essential resources (money, expertise, time, experience, skills, etc.) with people with really different experiences of privilege and oppression and moving essential funding to a growing movement has transformed us individually and collectively.