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Member Spotlight: Ellen Alberding, CEO of the Joyce Foundation

December 1, 2023

An interview with Ellen Alberding, CEO of the Joyce Foundation

Last month, Ellen Alberding announced her retirement after 34 years at the Joyce Foundation, the last 21 of them as its President and CEO. Joyce has been a leader in philanthropy’s efforts to prevent gun violence, and was one of the original member foundations in the Fund for Safer Future. We wanted to get Ellen’s perspective on that long-term commitment, what changes she’s seen in the philanthropic response to gun violence, and where she sees opportunities for making change and saving lives.

The Joyce Foundation has been funding gun violence prevention efforts for 30 years. How did that work begin, and what distinguished Joyce’s approach when it first got into this work?

Well, it was clear for decades that the United States had a unique relationship with gun ownership that resulted in a much higher incidence of suicide and homicide and accidental deaths than any other developed country. 

Way back in 1993, Debby Leff was President of the Foundation, and she was interested in whether there was anything that could be done from a philanthropic point of view to better understand the issue and do something about it. She decided on k a public health approach, and invested in David Hemenway’s work at Harvard in the School of Public Health.

David did much of the  research that undergirds almost everybody’s understanding of the gun issue now. To simplify his fantastic research –  the more guns there are, the more homicides, suicides, and accidental deaths there are. He documented that fact state by state and was able to compare the US record with those of other developed countries. So his work and the understanding that we developed from investing in his efforts were really seminal. 

Since then, the Foundation has taken new directions in which we think we can be most useful. As I mentioned, Debby Leff was very committed to a public health approach and set the table for investing in research – because there was very little research money available. Over time, we added new elements to complement the  public health approach, but maintained our commitment to funding research and to focusing on policy.

We have stuck with this issue for 30 years. For many of those 30 years we were really alone on the issue. And that’s where some of the risk came in, because we were an easy target for those who found the work that we were doing threatening, and some who really opposed what we were doing. But over time, and this gets us to the Fund for a Safer Future, many others have joined in the effort and some extremely large, very notable partners, including Mike Bloomberg and others, have created more of a norm for philanthropy to engage on the issue. Yes, it’s political. Yes, it’s controversial. Yes, there’s some risk in doing it, but on the other hand, if we’re not willing to take on an issue like this from philanthropy, how can we expect anybody else to do the same?

What were the inflection points where philanthropy started to become more broadly willing to take on gun violence?

Often it was after a terrible mass shooting. People knew us, they knew me, and these mass shootings raised the issue in a way that horrified so many people. Though there were, of course, the  usual after-analysis of “what was the weapon and where did the weapon come from and what were the issues of the shooter” but no real solutions.  Like many people, my colleagues in philanthropy wanted to do something but didn’t know exactly what. With no clear solutions in sight, and the added risk of a highly politicized issue, it took courage for new voices to join in – but they did.

I found both with the Fund for Safer Future and The Partnership for Safe and Peaceful Communities, the project that we helped start in Chicago, that two things that were helpful in engaging other funders: First is that we were acknowledged as having experience, and knowledge of what the research was indicating in terms of solutions.  We had calluses on our hands and a sense of how to move forward. Second, we had a strategy for working together. You could choose to be visible or you could choose to work more behind the scenes. And that made people more comfortable with the issue. 

We started out with five wonderful funders at FSF, and as time has gone by we’ve gotten many, many more. It’s really great because it’s not driven by any one of us. We’re able to learn from each other, we’re able to choose lanes where we’re really good at and comfortable funding. So the Fund for a Safer Future has developed into a really fantastic community over time.

Can you talk about the Partnership for Safe and Peaceful Communities (PSPC) in Chicago, and specifically the approach of doing experimental work that the public sector can step in and build on? 

Julia Stasch, who was then president of the MacArthur Foundation, and I worked closely with Brian Fabes at the Civic Consulting Alliance here in Chicago on PSPC. in 2015 Chicago had an alarming, alarming uptick in gun violence. And it was very similar to the Fund for Safer Future process, in that a lot of our colleagues in philanthropy and government were both focused on the problem, but not entirely sure how to address it.what do we do? 

By working with Brian, who has a real consulting mindset, we developed a four-pronged plan that was designed in part to accommodate the interests of different funders. Some wanted to contribute to research, some wanted to work on police reform, some wanted to do direct services, and so on.

By both limiting the set of strategies we were going to work on, but also providing opportunities for people with different backgrounds to participate, it was incredibly successful at bringing philanthropy together. I think we have 50 funders in Chicago right now. And if you know philanthropy, that’s not easy to do. And yet the shared concern everybody had overwhelmed any roadblocks that there might’ve been to collaboration. 

The bulk of the money has gone into direct service, by which I mean community-based interventions focused on those who are most likely to shoot or be shot and providing wraparound services, job training, potential jobs and so on.

We also invested heavily in evaluation of those programs. The idea was to design programs that we can’t fund either at scale or forever, but incubate them and see what worked best for Chicago . And so the idea was to provide tested strategies for government to then take on. I wouldn’t say that that’s been a smashing success, yet, but it’s been pretty good. And the fact that we were so focused on evaluating the programs has been helpful in the national conversation about violence interruption programs, which as you may know has become a really big deal. The U.S. Department of Justice is investing in it. State governments are investing in all sorts of violence intervention programs around the country because it’s not just a Chicago problem. So I feel like we provided both a template and a really good base for other cities and other folks who are trying to address similar problems.

Joyce has been funding gun violence research for a long time, long enough to really observe whether it makes a difference. Where have you gotten to see data and evidence come to fruition in policy change?

Well, if you don’t have any research and you don’t have any data, it’s pretty hard to develop plausible policy solutions to difficult problems. That applies to any issue. 

The narrative on gun violence prevention can be kind of grim if you only look at the prospects at the federal level. (I’ll put aside the fact that there’s one good law passed recently, the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, that did rely heavily on evidence that we had invested in.) But at the state level, there have been all sorts of improvements. I’ll just give you one example that I think is very relevant, and it’s a live one, which is this issue of so-called red flag laws or extreme risk protection orders. 21 states have some version of a red flag law which allows intervention if there is somebody who you believe is at risk of shooting themselves or shooting someone else.  And these laws are a fairly modern innovation, following a significant push by philanthropy that developed the research base on this policy idea over the last decade.

So Uncle Joe has a gun, he is depressed or he’s angry. The red flag law allows you (and I’m generalizing here) to contact the local police department and then they can go in and take the gun, either temporarily or permanently. However, these laws are far from standardized – each state has adopted a slightly different version. And so what we’re currently working on from a research point of view is to try to break out which aspects of these different red flag laws have a positive impact in reducing gun violence.

What we’re learning is that the laws have different levels of impact, depending on how they are constructed .  And, of course, if the law is passed but not properly implemented, the impact is diminished. This is what we saw in the recent mass shooting in Maine – its law is relatively weak, and not well implemented. 

Our hope is that by funding research that demonstrates how to strengthen red flag laws, and why it is important to emphasize implementation, that states will take note.  

Looking ahead, where does Joyce see the leading edge of gun violence prevention work, the most opportunities to make an impact?

I think that you cannot overestimate the importance of police reform to the issue of gun violence. If you don’t have fair and just law enforcement, mutually respectful law enforcement, these issues that are going on in urban communities will not be solved. That is very important to me and to the Foundation. And I think it’s something that is going to continue to be a critical issue for people to grapple with. And in our case, in Chicago, changing an institution that has operated in a certain way for a really long time is not easy. Having the right leader with support from the right elected officials is critical. There’s a whole lot that can be done there and whether we can make that happen or not, I don’t know, but we sure intend to keep at it and work on that.

I also want to give credit to Nina Vinik, who ran our Gun Violence Prevention & Justice Reform program for a long time, and who really started the Fund for a Safer Future. Her obsession (and I don’t mean that in a bad way!) is with youth and young people. Because the polling shows that young people’s views of guns are going in the wrong direction. They mistakenly believe that having a gun will make them safer. And so Nina’s leading Project Unloaded, which works to create a new cultural narrative around guns. Let’s just start with that, figuring out how to change the norms, change the understanding and work with the next generation. That’s also important and interesting to me. 

And finally, we focus largely in urban areas, and I think that the issues of rural populations are under-acknowledged, at least in our world, and that that’s a very fertile territory for philanthropy. 

Those are some of the things I think are going forward are going to be really important, whether Joyce takes them on or somebody else.