Greater Good Blog

How Investing in Advocacy Successfully Challenged Mass Incarceration

Shelly Whelpton and Loren McArthur

Funders in California went beyond grant making by using advocacy to help end mass incarceration. Here are three important lessons learned along the way.


Funders increasingly recognize the need to engage in advocacy to advance social and environmental change, but often find it challenging to identify effective vehicles and work within their constraints. Ballot initiatives are a powerful emerging vehicle for both 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) funders to drive policy impact and increase civic and electoral engagement in pursuit of their social missions. Arabella Advisors recently wrote a case study of California’s Proposition 47, the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act, which brought sweeping sentencing reforms for people convicted of nonviolent offenses and stands as a groundbreaking victory in the movement to end mass incarceration. A variety of funders used various advocacy tools to help achieve that victory. Our case study and a recent webinar look into how they did it—and highlight several critical lessons for funders. Among them:

Ballot Initiatives Can Create Transformative Change
Ballot initiatives have a unique function: they can bring about policy change without having to go through state legislatures that may be, for any number of reasons, resistant to action. If approached thoughtfully, ballot initiatives can deliver policy impact as well as engage and empower underrepresented communities in the political process, thereby creating a broader base of political participation for the longer term. In the case of Prop 47, activists worked to raise awareness among the communities impacted by over-incarceration, forging alliances between crime victims, law-enforcement leaders, and leaders in low-income communities and communities of color. When Prop 47 was put on the ballot, organizations were able to mobilize thousands of infrequent voters in its support.

501(c)(4) Funding Is Often Essential to Passing Bold Reform—And Such Investments Need Not Be Partisan
Direct work on a ballot initiative campaign is considered lobbying, and 501(c)(3)s are limited by the IRS as to the amount of lobbying in which they can engage. On the other hand, 501(c)(4)s can spend unlimited portions of their budgets on lobbying. Because ballot campaigns in California are extremely expensive and dwarf the lobbying budgets of most 501(c)(3) organizations, 501(c)(4) funding was crucial to advancing sentencing reform in California. Advocates raised and spent $10 million in 501(c)(4) funds to craft a ballot initiative and reach out to voters across diverse communities to mobilize them in support. While the purely charitable work of 501(c)(3) organizations over the years to raise awareness about the problems with the state’s criminal justice system had paved the way, those resources alone were not enough to pass bold sentencing reforms.

Moreover, while (c)(4) investments are often associated with partisan politics, such investments need not be partisan. Prop 47 received support from across the political spectrum, appealing to widespread concern about wasteful spending and the resulting underinvestment in essential social services, such as schools and housing. It mobilized diverse communities and engaged leaders and influencers from both sides of the aisle to advocate for reform.

Private Foundations Can Create an Enabling Environment through Education and Advocacy
Funders constrained in their ability to support 501(c)(4) organizations can instead support 501(c)(3)s whose work is purely charitable and complementary to 501(c)(4) activities—even 501(c)(3) organizations engaged in ballot work. Long before Prop 47 was put on the ballot, funders and advocates who recognized the need for criminal justice reform in California formed Californians for Safety and Justice (CSJ), a 501(c)(3) supported by private foundations such as the Ford Foundation, the Open Society Foundation, the Public Welfare Foundation, and The California Endowment. CSJ’s public education and advocacy efforts—including its work forging unlikely alliances between communities impacted by over-incarceration—helped to change the conversation on public safety in California and build support for alternatives to incarceration. Thus, when Prop 47 was introduced, the public was already primed to support it: there was widespread awareness of the wastefulness of over-incarceration and the need for alternatives, which 501(c)(4) organizations drew upon to win support for this particular measure.

Big, well-placed bets on advocacy campaigns can pay huge dividends, delivering exponential return on investment. Campaigns such as Proposition 47 illustrate the role different funders can play in creating and capitalizing upon public will, thereby achieving deep and lasting good for individuals and communities whose voices too often go unheard.


Shelley Whelpton is a managing director in Arabella’s Washington, DC office. Shelley partners with foundations, social entrepreneurs, corporations, families, and high-net-worth individuals to catalyze change on a range of social and environmental issues. She has helped philanthropists develop advocacy and impact investing strategies, launch and incubate new social change initiatives, convene marginalized and influential voices, and collaborate with partners across sectors. 

Loren McArthur is a director at Arabella with extensive experience in strategic planning, landscape analysis, and program design and evaluation. He has over 15 years of experience in civic engagement, advocacy campaigns, electoral organizing, and policy development.

Back to Blog