Over $83 Million Out the Door in Eighteen Months: An Update on CZI’s Justice Reform Spinoff


With the birth of a new nonprofit and partner wins in 39 states over the past 18 months, The Just Trust’s recent trajectory illustrates what’s possible when a funder is ready and willing to commit major resources to nonprofits on the front lines of an issue. In the case of this five-year, $350 million spinoff from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the issue is criminal justice reform. Even in an era marked by Americans’ concerns about COVID-era crime rates, and a backlash in some places against the more progressive justice reform imperatives of 2020, the results so far are impressive.

There have been high hopes for The Just Trust since its 2021 creation as what was then known as the Justice Accelerator Fund. At the time, people at the new funder and others in the justice reform space said it would be a “game-changer” that would “supercharge resources to the field,” in part by building coalitions of unlikely allies and moving money to 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) groups alike. Since then, the trust has definitely made some promising moves, including investing money in red states that at first glance might seem unlikely sites for criminal justice reform through its State by State Campaign, and supporting nonprofit collaborations between community activists and law enforcement professionals through its Safer Communities Accelerator program.

These moves, and the money that’s been spent so far, seem to be paying off. According to the trust’s new annual report, its grantee partners have successfully shepherded 230 pieces of legislation and “narrative change campaigns” in 39 states in the past 18 months, including in far-from-progressive states like Arkansas, Arizona and Florida.  

“It’s important that we never forget that our current criminal justice system does not see political affiliation. It does not see who you voted for in the last election,” said Ana Zamora, CEO of The Just Trust. Given estimates that half of the U.S. population has a family member who has been incarcerated, and 1 in 3 adults have a record of incarceration, conviction or arrest, The Just Trust’s commitment to working in states that others may be tempted to write off makes sense. Mass incarceration is a truly nationwide problem, and philanthropic attempts to tackle it as such must be able to bridge ideological lines, at least to some degree. 

Toward that end, in one of its most ambitious single moves to date, the trust invested $500,000 this year to help create the Adams Project, the first and only nationwide conservative advocacy organization dedicated solely to criminal justice reform. The new nonprofit’s board is made up of experienced conservative activists and advocates whose affiliations include or have included the Koch-backed advocacy group Americans for Prosperity, George W. Bush’s presidential campaign, and the Federalist Society.

Zamora said that the trust was inspired to help create the Adams Project because there is already a strong group of justice reform advocates who engage solely with Democrats and progressives in blue states, and very strong bench of activists who work on a bipartisan basis (justice reform has long been one of the few areas where that’s the case, in the nonprofit world and elsewhere). “What we didn’t have was a dedicated criminal justice reform 501(c)(4) organization that spoke exclusively to Republicans and, even more specifically, to conservative Republicans,” Zamora said.

The next 10 years of criminal justice reform

The Just Trust’s leaders may be celebrating its achievements to date, but they are also deeply aware of a few hard numbers. Between awarding just over $83 million in the past 18 months (it began its grantmaking in March 2022) and the fact that the funder is now over two years into its planned five-year existence, both its time and money are limited. And while $350 million is an impressive commitment by a single funder, it pales next to the estimated $81 billion a year being spent on the existing criminal justice system in the U.S.

Zamora said that the past roughly two and a half years have been dedicated to establishing and demonstrating the success of the funder’s theory of change and showing that it’s possible to competently move a lot of money into the field in a short timeframe. 

“We're going to continue doing that,” she said, “but now we're at a critical moment where we have to also pivot to think about, what does the next 10 years of criminal justice reform look like,” and how will The Just Trust sustain the work it has supported, and in some cases created, once The Just Trust is in the rearview mirror? While contemplating that big picture, the funder is also accepting rolling grant applications. 

Ultimately, Zamora would like The Just Trust’s biggest contribution to the field to be a successful effort to leverage CZI’s $350 million commitment to help usher in the next generation of major donors to criminal justice reform.

“The Just Trust seeks to build that next bench of donors, and we want to be a partner to other funders and other philanthropies who want to lean in like CZI has and continue making progress on public safety and justice reform,” she said.