From Outrage to Action: Behind a Big Give for Criminal Justice Reform

Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery, Alabama recently received a $1 million gift from Boston area couple Jonathan and Jeannie Lavine via their Crimson Lion Foundation. The gift is one of the largest donations in the organization’s history, and will propel EJI's work to eliminate wrongful convictions and excessive punishment in the United States. 

EJI was founded in 1989 by attorney Bryan Stevenson, who serves as executive director of the organization. The spotlight on mass incarceration and police brutality has arguably never been greater, making EJI's work all the more relevant and pressing. Stevenson, a Harvard Law and Harvard School of Government graduate, has been chipping away at these issues for years, first working for the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR) in Atlanta before founding EJI.

A few years ago, Stevenson gave a TED Talk on his work that became a sensation, garnering over 3 million views to date. The talk brought a gusher of donations to Stevenson's work to end the practice of putting children in adult jails and prisons. Then, in 2014, Stevenson releasedJust Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, a powerful bestselling account of his coming of age as a lawyer and the people he defended. Stevenson has even been called "America's Nelson Mandela."

That's going a little far, but all this attention has certainly introduced more people to the Equal Justice Initative, including Jonathan Lavine, co-managing director of Bain Capital. I recently spoke with Lavine to unpack the couple's $1 million gift and the story behind it. While the Lavines are keen on the work that EJI is doing, backing an outfit like this also fits within the couple's larger philanthropic mission. 

Lavine says he felt "beside himself" reading Just Mercy. He passed the book along to family, as well as to co-workers. Last year, Lavine met with Stevenson and the two discussed a gift and how to structure it. Impact appears to be key, here, and Lavine explained that he was especially convinced of Stevenson's strong track-record of tackling broad issues with specific and individual solutions. 

Last fall, Stevenson and EJI secured a big win when they helped foster the release of Anthony Ray Hinton, a black man who had been on death row in Alabama for some three decades. Litigation went on for years until a judge finally dismissed the charges. In 2012, meanwhile, EJI's lawyers successfully argued before the Supreme Court that imprisoning children under age 17 to life imprisonment without parole was cruel and unusual punishment. Stevenson and his staff have won reversals, relief or release for over 115 wrongly condemned prisoners on death row. 

One thing that Lavine really admires about Stevenson is that he's "using the system to reform the system," in the tradition of icons like Thurgood Marshall. Lavine also said that he and Jeannie are very much interested in improving the system or systems with their philanthropy. The couple tends to donate or invest in things that "help level the playing field, create opportunity and support fairness."

Consider when the young couple were still at Harvard Business School and got their philanthropic feet wet with City Year, an organization that addresses the drop-out crisis. A young Lavine sponsored a City Year volunteer for $18, an amount symbolic in the Jewish faith. Fast-forward several decades, and Lavine now chairs the national board of trustees of City Year. Oh, and not too long ago, the Lavines gave a $10 million gift to the organization. While initially a regional interest, the Lavines have become interested in supporting public school systems across the country.

The Lavines move some of their philanthropy through the Crimson Lion Foundation, but also make gifts independently of the charitable vehicle. Through the charity, though, the couple has supported organizations like LIFT, a national nonprofit organization that helps families break the cycle of poverty, and Capital Good Fund, a financial empowerment outfit. The couple is also involved with the Anti-Defamation League and provided a $5 million grant to the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI). 

We write often about large gifts coming together when a donor and an organization share similar visions and this is yet another example. Apart from the Lavine couple's $1 million, EJI received $1 million from Google’s philanthropic arm for its race and poverty initiatives, including creating civil rights landmarks at lynching sites.