Donor Desk: Billie Mizell

Donor Desk: Billie Mizell

You opened your fund in 2017. Why did you decide to open a charitable fund at SFF?

As a nonprofit director, I’d had an opportunity to see that quite a lot of our organization’s most engaged supporters were donating from an SFF fund. I began noticing a trend among these donors of being especially generous, both in their charitable giving and also with their time and attention. Many of the SFF donors consistently contributing to the nonprofit’s general operating budget were also the same donors who were regularly showing up to our fundraising, community, and educational events. And they were the same donors making an effort to find additional creative opportunities to support our work — sometimes with in-kind donations, sometimes by connecting us to new donors, policymakers, media, speaking engagements, development, and administrative assistance, etc. When my wife and I were ready to open our own philanthropy fund, SFF was already at the top of the list. After learning more about SFF’s Equity Agenda, we knew we had found the right home. This has been confirmed repeatedly over the years, particularly by the engagement of our advisor, J.M. Johnson, who has even personally donated to the nonprofit I currently lead.

Like many of the donors in SFF’s donor community, the impact that you’re having in our community goes far beyond just the dollars you give. Tell us a bit about the other work you’re doing in the community.

I have been deeply inspired by the work of Bryan Stevenson and also Kimberly Crenshaw. I try to focus community efforts on what Kimberly was the first to coin “intersectionality” and what Bryan calls “the power of proximity.” With a very intersectional group of activists, I founded ALIGHT Justice, which serves people at intersections of systems-impact and social injustice — and we also strive to bring people from different communities together. As Bryan teaches us, we must get proximate to inequity and injustice because, “if you are willing to get closer to people who are suffering, you will find the power to change the world.” Grounded in that philosophy, we create opportunities for proximity inside prisons. We have hosted many people inside the prison to witness our work and get closer to the people inside, including policymakers, thought leaders, law enforcement, officers of the court, survivors of crime & violence, business & tech innovators, artists (even some Academy Award and Grammy winners), and university & graduate students. We’re currently working closely with Santa Clara Law School to ensure all of their students, every single one, will have this opportunity for proximity available to them during their first year attending law school. ALIGHT also offers LGBTQ+ awareness and education inside prisons, as well as Restorative Justice and Transformative Justice programs inside and outside of prison.

Many donors come to SFF because they are particularly attuned to how they can serve folks who have been pushed to the margins of our community. What is something you’ve learned through your work—or through your giving—that you wish others in our donor community better understood?

“What I wish I had better understood earlier — is the impact philanthropy can have in historically underserved and underfunded communities and organizations.”

From my work, I have learned the critical role that small nonprofits play, especially for the most marginalized among us. So, one thing I wish others better understood — what I wish I had better understood earlier — is the impact philanthropy can have in historically underserved and underfunded communities and organizations. I’ll tell you about one example from my own experience with my former nonprofit. A foundation advisor got in touch with me to let me know that a couple she advised wanted to learn more about the work we were doing. We invited those donors into the prison to see for themselves what we do. Afterward, they asked me to offer them three ideas, three brief descriptions of what I might do with a sizeable grant. They ended up fully funding the idea that most spoke to them, which was a fellowship for a formerly incarcerated person to be hired as a development associate, a position our organization very much needed. Our nonprofit benefited greatly from having that position filled, and the person who filled it greatly benefitted from the opportunity. We were able to continue the relationship with the donors beyond the charitable gift, as they were invested in the success of the role and the individual, so we continued to collaborate closely on related opportunities. The donors connected us to professional trainings for the fellowship and even to in-kind equipment and supplies for our development efforts. It was immediately a smashing success! Their investment was leveraged considerably as our first development fellow rapidly created new relationships and campaigns to support our work — and after his fellowship was complete, he went on to a new role in Sacramento where he now has an important voice in advocacy and policy.

How has your journey as a philanthropist evolved based on what you’ve learned from your work and from your giving?

I now try to direct my philanthropy to the communities and organizations in the most need rather than those already making the most impact and generating headlines. I also definitely make an effort to build relationships with the team members doing the daily, difficult (and often thankless) work of managing and sustaining a nonprofit. This helps me identify ways that I can supplement my charitable dollars with whatever other resources, skills, or connections I might be able to offer. I’m also much more open now to hearing a pitch for a brand new unfunded idea – or making one myself. I enjoy brainstorming with change-agents and I feel deeply rewarded seeing our ideas come to life in service of community, justice, and equity.

June is Pride Month. What does Pride mean to you and/or how do you commemorate or celebrate?

For me, Pride is a time to show our gratitude for the shoulders upon which we stand. It is also a time to link arms and square up our own shoulders for the next generation. It is a time to reflect on our collective strength, our hard-fought wins, and all that we have overcome. And it’s a time to shine a light on all the injustice that remains. It is a time for committed activism; and it is a time for JOY and LOVE. All of these things, for me, are inextricably linked in how I commemorate and celebrate Pride. This is especially true for me now, as I met my wife through activism against injustice and our individual philanthropic endeavors. She is a personal hero, whose gifts to the world I am so grateful for every day — and our love story was first launched by Prop 8 (we met by joining the front lines against that measure), so I am forever mindful that there is always joy to be found in every fight and always love to be found in the trenches of whatever injustice and hate we may face.

Also, this year, I am most excited to be planning the first in-prison Pride celebration with folks at San Quentin. We hope to use this event as a deeply powerful opportunity for proximity. Many of those shoulders I’ve been standing on and many of my personal heroes are coming inside the prison to be in community with the inspiring residents of San Quentin who have built a culture of restorative and transformative justice. I’m humbled and in awe of all the committed people, inside and out, who made this a possibility − and being part of it has filled me with extraordinary PRIDE.

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Donor Center Specifics

Grantee: ALIGHT Justice
Fiscal Sponsor: Five Keys Schools and Programs
Purpose: For ALIGHT Justice