Dorri McWhorter—who is president and CEO of the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago, as well as a Rustandy Center Executive in Residence—reflects on the personal, professional, and community benefits of board service, as the center launches the First 90 Days Nonprofit Board Toolkit.How New Nonprofit Board Members Can Be Effective
So, hello, everyone, and welcome to the first session in this year's Perspectives in Philanthropy event series. As you know, this is hosted by the Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation. My name is Julia Stasch, I'm the Philanthropy Executive in Residence at the Rustandy Center, and the Immediate Past President of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
Now, for those of you that are interacting with the Rustandy Center for the first time, the Center is the social impact hub at Booth for people who are committed to tackling complex social and environmental problems. It's really an important part of the university's social impact ecosystem.
And what it does is promote innovation, advance research, and help develop the people and practices that can accelerate social change.
Now, before we begin, just a few logistics. We'll leave time at the end to answer your questions, so please submit them through the Q&A function, with your name and school. And the session will be recorded, and it will be shared with all registrants. Now, just a little bit of background. Earlier sessions in the Philanthropy Series presented a landscape view of the field, and a deep dive into philanthropy's role in impact investing.
The invitation to the session tonight presented, shared with you something that I wrote not too long ago, and it was about justice, one of philanthropy's deepest concerns. This is the first session this year about justice, there'll be another one later in the spring. Now my essay, which I wrote in 2018, actually, I could have written it yesterday, it was originally titled "Hard Questions "With No Easy Answers." Now I just call it "Is Justice Even Possible?" I hope you had a chance to read it.
Now, I'm joined tonight by Kelli Rhee, the President and CEO of a truly influential and innovative philanthropy, Arnold Ventures. But let's start with just a few slides, to ground us in the topic. So, take a look at this, first slide is a bewildering word cloud. This is just to remind you that philanthropy is a soup of issues: climate, hunger, poverty, education, just on and on. But, also, it's a variety of corporate forms. It is myriad tactics, many controversies, there's good guys, and bad guys, there's good money, and bad money. And, remember, it's also big, it's big dollars, it's 2% of GDP. There's key players that you've heard of: Jeff Bezos, and Bill Gates, and newly on the scene, MacKenzie Scott. At the other end, Charles Koch. In the middle, what are called legacy foundations: Ford, Rockefeller, MacArthur. And then the billions of dollars in donor advised funds. And then, of course, ordinary people, ordinary people with a concern for wellbeing, wellbeing of people in their community, and the planet. But right in the middle of it there is justice.
Now, the next slide reveals that philanthropy is obsessed with justice. And you can see here that, that justice is in the middle of many foundations core mission, but it's also driving recent announcements. Look, Rockefeller Brothers– just, sustainable, and peaceful world. MacArthur Foundation apparently didn't want to do sustainable, but chose verdant. Public Welfare Foundation– advancing justice. Kresge Foundation announced a new, a new initiative, Culture of Justice. And then, hundreds of millions of dollars in support of racial justice, in the moment here. Now, the next slide, of course, asks the key question, what is justice? So just take a look here, and threading throughout these multiple definitions is the notion of fairness, equitableness, equitable, fair, impartial, merited, fairness. Justice is not necessarily equality, but it is more grounded in the notion of fairness.
Now, the next slide reflects a little bit on the questions in my essay. Just quickly, "Is justice possible without a commitment to the common good, where every individual has a stake in the betterment of society, as a whole? Is justice possible without empathy, and recognition of our shared humanity? Is justice possible without institutions through which accountability is exercised? Now, if I were writing the essay today, I would ask a fourth question. I would say, Is justice possible without a reckoning with race throughout our history, and in virtually every aspect of society today?
Now, the two sessions this year in the series are going to focus on the third question, "Is justice possible without institutions through which accountability is exercised?" So let me tell you just a couple of short paragraphs, what I said about that in the essay. I said "Like individuals, institutions are imperfect. Under attack are the news media, political parties, and the political process, law enforcement and the courts, academia, science, and other sources of data, and more. Today, the challenge is to their very existence, which makes the essential task of investing in their improvement even harder. But trust in these institutions is a bigger challenge. It requires them to be respectful, and fair, and transparent, inclusive, and humble, and to understand that trust must be earned again and again each and every day. So investment in these institutions, in an effort to secure and sustain trust, they're essential. Because, and here's the key thing, without institutions of accountability promoting and protecting the conditions under which justice can thrive, then there's the impossible responsibility of every person to make that possible."
And so… Next slide actually introduces the criminal justice system, that's one of those institutions through which accountability is exercised. You know its component parts, but it's a complex and interconnected system. You'll see in a moment why some people are reluctant to call it the criminal justice system. And they recall, they call it the criminal legal system, because, they do not believe that justice is embedded in this system. And so, I believe that the lack of trust and confidence in the justice system is an existential threat to society and democracy.
A number of sources have said the following about justice, the justice system. "The right and fair administration of justice is the backbone of legitimacy of any state or political order." Another said, "Society's level of faith in the justice system is directly correlated to healthy, vibrant, and economically sound communities." But that faith is tested, because, the justice system, or the legal system is the most disempowering of all institutions. It uses force. It can remove someone from family and community. It can deprive them of respect, of dignity, of humanity, and freedom. It's often used as a tool of oppression. And after education, the justice system is the system with the greatest contact with young African Americans. So it has disproportionately harmful effects on people of color, especially Black people.
So contact with the criminal justice system excludes people of color often from voting, from the workplace, from career, from income, and from wealth-building opportunities. It is a gateway to more general alienation. And society just cannot thrive without, with significant portions of the population alienated from civic life, with little hope for a rewarding life. That's why I believe that a failure to build trust and confidence in the system is an existential threat to society and democracy, and failure to work on reform guarantees that that threat is real. So, let's bring Kelli Rhee into the conversation. Now, reminder for you, please, submit your questions via the Q&A function.
Now, Kelli is the President and CEO of Arnold Ventures, at the forefront of this reform, this essential reform. Now, she previously served in numerous strategic and entrepreneurial roles in the for-profit and non-profit sector: she was a leader, an investor, an advisor. But, and this might resonate with some of you, she began her career as a management consultant for Bain & Company in the Bridgespan Group, but she has a Master's in Education, MBA from Stanford, and a Bachelor's Degree in Economics from Northwestern. I always like to start, Kelli, with a little about yourself, your path to philanthropy, which was completely different from how I got into philanthropy. And talk a little bit about why your business education and your work background were valuable preparation for what you're doing right now.
Great, thank you. And thank you, Julia, for having me here today. And it's, while I don't see any of you, (chuckles) it's great to meet you, and it's great to have this time together. You know, I can tell a really neat story about my path to philanthropy, but I can only do that in looking backward. Because, I didn't have dreams or aspirations of working in this field, and frankly, until probably 15 years ago, I didn't really understand what philanthropy was.
But, you know, like many folks, I started my education, my post-secondary education with passions, and skills, and talents. So my passions were about leaving the world a better place than I found it. And my skills and talents were really around, in strategy, problem solving, analysis, and I struggled to see how those two merged. So I did what everyone that I knew who didn't know exactly where to go post-college, I became a consultant. It was a great launching point for me professionally to develop some of those basic strategic, analytical, and business skills. But, pretty quickly, I learned that the part of me that I appreciated and valued most wanted to do something that I cared about, and something that I woke up with energy for. So I did that, and I took a leave, and went to the Bridgespan Group, and quickly saw that there were emerging opportunities where I could use my personal passions combined with my skills and experience.
Fast forward, went to Stanford. I decided, okay, you know, there's this program to get my MBA, and my Master's in Education, surely, that is the right place for me. I spent a summer actually in Chicago, working with Chicago Public Schools through a nonprofit, and decided after those 12 weeks that that is not a system that someone with my disposition and desire for moving at fast speeds could really work effectively in.
So I dabbled back and forth into venture and startup worlds, always wondering, you know, where would I find my spot to use my passions, and use my skills again. About a decade ago, I moved to Houston, and through work that I was doing to help open an academic medical center, met Laura Arnold. And so, over the course of working with her as a board member for three years, I became not only intrigued, but believed in the philanthropy that she and her husband were creating. And so, they had this passion not to just spend money and give money, which are very good things, but to use their philanthropy to change how systems work, to create a better world, to improve lives at scale in a way that lasts.
So I started here launching new ventures for the organization. I pivoted into a general strategy role, and a little over three years, took over as CEO. So it all ties together, looking back, Julia, but, you know, at any point in my career, or even as a student, I didn't know I would end up here. Those of you who feel like, gosh, I'm not the person with the plan, it's okay. There are people like me who didn't have the plan, and end up in just the right spot, so, I hope that's encouraging to you.
So it completely resonates with me, who had a completely peripatetic opportunistic pathway into philanthropy, and no plan at the beginning of my education or career of where I would end up. So I find that very refreshing, that there's at least two of us who aren't worried.
Who aren't worried about, you know, where are we gonna be at the end. But, I hope we have a chance here to talk about your personal vision for how you actually bring those, strategy, and evidence, and other things that arise out of business acumen to bear in the world of philanthropy. But first, it seemed to me, that the areas that Arnold Ventures has chosen to work in, education, health, public finance, criminal justice, they seem very carefully curated and chosen. What ties them together? And then, why criminal justice?
Sure. Like many philanthropic organizations, at our core, at the deepest, most fundamental level we exist to improve lives. And so, just as I mentioned, for myself personally, I think the same is true for our organization, that we want to leave the world a better place than we found it. And so, we believe that we use our efforts to hopefully ensure that everyone, or as many people as possible have access to equitable opportunities, and experience justice. And so, that is, that's the core, that's the center of what we do. But what connects all of the areas in which we work are really places where we see market and system failures. So public policy, what government is trying to do, the services it's trying to provide, the way that it interacts with people isn't producing the outcomes that was intended.
A basic one I would give you is healthcare. The government is intimately involved and the largest funder of healthcare in the United States. We pay more than any country. And, quite frankly, we're sicker and less healthy than most first world countries, most other, first of all, countries. And so, while the intention is to provide health to people at a cost we can afford, that's not the outcome.
And so, we look to identify, what are those systemic failures? What are, what does the evidence say that is driving the problem? What are innovative solutions? And then, how do we work with actors, policymakers, nonprofits, leading thinkers, researchers, advocates on the ground, individuals who are impacted by the system, to create solutions that can be implemented through public policy, so we achieve positive change that sticks, and that scales? And so, whether it's criminal justice reform, healthcare, public finance theory, as you described Julia, and more, they're all connected to us, because, there's a system failure that what was intended to happen isn't happening. And so, that is the connection point for our work.
With our criminal justice work, I think it's a perfect example of that philosophy, or that thinking. You know, the criminal justice system is intended to keep us safe. And so, public safety is at the core of that. But we believe that, in addition to keeping our communities safe, the system needs to treat people with fairness, with equity, with respect, with dignity. And so, we aren't safer, right? If you look at the outcomes within our communities, we aren't, we are not safe. We incarcerate more people than just about anywhere else in the world. We have violence, we have all kinds of terrible outcomes. And, we have individuals, particularly individuals, poor individuals of color, who experience devastating, life-altering setbacks, when they interact with this system. And so, we are looking to not only promote community safety, but to ensure that the system is just, it's fair, it's respectful, it's equitable.
So that's, (chuckles) that's a tall order. But I think the thing that is important to take away from this, is the (audio distorts) chasm between systems and policy change, and something that many people often confuse with philanthropy, which is charity. And so, you are really focused on the big challenge, the sustainable, the scalable challenge. And so, I understand that it was you who personally drove the structural change. That it was your personal vision to move from a private foundation to an LLC, with the greater sort of latitude baked into the structure to function in many different ways, different tactics, with different players, with different tools. Talk to us a little bit about why the change, and what, how has that liberated Arnold Ventures to work in a pretty different way from many other philanthropies?
Well, there are, I certainly got to be at the forefront of leading this, but I think our co-founders are the ones who from the beginning believed that our philanthropy needed to affect policy, in order to create change at scale. And so, their, Laura and John's influence on our structural change, our operations team, our programmatic team, there were so many individuals who were absolutely instrumental in leading that forward.
But, you know, three years ago, we went through a process and said, "Are we doing enough?" And if we are about improving lives, if we are about ensuring opportunities and equity for all, what are the limitations? What are the things holding us back? As you mentioned, a lot of philanthropy is charity, and charity is good, charity is needed. There are immediate needs that need to be met today by someone giving a dollar to help someone with something they are experiencing right now. But, for a host of reasons, we are focused on, you know, change at scale that lasts.
We realized that much of what limited our ability to be effect, effective were really, frankly, tied to our tax status. And so, as a nonprofit, you have limitations as to how you can be involved in the policy making process, if you choose to be a tax-free entity. And so, we're fortunate that our co-founders, you know, they're not doing this to maximize their tax, you know, they're not doing this to improve their tax, how much they pay in taxes. They really are doing this with the desire to leave the world a better place than they found it.
And so, we reincorporated as an LLC, feeling that that allowed us to be a part of policy making, without the limitations of saying, okay, we can't advocate. We can't get involved in elections. We can't, there are a number of activities that nonprofits can't engage in. And so, we felt, that if we really wanted to live into, to our desire to affect change at scale through shaping policy, we needed to be freed up to not only directly be involved in policy making across the board, but to be able to fund our partners to do things like advocacy and political work.
So it's really interesting, too, it also, this posture, it feels to me that it also liberates you to actually, you know, jump into the strange bedfellows place. I mean, one of the places where, when I was at MacArthur, we encountered Arnold Ventures, was in a collaborative effort amongst Arnold, MacArthur, the Ford Foundation, and Koch Industries. Talk a little bit about how the ability to work at both the policy level, the legislative, the, you know, the litigation, and the advocacy brings you into contact with people that you might not otherwise, were you constrained by the legacy foundation structure.
All right. And I think you were touching on a really important point, that not only were, could you be encumbered by the legacy foundation sort of frame of reference and point of view, but we find, that in order, the best opportunities to have a shot at meaningful, dramatic policy change that really improves lives, you need bipartisan support. The day and age in which we, we exist today, if you are trying to move policy forward that sits solely in one side of the aisle, and not in another, you're probably not going to get very, very far. And so, being an LLC, being able to engage differently, while also being a nonpartisan organization, has allowed us to, as you described, create these kind of strange bedfellows partnerships, to have conversations with individuals who sit in one camp, and others who sit in another. And so, we believe that that's important, because, those windows of opportunity come, and they go very quickly. And so, you need to be able to build that broad constituency, to have a shot at making meaningful policy change.
So, it's interesting, when we proposed to our board the partnership that included the Koch Industries, the board was immediately supportive of this, with the idea that it's better to have all the resources on the table, and all the energy around solving a problem, and not to be, not to be stuck in an ideological place. But the fact is, that within the foundation, there were people who were uncomfortable with that.
So, it's interesting to me that you have actually created a culture within the organization that invites this kind of bipartisan, cross etiology, sort of let's not pay attention to the places where we don't agree, and let's really focus on and double down on the places where we do agree. And so, criminal justice was at the center of that, of that partnership. But talk a little bit more about how your structure and your ability to work in this more flexible, free way, how is that playing out more broadly in criminal justice? What's working, and where are there challenges?
Being freed up (chuckles) to work across the full kind of spectrum of policy change in criminal justice has been instrumental. The majority of what we do today still remains (c)(3) work. So it is evaluating programs, to see if they're effective, do they produce the outcome we hope, or believe they do? It's piloting. It is supporting academics and others to think about, to build intellectual capacity within the field. It's funding interest groups who, you know, believe in the issue, who are fighting on the ground to create circumstances for positive change. And so, that is still very much what we do today.
But, when there is an opportunity where we say, okay, look, the evidence is clear, these are the root issues. These are solutions that are proving to be effective, they're better than the status quo. Now let's work to get these policies implemented. That is where being freed up, by being an LLC, allows us to do different work that we couldn't have done before. And I think a perfect place, a perfect example within our criminal justice work, are looking at fines and fees. And so, you know, if you, our justice system is, in part, funded by fines and fees that individuals who interact with the system have to pay. And often, most of the time, the majority of the time, individuals who are interacting with the system don't have vast financial resources. So, in addition to dealing with their, you know, personal circumstances, what they may be charged with, what they are having to work through the process, they are then asked to pay extraordinary fines and fees that often push themselves and their families further into circumstances of poverty, further in to just dire situations. They might lose their driver's license, and can't drive to their job. They might have a bill they can't afford. They might… And so, not only, so there are these collateral consequences that have nothing to do with making our community safer. They just push these individuals further into cycles of poverty. And so, the data is really clear, that having these fines and fees doesn't make our community safer.
And so, we use that data, the (c)(3) work, the work that our partners on the ground have tested and piloted, the programs they put in place, the evidence that has been generated, and then we now have teams that we support who are advocating for those policy changes. So they're working in states. They're working in local communities. They're working with the Federal Government to say, "Hey, look, we have better options that keep our communities safe, while also don't, you know, get, push these collateral consequences on individuals." And so, if we rewind to just three years ago, we knew, in this space, that policy wasn't working to make us safer, and it wasn't creating justice and equity for individuals. But we didn't have tools and resources to then go out and advocate for those changes, and now we do.
Talk a little bit about another place along the spectrum of contact with the system, which actually has its own controversies embedded in it, the pre-trial decision making, I find that very fascinating.
The way that our system has evolved, is that there is often a default to incarcerating individuals between the time they are arrested, and the time that they are actually, they go before a judge. And so, that is pre-trial detention. What the data shows, is that most of those individuals, so when they're not charged with serious or violent crimes, are going to appear before a judge. They are going to show up. They are going to do what we need them to do. And saddling them with bail they can't afford, incarcerating them pre-trial only makes circumstances worse for those individuals, and doesn't, doesn't support safety, it doesn't help the system, it doesn't, it's not beneficial.
And so, we, and a number of others in the field that, the bail reform movement, the pre-trial reform movement is certainly one that has many, many great partners in, are working to ensure that there is a default to release, that individuals are detained only when they are a threat to public safety, and only when there is, you know, a large concern that they will not appear, and the community is at risk, because of that. But, if we release those individuals, then they can continue to work. They can continue to support their family. They can continue to take care of their children, and then show up in front of a judge, when the time is right for their trial, or for their, their hearing. And detaining them doesn't produce the results that we're looking for, it actually only makes the situation for individuals worse. It makes the system explode. It's expensive, it's enormous, and that there are more effective ways to manage that pre-trial phase of the, within the criminal justice system.
Now talk a little bit about the, you know, sort of the artificial intelligence tool that, that you have worked on, and around which there's a little controversy. Not so much your particular tool, but the use of artificial intelligence as a contributor to decision making.
So with the elimination, so if we are moving toward, or if we are advocating for eliminating, or greatly reducing the use of cash bail, and allowing individuals to be released without it, there needs to be, I believe there, we believe there needs to be data information tools given to judges, to make good decisions. Ultimately, it is the judge's decision to determine whether or not to detain someone. But giving them information around, is this individual a threat to the community, is this individual unlikely to appear, which are several reasons why you would detain someone, that giving them that information allows them to make a data-driven decision. Instead of being given limited information, making judgment off of assumptions, off of, perhaps, stereotypes, off of, you know, information that isn't proven to be tied to whether, knowing whether or not the individual is a threat to public safety, but they will not, they are unlikely to appear back in court, et cetera.
And so, we and others have developed risk assessment tools that, essentially, give judges information around, you know, is this, is this individual at risk, and should we detain them pre-trial? We have seen in communities that that is an effective tool to give individuals, with the judge, ultimately, having discretion. But, as you mentioned, Julia, it's not without its controversies.
There are concerns that risk assessment is racially biased. And, at this point, we don't have enough data to definitively make a statement as to whether or not it is. But there are concerns with any sort of artificial intelligence, any use of algorithms, that you may be solving for assumptions, biases, discriminatory behavior in one capacity, and then creating another. And so, the field is in the middle of figuring out, how do we effectively use two tools of artificial intelligence, use tools of risk assessment, data analysis, while not creating another pathway for bias and discrimination?
So you mentioned how important data-driven is, both culturally within Arnold Ventures, and with respect to decision making in the criminal justice system, particularly. But it seems to me that there are increasing calls for philanthropy to fund grassroots organizations that are close to the issues, reflective of the lived experience of people who have experienced injustice and inequities. So, you have a big focus on research. What kind of research is that? And what do you say to people who say, "No, philanthropy shouldn't be funding research. You should only be funding things that produce action at, in the moment, and make people's lives better right then."
Thank you, I appreciate that question. For us, our research spans, you know, it spans a spectrum. So we are often funding research to understand root issues that are driving system failures. You know, it's trying to understand what's happening, and what are the, what are the drivers? We often fund research that evaluates programs. So it says, you know, we are looking at, you know, does this program work? Does it produce the outcomes that we care about? Does it not? Does the program cause harm? And we certainly fund evaluations of policies that we and others implement at locally, states, federally, to say, Okay, look, we have this research on, you know, problems and root causes. We have emerging evidence that says this is effective. But we need to know, is it actually working when it is implemented at scale? And so, our research
Is, it's vast and wide.
I agree with anyone who says that you need advocates on the ground, and you need communities that are directly impacted, and understand at a fundamental level the issues that individuals, the community, the system are experiencing and creating. And I don't see a need to say you need research, or you need advocacy, and advocates on the ground, you need both. You know, we can have data in a vacuum, and it's helpful. But data with lived experience, with an understanding of the fuller picture, the things that cannot necessarily be captured by data, that is when real and meaningful change can be implemented. And we are doing more of this work than we previously did, because, I think, as we get further along and understand more about policy change, we have, as an organization, developed a greater appreciation, and a greater understanding that having those advocates and communities engaged is instrumental.
Let's go from, (sighs heavily) you know, the on the ground, lived experience (coughs) to the federal level. I mean, I remember, during the Obama Administration, as it was coming to an end, the Arnold Foundation, then the Arnold Foundation, sort of adopted the Obama Administration's Data-Driven Justice initiative. That's an interesting sort of, you know, one direction from the Federal Government to being sustained over time by philanthropy. Talk a little bit about that. But, at the same time, why don't you touch on what you think might be… No, whether you think today is a promising moment, promising political moment at the federal level for, for the kind of change that wouldn't be reflected in a more just experience for people with the just, with the criminal justice system.
Yes, so I, I hesitate to say that our absorbing, or the community absorbing the Obama Administrative, Obama Administration's Data-Driven Justice Initiative is a model. I don't know if it was something that was unique to Lynn Overmann and Kelli Jin, who joined us, who had led that initiative within the administration. But it was a great example of the White House had priorities to connect with and support local communities who were looking to find ways to improve justice, healthcare, and mental health outcomes for individuals who frequently interacted with all of those systems. And they believed that if the local community had data that connected what was happening in those disparate systems, that the community could create better solutions to meet the needs of those individuals.
And so, you know, we know, you know that the criminal justice system is often the system, I don't know, would you say last resort, or first resort? It's the one that's called, right? I mean, if there's a crisis, it's a police officer that was, 911 is managed through the criminal justice system. It's a police officer that shows up when it might not be a, a situation that needs any criminal, any police involvement, it needs mental health experts, or it needs, you know, someone who can provide healthcare.
And so, the Data-Driven Justice initiative was created to give communities a framework, and the support to create, to create a system that allowed them to identify who those individuals are, those frequent utilizers who interact with all of those systems, and then pilot and test solutions that met their needs, and, um, created public safety, reduced costs to all of those systems, for meeting those individual needs.
I think it was a perfect example of the Federal Government understanding that communities were seeing, facing the same situations, but didn't necessarily, on their own, know how to move forward with solutions. And so, the DDJ, the Data-Driven Justice initiative provided them with the framework, the infrastructure, the intelligence, the system, to understand their local situation, and meet their local needs.
As far as opportunities today, I'm certainly encouraged by what we're hearing from the Biden Administration, whether it's around, I believe it was today, a statement around closing for-profit prisons. It's… The Biden Administration is making statements around a number of criminal justice priorities in all of the areas in which we work. And so, we are encouraged and heartened by that, and the work of the Justice Department.
But, you know, really, so much of our criminal justice work happens at the state. Just the way that the system is regulated and funded, that is a really important locus of policy change. I think, today, I am optimistic for a host of reasons. Not only that we have administrations that are open to change, but I think that COVID, our country's reckoning with issues of systemic generational issues of racial injustice is creating a moment for us to ask some honest and sober questions about the criminal justice system, and whether or not it is effective at keeping us safe, while being equitable, fair, respectful.
So, I… I am… It's hard to say that in this terrible circumstances you're encouraged, but I do think that we are seeing that fault lines that existed are exposed right now. And so, for a group that has worked in this field for some time, we are actually, we believe there are windows opening to create real and meaningful change beyond the present moment, that will last.
So you mentioned the, the mentioned the tactic to work at the state level. And, actually, things that happen at the state level have a lot of influence on policies and resources that are available at the local, or the city, or the county level. But, what do you see across the states? Do you see different interest in criminal justice reform, based on whether or not the state is a blue state, or a red state, or does this actually transcend, the concern transcend the party denomination?
I think that...I think they desire, the awareness of the need for reform, and the desire to do better transcends red and blue. And we are seeing, actually, that this has become, criminal justice reform has become a bit of a bipartisan issue. Which, if you go back to, you know, a few decades ago, you would not have said that, that they were two very different approaches to the justice system that, that people who fell in different political camps would espouse.
We are seeing reform happen in different ways, in different states. And I think some of that is driven by the politics within the state. I think some of it is driven by the issues within the state. So states where there is, you know, just an out, an out control prison population. We might see more opportunity for reform not only around the conditions with inside prisons, but then, how do we release individuals safely to communities? You're seeing the same with probation and parole, with bail reform, that there are different reasons, political, community, economic that drive different reforms in different states. So I couldn't give you a framework, or a rubric, but I can tell you that there is reform happening in, in many states, and in red and blue, for sure.
I showed at the beginning of slides that really was meant to reflect the fact that philanthropy is obsessed with justice. What is your take on the philanthropic landscape right now, interest from your peers, no matter what corporate structure they come from? What's the sort of level of interest, and energy, and desire to really wrestle this system to the ground?
The criminal justice system?
I think the desire is high. I think the desire is strong, and not only in the philanthropic community, because, I think, as you described, Julia, at the beginning, this is a system that, particularly, Black communities are just ravaged by, and that, if we, as a field, say we care about justice, we cannot turn a blind eye to what is happening within our criminal justice system. We would be ignoring one of the most obvious places where injustice is experienced by many. And so, we are seeing new partners come to the table. We are seeing partners like your organization, McArthur, who's been in the field for decades, you know, that are continuing with the focus, that are doubling down, that are expanding into new places. And so, I am encouraged that there is a focus on justice, and there's an accountability that we, as philanthropists, need to do something. And that this is the right place, one of the right places for us to be working.
So I posited at the top of my remarks that I think that a failure to restore trust and confidence in the justice system is an existent, existential threat to our society and democracy. So it seems to me that you actually agree. So talk a little bit about whether or not you actually agree with that. I think you touched on it in just your last remarks, sort of alluding to the fact that, if we don't work on this, we are not really trying to fix a system that has such detrimental effects on so many people. You know, existential is a big word. And so, talk a little bit about, you know, the magnitude of the challenge, and the importance of making sure that we grapple with it, as a society.
You know, cut me off if I'm not saying something new, because I, I may have said this. You know, my passion, and our organization's passion is improving lives. And we believe that everyone deserves equal access to opportunities, and equal protection, equal justice. You know, if you asked me, "Where do people, particularly, underserved poor communities, where are they "the most at risk to have that violated?" It's the criminal justice system?
There is… I mean, there are countless examples of where the system doesn't deliver justice to individuals, while not making us safer. And so, I do think that this is an existential issue. And I think that we, as a society, have a responsibility to ask ourselves the hard questions, of how can we let this system exist, that we know isn't living up to its fundamental promises, or the fundamental objectives of safety, justice, fairness, equity, respect? I think that we are, we have become aware of the failings of the system, and we don't need more data to know it's not working, and now is the time for action. And I think that I'm encouraged that we're seeing that action. I'm discouraged that the outcomes aren't improving more quickly. But I think we are headed, I am hopeful we are heading in the right direction.
So let me take just a few questions from the, from the participants in this session. You mentioned about working through the, through the pre-trial risk assessment tool as something that could be helpful to the judiciary. So are there, the question is, "What is Arnold Ventures doing to affect local level judiciary behavior?" Because, it's so often biased against people of color. Is there anything else in your toolbox beyond the pre-trial assessment that focuses on the judiciary?
That's a great question, and those are new areas of focus for us. So we have spent the last couple of years looking, and particularly at the, the function. So we've, we've focused on pre-trial broadly, but we are looking very specifically now at the roles of prosecutors, and what are opportunities for positive reform in that space? We are looking at and asking questions around public defense. So, a constitutional right to representation is often really not lived into, and is that, how can we support positive outcomes for change there? And so, I wish, I am hope, I'm actually encouraged, invite me back in a year or two, and I think I will have more to say about what else we are doing in the pre-trial space, to deal with the challenges that you described in your question.
So here's another question: How are you balancing your focus between initiatives that push the long-term systemic change, you know, like lobbying, and those that act in the short-term, you know, perhaps, called a Band-Aid, but not necessarily that can affect individual lives, like a community-based, or even a national bail fund? How much are, how do you think about those two things?
We think about them a lot, and we don't have a scientific answer. And I think that's probably the right thing, not to have a, well, it's 20% of this, and it's 80% of that. I think that we are always asking ourselves, what will this produce for the field that moves us in the right direction? Are we the right funder for it? Are we, based on a host of different qualities, or aspects, is the present need, you know, going to your comment around present need, is the present need so acute, and no one else is meeting it? Is the present need something that we can, that there isn't solutions for, and there's need for a funder who's willing to take a risk, and pilot something that may fail miserably, but nobody else may have the risk profile to fund that?
So those are the kind of questions and trade-offs we're asking ourselves when we look at any investment. And so, we don't say, "Okay, this much to long-term, "this much to short-term," but we try to ask those strategic questions within each investment. But it's a, it's a really good point, I'm, I appreciate someone bringing it up, that that is a balancing act, and that is something that philanthropy has a responsibility to think about.
And I know we haven't, we're gonna run out of time soon, but something we haven't talked about, Julia, is that we are a very unregulated industry, right? I mean, coming from the business world, you knew at the end of the day if you were successful, right, you had a bottom line? There were other things that mattered, but you largely knew, am I on track, or not? And with philanthropy, there are, not only do you not necessarily have a measured outcome, but you don't even necessarily know what the outcomes are that you should measure. And so, we are constantly asking ourselves, and wrestling with those questions of short and long-term, near-term impact, you know, but, you know, long-term benefit. And so, it is definitely a balancing act.
I'll invite you back to another entire session focused on, how does society hold philanthropy accountable for its decisions, and its areas of focus, and it's experiments, and, you know? It's sometimes focusing on outcomes, and other times just looking for serendipity.
So that, that's another conversation completely. But let me take another question here. Let's see.
Oh! There's a notation, actually, that Illinois just enacted a pretrial justice reform that drew from the experience and prior reforms in other states, and it puts Illinois in the forefront of eliminating cash bail. How do you think about the cash bail issue? Is what Illinois did, is that, is that a model. Because, I'm actually looking at giant pushback against the elimination of bail, you know, in New York, and, you know, and modified in certain ways in California.
A little bit about that. And then, close it off with something that I hope the participants in the session find inspiring. So talk a little bit about that, as an exemplar.
You know, I… If I look at the issues on which we work across Arnold Ventures, I would say that our thinking around bail reform, and the elimination of cash bail is evolving most quickly, based on what is happening in the field. And so, you know, just by way of a brief summary, New Jersey is probably the one state we can point to where there has been successful implementation of eliminating cash bail. You mentioned New York, Julia, it has not gone well. We are seeing fits and starts, and lots of changes needed to happen there, to implement that.
And then, you know, Prop 25 in California, which we were a big backer of, to eliminate cash bail, which Governor Brown, he had previously signed into law, that California would eliminate cash bail, there was a proposition brought forward to, essentially, reverse that. And we were, with many other partners in philanthropy, supportive of that. We wanted to see cash bail eliminated in California. And we had an assumption, a belief that if it can't pass in California, it's really gonna be a challenge to pass anywhere else, and it, it didn't, so California did not eliminate cash bail.
And so, I think, as a field, we are having to ask ourselves, are we ready for this? Is this the right policy for right now? We believe that eliminating cash bail is the wise thing to do. But we're seeing big political headwinds. And so, I'm hopeful that states like Illinois, and what they're doing there will give us another example, like New Jersey, of a success case. But I think we're really early in this policy change process, and it's just gonna, we're gonna have to see what happens, and see what reform is implemented, how effective it is. And my guess is, three years from now, we're going to have a lot to say on this. But, right now, it's too early to tell. We have few examples of successful implementation. And we have two, one total setback in California, and one rocky implementation in New York, so I, it's hard for me to express, you know, like here's what it'll take to work in Illinois, and good job, way to go, guys. I think we'll have to wait and see. But, I am hopeful.
But what you actually are touching on there is something that we really have to think about as we, as a society, say that we need to really focus on justice system reform, if we are going to have an equitable framework within which people can live. What you're bringing up, is the fact that, the notion of headwinds. I mean, virtually every reform comes up against people who benefit from the status quo.
That's why I think about, terrific, let's get rid of private prisons. But there are people who are, people in corporations for whom that is truly big business.
And, people who say, "Well, if I can't, if I can't work here in a prison, maybe I'll be a,a purveyor of electronic monitoring." The, the notion that we have to always be aware of, is that it is extremely complex. And I hope that the participants in this session have taken away a sense of the incredible leadership that Arnold Ventures has here into making sure that the existent, existential threat is not real. That we can actually be continually working to make this system work in its, in accordance with its ideal of fairness, equity, moral right, everything that then makes this country come closer to the founding ideals.
So, terrific questions, thank you. I want to do one final thing, and that is, I want to remind you that, while the business of philanthropy is really the toughest problems facing humanity, but remember, philanthropy is still a business. And so, it's a big business, with the potential for influence and impact, and it needs a wide variety of skills and expertise, including those that you're investing in here at Booth, and Harris, and the Law School.
These two slides here are actually an amalgam of the titles, the job titles at the MacArthur Foundation, and at Arnold Ventures. And so, I, I hope you take inspiration here, that you don't actually have to wait to the end of your career to give back, or to work on making the world a better place, that doesn't have to end, doesn't have to wait 'til the end of your career. So, take a look here, these are, these are job titles that are not unique to philanthropy. These are business, and law, and other aspects of profession that virtually every one of you is preparing for. I hope you take away the notion that philanthropy is a, a viable career for the kinds of skills that you are honing for yourselves, and that there are opportunities to make the world a better place, starting today.
So, as we close, I want to remind you that we shared a resource guide with each of you, to help you dig deeper into the notions of justice, criminal justice reform. Arnold Ventures is an exemplar in philanthropy in the US. So there's information about other Rustandy Center programs and offerings on their events page. But I want to point out something coming up quite soon, February 16th, from 5:00 to 6:00. This is the third session in the Innovating for Social Equity Series, and really interesting to dig into the responsibility of the business community
in advancing equity. And it's going to be co-hosted with the Stigler Center for the Study of the Economy and the State.
Now, if you're a Booth student, and you'd like to continue this conversation, you can join me in my office hours. I have, I think I have one slot left tomorrow, and then a few slots left on February 8th. I'd be happy to continue this conversation, whether it's about philanthropy, your own sort of struggling with your, you know, how do I help myself be prepared for what's next in my life, or justice and criminal justice more generally.
So, thank you, thank you, Kelli. This was an incredibly substantive exploration into the ins and outs, and the aspirations, and challenges of one of the real leaders in the field. And so, thanks, to you. And thanks, to all of you in the session, we hope to connect with you again soon. Thank you.
On Tuesday, January 26, the Rustandy Center kicked off this year's "Perspectives in Philanthropy" series, which is designed to help Booth students and others in the UChicago community gain a deeper understanding of the role that philanthropy plays in American society, from the controversies surrounding its resources and influence to the issues and interests that it fuels.
This session, "Is Justice Even Possible?," examined a leading philanthropic effort to reform and increase confidence in one of the country’s bedrock institutions: the American justice system. Julia Stasch, philanthropy executive in residence at the Rustandy Center, was joined in conversation by Kelli Rhee, president and CEO of Arnold Ventures, one of the foremost funders and innovators in criminal justice reform. They explored the organization’s distinctive multi-part structure and approach, its singular focus on evidence, and the significant changes it hopes to bring about in the justice system—including policing and pretrial, probation and parole, prisons, and reintegration.
- Julia Stasch, Immediate Past President, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation; Philanthropy Executive in Residence, Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation
- Kelli Rhee, President and Chief Executive Officer, Arnold Ventures
- Want to learn more about philanthropy and criminal justice reform? Check out this resource guide.
- Keep an eye out for upcoming philanthropy and social impact programs. Visit our events page.
- Sign up for our monthly newsletter to receive articles from Booth faculty with ideas for accelerating impact in the social sector and updates on relevant news and events. Sign up for the Rustandy Monthly.
An edited and condensed transcript of a panel discussion held during the Corporate Social Responsibility Revisited conference hosted by Chicago Booth.Leveraging Research and Data in Diversity and Inclusion Strategy
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