What’s going on with funders and the criminal justice system?

18 December 2018 4.5 minute read

I spend most of my time at NPC thinking about the criminal justice system and the role of independent funding within it.

We recently held a roundtable of 18 criminal justice funders (trusts, foundations and philanthropists) and—allow me to make a tenuous connection—since it’s the season to be generous, I’ve been reflecting on the role of giving in criminal justice.

We know that independent funders are increasingly frustrated with the criminal justice system.

Clinks, the umbrella body for criminal justice charities, have recently found that the sector—particularly small and specialist organisations—rely heavily on financial support from trusts and foundations. Specialist criminal justice organisations with an income of between £100k and £500k received 33% of their funding from trusts and foundations and 23% from government[1].

But we know that independent funders are increasingly frustrated with the criminal justice system. Many are losing confidence in their ability to have an impact, particularly when funding work that is delivered in prisons. As a result, they have been ‘drifting away,’ whether consciously or not, from funding prison-based work.

We want to understand their frustrations and motivations, and ultimately help them invest impactfully into the sector, with greater confidence. Because the criminal justice system is in real need of support.

Below are my 5 main takeaways from our research so far, featuring quotes from some of the funders we spoke to:

  1. Funders are less confident about funding prison-based work

Funders are well aware of how difficult it has been for charities to access people in prison—an issue recently explored in a blog by my colleague Theo. They hear from their grantees how tricky it has been, and they won’t have missed regular headlines about prison riots, lock downs and staff shortages.

The prison part of a person’s journey is the “black hole” bit that’s not transparent. There is this perception that what goes on there is not transparent, and that puts a lot of funders off.


We are worried about staffing issues. We also worry about the safety of charities’ staff.

  1. There is appetite for more radical systems change work to rethink the role of prisons

Given this ‘prison crisis’, funders are thinking about how their support could help the cause at a more structural level.

The main issue is the overcrowding. Everyone understands that most of those in prison shouldn’t be in prison. This feels like the elephant in the room. This is what wearies me in the sector—you can make all sorts of small changes, but the sector as a whole is bending under the weight of overcrowding.

Some felt that ‘small wins’ in criminal justice campaigning can bring much needed energy, and that perhaps this is where funders should be focusing their efforts.

Even if you make one small change through advocacy, it can bring a huge amount of energy into a sector. I see a lot of weariness and battle fatigue in the sector and aiming for change in just one or two areas may be really effective in giving a shot in the arm to the sector.

  1. They are frustrated with the competitive commissioning environment in which charities have to operate

People don’t want to come together anymore and talk about what is working as they are in competition and it is a very unhealthy environment. This has got much worse—contracts are awarded to slick presentations from large charities.

Some were frustrated with charities who talk about their intervention as the ‘sole solution’, claiming attribution rather than contribution towards outcomes. This can be seen as a result of the competitive commissioning environment.

The criminal justice sector seems to attract a lot of sole solutions. [They don’t talk about how] this solution works with someone else’s, but instead insist that this works on its own.

  1. The collective voice of funders could be very powerful

In particular, the ACF network and the Corston Coalition were mentioned as leading the way.

Funders have provided leadership. Where not much has happened, it is not for want of trying.

But there is potential to do more to collaborate and use the collective knowledge of funders.

I feel very frustrated by how much knowledge exists in funders that goes unused—frontline organisations are dealing with delivery and can’t always step back and spot trends—whereas funders can. But how much do we use our reports? We put them away rather than tying it together and articulating trends.

  1. They disagree on how independent funding should sit next to state funding

Some felt passionately that the funding needs in the prison system are so vast that if the charity sector begins to step on the toes of statutory provision, it could be the beginning of a slippery slope.

Yet others felt investing in the well-being of staff is the sort of groundwork needed for charitable interventions for prisoners to be successful. This means funders should consider funding core operational needs in prisons, even such as the Officers’ Mess.

The staff in prisons are clearly very disillusioned, you see them going outside at lunchtime with nowhere to hang out.


There’s no denying this is a really challenging area. So we were also pleased to hear one funder set us a challenge…

You (NPC) can definitely tell us harsh truths…you can tell us to get on with it. It is tough, but you should push us to do more and more effectively.

That’s just what we’re planning to do. Look out for more from us on this in early 2019, where we’ll be sharing our findings on the role of charities in prisons and in influencing systemic change. Keep an eye on our criminal justice hub for all the latest.


[1] Clinks State of the Sector 2018 report, p61


More from our work on criminal justice