The Visionary Freedom Fund gave youth activists control of its grants

In a typical room where nonprofits do the work of grantmaking—deciding which programs and solutions to fund with their philanthropic dollars—the faces around that table likely don’t reflect the communities that will receive that charity. “The way these funders are set up, it’s usually a board which tends to be primarily white, not from the communities they fund, people of wealth—whether inherited or otherwise—and so they are very disconnected from the communities that they’re trying to support,” says Manuela Arciniegas, director of the Andrus Family Fund, a nonprofit that supports youth-focused social justice organizations.

Some nonprofits may bring in people like community liaisons or advisors to that table, but even then, there are still power dynamics at play that can affect which groups ultimately get funding. How comfortable can a young community organizer be to speak up when they’re sitting next to someone who has worked in philanthropy for decades, or when they’re outnumbered at that table by wealthy, white donors, whose money it is they’re deciding how to spend?

When it came to a new round of funding from the Andrus Family Fund, the foundation wanted to do something different. As part of its 20th anniversary, it launched the Visionary Freedom Fund, with an intention to include more young people in the grantmaking process. The idea started when younger members of the family (the Andrus Family Fund is the philanthropic work of descendants of John E. Andrus, former mayor of Yonkers, New York, and U.S. congressman), learned they would have access to an additional $1 million investment to celebrate their 20th anniversary. “The board felt that instead of focusing [on] and celebrating themselves, we should leverage this million dollars to make an impact in the youth justice field,” Arciniegas says. “And so what we decided was to use it as seed funding to launch our 20th anniversary fund, the Visionary Freedom Fund initiative.”

At the core of the fund was something the organization called Power Table, made up of eight youth organizers—those directly impacted by the kind of issues the fund would benefit and kids impacted by the criminal justice system, whether that means tangled up in the school-to-prison pipeline or witnesses to police brutality—along with four adult movement leaders and eleven funders. The Power Table, a new addition to the grantmaking process, steered the decisions for how the fund would distribute a total of $2.5 million.

To Arciniegas, the Visionary Freedom Fund is a sort of passing of the baton, with funders finally handing over some power to the young people their charity aims to benefit. “Young people are deeply aware of what the issues are. They know what needs to be funded. And so putting them in the decision-making power to drive where dollars are going, to signal what the most innovative solutions are, is, I think, really smart grantmaking,” she says. “It would take philanthropy years to learn about these solutions and to really keep our finger on the pulse.”

In some instances, it would take philanthropy years to just know what issues young people are facing—especially when they’re in confinement or tangled up in some way with the justice system—let alone what could solve those problems. She gives an example: She knows kids who were told if they went to a probation program and reported in every day, they wouldn’t be incarcerated. But because of the pandemic, the program got shut down, and those kids were automatically deemed noncompliant and returned to incarceration. Wealthy, often-white donors, living in another part of the country, don’t see that happening firsthand, or know anyone who did, and the telephone game of getting that information from communities on the ground to somewhat-sequestered boardrooms dolling out philanthropic dollars can be slow.

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“These are the ways systems fail our kids, and kids know that,” Arciniegas says. “And for funders to learn about that in real time would take forever.” Instead, they turned to kids around the country on the front lines of these issues and said, “you guys decide where the money goes.” Those eight youth organizers were selected through an open application process, and were compensated. All had experience with activism and organizing, like Jemima Abalogu, who, during her junior and senior years of high school, was the Youth Justice Ambassador for the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, working on restorative justice practices; and Adrianna Gonzales, who at 16 started volunteering with Poder in Action, a Phoenix-based group focused on systems change, like decreasing the number of school-resource officers as a way to end the school-to-prison pipeline. Now 19, Gonzales leads the nonprofit’s youth program.

That method resulted in 26 organizations receiving funding for a 2-year investment, working on such things as calls to divest from policing and prisons—and invest instead in community services—ways to use art to help young people who have been through the prison system, and programs focused on mental health for kids whose parents have been incarcerated or deported. (All the projects are led by either Black, immigrant, Indigenous, queer, and trans, or AAPI communities.) This diversity in the type of work funded is itself a representation of the diversity of the people around the funding table, says Bryan Perlmutter, one of the Visionary Freedom Fund project coordinators and cofounder of Piece by Piece Strategies, a consulting firm that helps social justice organizing.

“Seeing the end result of grantees is also a reflection of the process that was used, which felt like a really beautiful moment—that a lot of the organizations that got resourced, the donors at table were not necessarily familiar with,” he says. The groups that were funded were ones the Andrus Family Fund had no prior relationship with. So while Andrus Family grants have supported youth justice organizations in the past—like Safe Passage Project, which provides free lawyers for immigrant children being deported, and Advance Peace, which mentors those at the center of gun violence in a community—their traditional process would not have led them to these specific groups, which are led by marginalized communities themselves, focusing on the most relevant, recent issues to justice-system impacted kids, and often overlooked or underfunded.  The grantees, Arciniegas, says, were “from places where we would never go.”

The youth organizers also raised issues that those with legacy experience in the nonprofit space may have never thought to question. With their fresh eyes, they asked about why the grant applications needed to be so long, or if they really needed to bring people to come in to talk in person, after the grantmaking table just read a 20-page report. These were standard practices, but were they the best use of everyone’s time? “We learned a lot from them,” Arciniegas says, “and some of us are taking back what we learned into our own institutions to rethink how should we change our grantmaking application and process.”

In the end, 26 organizations were funded out of 600 total applications. The Visionary Freedom Fund members also connected with everyone who didn’t get grants, walking them through the criteria and process and explaining why they weren’t selected. That honesty and transparency is something else that made the fund stand out from other grantmaking programs. Jessica Pierce, another project coordinator and Perlmutter’s cofounder, says they received calls from people appreciating how different this process was than other grant applications, where funders may mix up their organization’s name with another’s (a sign of carelessness), or where they never get any feedback about why they didn’t get a grant.

The Visionary Freedom Fund is now raising money and planning to continue with more grantmaking cycles. It’s a model everyone involved hopes to see expand beyond this fund, too, to the wider world of philanthropy. “Part of what we’re trying to do is not bring people to the table, but build a completely different table,” Pierce says. Too often, Arciniegas adds, “Philanthropy centers philanthropy rather than community,” meaning standard practices and institutional norms get in the way of the real work of philanthropy: to give away money (ideally in a way that builds movements or builds toward justice, Perlmutter adds.) This model could change all that. “I hope that it continues to encourage folks to move more resources,” he says, “and to do it in more accountable ways to the communities that they’re seeking to build with.”