Prison Philanthropy Sucks: A Reality Check For Funders

by Helen Turvey & Chris McGivern, 20 June 2021

Kelsey Kauffman, Michelle Daniel-Jones and Christina Kovats believe prison philanthropy in the United States is lazy, elitist, and ineffectual. Not only that, but it reinforces the same inequalities that gave rise to mass incarceration in the first place. After hearing these extraordinary women share their funding experiences in Prison Philanthropy Sucks at our recent FlashForward festival, it is hard to disagree.

The discussion chimed with much of our thinking about the imbalanced power dynamics at the centre of traditional funding models. We invited them to join our CEO Helen Turvey and Dan Meredith of to discuss our Flash Grant programme and share ideas about how philanthropy can do more for its grantees.

In both sessions, Kelsey, Michelle and Christina illustrated the reality of prison philanthropy for the many people it claims to serve. It does not paint a pretty picture for anyone engaged in the distribution of charitable funds. They describe a wasteful funding system rife with elitism and a philanthropy that refuses to engage with the messy and complex reality of effecting social change, choosing to poke around at the periphery and court high-profile publicity instead.

These brilliant women have deep insight into incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people’s challenges and a long-accumulated understanding of what it takes to change lives. They do phenomenal work on shoestring budgets. With their immense expertise and experience, they could do a lot more if enabled with the power and necessary resources. Philanthropy should be taking notes. Instead, it questions their credentials, imposes rigid demands and asks them to jump through a million hoops just to be in the running for a grant, let alone in receipt of one.

Prison Philanthropy Sucks is a wake-up call for funders. Its message applies far beyond the prison sector and echoes many of the conversations we have with our own fellows. Simply put, we must all do better.

Hopelessly misguided

Kelsey Kauffman is a former correctional officer and has worked within the US prison system for fifty years. She understands its complex, chaotic and damaging outcomes more than most. In 2012, she created a highly successful volunteer-run college programme at Indiana Women’s Prison, operating with an annual budget of only $5,000. In 2015, Kelsey received a Shuttleworth Flash Grant for her work.

“It was the best grant I ever got in my entire life,” she says. “I’d take it over a traditional grant many times its size. It took none of my time. I didn’t have to apply for it, I didn’t have to explain how I spent the money, and I didn’t even have to track it. And that $5,000 paid for a whole year of our college programme.”

“But our programme was replaced, eventually,” she continues. “The new initiative is donor-funded at the cost of $500,000 a year, in the same prison with the same number of students. That money could have funded our work for 100 years, or more importantly, run our programme in 100 different prisons.

“Prison funding has become very trendy for philanthropies over the last five years. But it’s hopelessly misguided. Funders are spending hundreds of millions of dollars and pouring most of that into a few, high profile, extremely expensive programmes run by elite colleges.”

Where elite education goes, elitism usually follows. Kelsey’s higher education programme welcomed over 20% of the Indiana Women’s Prison population via open enrollment. It was hugely successful, incredibly cheap, and had the potential to be replicated anywhere else in the country - the perfect environment to build momentum for a funder with a smart strategy and a keen desire for real change.

Yet, the vast majority of today’s philanthropic dollar is spent in the opposite direction. Big foundations fund selective prison programming where only the brightest get the opportunity of earning an education and reducing their sentence time. These programmes are excellent, stresses Kelsey, but wildly expensive for their overall impact.

“If I had $50 million to give to prison programming, I would endow a fund at a regional college,” she says. “It would allow them to provide oversight and accreditation to all prison college programmes in that area for the next 10 years. All those programmes would be modelled on what we did at IWP and rely entirely on volunteers. You could have programmes in hundreds of prisons, serving thousands of students.”

Instead, philanthropy directs its fortunes to support the education of a few hundred graduates. From a prison population of over two million, it is not a shining example of system change in action. And while a new administration promises significant change to the United States prison system, Kelsey’s experience keeps her from getting overexcited.

She explains: “US prison college programs are about to change radically now that Congress has approved reinstating Pell Grants - the most common form of funding university studies in the US for low income students - for all prisoners, something they withdrew in 1994.

“That means that higher education programs in prisons will now become very lucrative for colleges and universities throughout the country, and they will rush to start programs in hundreds if not thousands of prisons and jails. Until, of course, Congress reverses itself once again, at which point most of them will once again rush for the exits.”

Excluded from the process

Michelle Daniel-Jones is currently a doctoral student at New York University and was formerly incarcerated at Indiana Women’s Prison, where she studied under Kelsey. Along with Christina and several other students, she became a founder member of Constructing Our Future, an idea that eventually grew out of the classroom and prison to become an organisation helping women manage their post-release lives. Today, Michelle sits on the board as President of this worthwhile and effective project that serves a growing network of over a thousand.

Michelle is one of many success stories to come out of IWP, despite the prison education system working against her. She has a thorough understanding of prison philanthropy’s abject failure to fulfil its promise of achieving impactful change.

“Incarcerated populations are excluded from the table when programmes are created, or funding decisions are made,” says Michelle. “But if you have a desire to help people who are incarcerated, then incarcerated people need to be part of that process. They need to be there crafting, distributing, and receiving the grants. The beautiful thing about the Flash Grant was that we actually got to talk about what we could do with the funds.

“We are hugely appreciative of our generous funders,” she continues. “Without them, COF would cease to exist. But I would like to see other donors start to privilege the grantee’s experience. We know where the funds should go because we’re down here in the muck of it, as opposed to the funders who use stats and academic reports to determine who gets what and why.”

As Michelle implies, it is philanthropy that holds the cards and is very much in control of its relationships. This top-down approach is hugely problematic across many interactions with grantees, whether applied consciously or unconsciously. Unhelpful criteria, funnels and processes restrict the grantee and leave them feeling more like the obligated subject of a master-servant relationship than a visionary agent of social good. Far from creating fertile ground for real progress, philanthropy stifles it.

Of course, foundations have the right to choose who they support financially. But once that decision is made, treating grantees as customers must be the norm instead of leaving them hanging on every whim, begging for scraps, and distracting them from the mission. And that includes redistributing some of the power we have as funders and sharing it with the real changemakers. They have the most profound understanding of where support should be directed, not us. Share power with them, and they will be more effective with it.

“Ultimately, there’s a disconnect,” Michelle continues. “Lots of small organisations are doing great things at the grassroots level. But they end up looking for a larger entity and sliding their project underneath its banner just to be seen, understood and accepted by philanthropy.

“You need money to get money. Sometimes it feels like philanthropy measures your legitimacy by how much cash you have on hand and in your bank account. Startup organisations who have amazing ground support can’t meet that standard because they’re right at the beginning of their journey.”

Chasing funds

Christina Kovats also studied at Indiana and became Kelsey’s clerk to run the higher education programme full-time. Today, she is Director of Development at Consulting Our Future and works closely with its network of formerly incarcerated women. It’s an incredibly demanding role, made harder by the interlinked complexities of the challenges faced by women as they navigate their post-release lives.

“Funders think they understand these challenges,” Christina explains. “They really don’t. When we get grants, they often come with a particular focus. It gets put in a box, and you can only use the money for that purpose. So if it’s housing, you can only spend it on housing, and so on.

“But there’s a wide range of issues that people face after incarceration, and sometimes they are impossible to see or understand. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist, are easy to navigate, or aren’t interlinked. You have to manage all this through rigid outlines and expectations set by funders with no connection to the individuals they are supposed to serve and no idea of the challenges people face.

“We often end up trying to fit our programmes into the criteria of these grants just to keep them alive. In many cases, we were chasing money and drifting away from the core of our mission towards the requirements of the grant.”

Christina is neatly describing one of the fundamental issues we need to fix in philanthropy. She has a deep understanding of the complexities affecting the environment. She shares her knowledge with a growing community, and the community grows with implicit trust at the centre of the relationship. Combine that shared knowledge, trust, and community together, and you create an infinite source of power to build momentum and effect change. The only resource Christina lacks is money, which she seeks from philanthropy.

Yet from the application process onwards, funders are the disruptor, not the enabler. Their money is the goal and quickly becomes the centre of the relationship and the measure of success. Funding comes with extensive and inflexible terms and conditions that often corrupt the purity of an idea. It takes valuable time to apply for money, which small organisations on the frontline can ill afford to lose. And it leaves large, successful nonprofits employing grant writers to win funds, part of which is spent on hiring those grant writers to win more.

This is systemic in traditional philanthropy. It is also archaic. Funders may want themselves to look and sound modern, innovative, and progressive but squint your eyes a little from a particular position, and you might recognise the gruel-serving master from the workhouse in Oliver Twist. As a grantee, you’re expected to beg for more, dance to someone else’s tune, close the door on the way out, and be very thankful for the opportunity.

Shameful publicity

Ultimately, significant donors place more importance on protecting and growing their organisations than identifying individuals and projects or solving problems through creative collaboration. Nowhere is this more apparent than in prison philanthropy. Ploughing hundreds of millions into high-profile and successful prison college programmes isn’t hard if you have the money. And, as Kelsey says, it isn’t even all that smart. However, it is excellent for attracting publicity, which is hugely problematic and exclusionary in itself. Not only is philanthropy failing to improve the American prison system, but it is also dehumanising the population it serves.

“Philanthropies and colleges want lots of publicity for their programmes,” she explains. “They turn to mainstream media, which insists on revealing the crimes of conviction of people on the programme. We consider that to be real shaming.

“At IWP, we made a blanket rule that journalists must agree not to identify crimes of conviction. Journalists called this censorship and that it was their obligation as journalists to identify crimes of conviction. Well, that’s too bad. If they wouldn’t agree to treat our students with the dignity and humanity they deserve, they couldn’t come in.”

As a result, the IWP programme sacrificed publicity from the media for the good of its students and put more focus on empowering women to self-publish in papers, articles and books. To Kelsey’s knowledge, no other programme in the country employs a similar rule or philosophy - certainly not the high-profile college programmes supported by major donors.

As funders, we have an enormous privilege. At the very least, we must match that privilege with support for our grantees and enable them to succeed. We also need to be bolder and embrace risk, not run away from it. Despite philanthropy’s best efforts and collective resources, persistent social challenges remain unchanged. It’s time to discuss new ideas.

A way forward

The Flash Grant programme that prompted both FlashForward and this conversation is one such experiment. Through it, we are attempting to reimagine the funder/grantee relationship and move towards a more decentralised, trust-based form of funding. It addresses many of the issues that Kelsey, Michelle and Christina describe, albeit only on a small scale. It is not the solution, but there is something there to pick at and build upon.

Philanthropy needs more conversations like this if we want to hack the traditional funding model and explore more effective strategies. We do not have all the answers and must embrace uncomfortable conversations with the individuals we support - and even the individuals they support.

For example, Kelsey’s praise for our Flash Grant programme came with an interesting caveat. She asked the fellow who nominated her if we would award a fellowship to an incarcerated person or share it amongst several incarcerated people. She was told we would probably refuse.

Whether we would or wouldn’t is irrelevant. This is our fellow’s perception of us. It’s their truth. And without opening the door for this frank and honest discussion, we would have been none the wiser. As funders, how we are seen by our grantees - subconsciously or otherwise - is actually a barrier to change. It is entirely on us if the people we serve feel they cannot approach us and express their thoughts and ideas.

It’s not good enough to continue believing we always do things the right way or that our actions always have positive repercussions. Our money is not a proxy for wisdom or knowledge; it’s simply a resource. Social change and behaviour change are incredibly messy. We should recognise that real change happens gradually and support the individuals who know best, helping them iterate towards that change in their own way. It is not our place to map out their every move, or judge them on the criteria we set - they should be the judge of us.

*With thanks to Kelsey Kauffman, Michelle Daniel-Jones, Christina Kovats and Dan Meredith.

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