Shift Fund is paying to help low-income Philadelphians navigate the legal system - Generocity Philly

Funding

May 8, 2018 10:10 am

Shift Fund is paying to help low-income Philadelphians navigate the legal system

The new criminal justice nonprofit funnels small donations to those who need to pay legal and medical fees.

Elston He and Pratyusha Yalamanchi, founding partners of Shift Fund.

(Courtesy of Shift Fund)

While completing med school and volunteering at the Penn Center for Community Health, Pratyusha Yalamanchi kept encountering patients with $50 and $60 medical fees that were causing major roadblocks in their lives.

She met families that were borrowing at unforgiving rates to cover those medical fees, to cover court fines — families delving deeper into unending cycles of debt. In the midst of the 2016 presidential election, Yalamanchi and her now-husband, Elston He, decided that creating a charitable fund to cover these small fees was not only beneficial, but necessary.

Enter: Shift Fund, which funnels individual donations to those in need.

“There was a disconnect between people who have these impact barriers, and the people who can contribute those smaller sums,” said Yalamanchi.

In December 2016, the couple officially received 501(c)(3) status for their project and began partnering with nonprofits such as Juvenile Law Center and Youth Sentencing and Reentry Project (YSRP) to establish the organization’s mission: “applying small sums to break down constraining barriers.”

The partnering orgs alert Shift Fund to individual cases that require sponsorship, and Shift Fund provides the funding, typically in amounts no greater than $500.

“We felt like [in] our social network of recent grads and young professionals there was a desire to give less than $500 because we don’t have a ton of expendable income,” said Yalamanchi. “But the idea that you could give that amount and then really make a difference for someone else was the push.”

The partnering orgs alert Shift Fund to individual cases that require sponsorship, and Shift Fund provides the funding, typically in amounts no greater than $500.

Yalamamchi and He say they work with “community organizations” as partners — which, to them, has a pretty simple meaning.

“Just [organizations that] have clients with potential,” said Yalamnachi. “If you have clients who have fines and fees or are transitioning out of the justice system or somehow interacting with it, then we can support that interaction.”

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With its 10 current partners, Shift Fund has raised roughly $30,000, although $20,000 of that came from the couple’s decision to turn their wedding registry into a donation effort, and another $5,000 was a match donation from He’s previous employer, Guggenheim Partners.

Shift Fund doesn’t allow donors the choice in who they will sponsor. Instead, to avoid any conscious or unconscious bias, donors are retroactively attributed with a contribution. As the cases arise, Yalamanchi and He consult their excel sheet of donors, and apply payments from however many necessary to match a particular case’s need. Donors are informed of the case they contributed to via an identity-free profile, the same ones posted on Shift Fund’s “Take Action” page.

“The wording of the website is something that we share beforehand with YSRP, or whoever we’re funding the case with, and they make sure the clients okay with that,” said Yalamanchi. “We decided that we didn’t really want to make a market place where people were making judgment calls.”

According to Yalamanchi, critics have accused the org of simply further perpetuating the systemic confines that allow people to become trapped.

But, in an ideal world, Yalamanchi admitted, Shift Fund wouldn’t need to exist, at least not in its current capacity. And she would be okay with that.

“When we first thought of Shift Fund, we were like, ‘It would be amazing if we could basically focus on something like restitution. Advocate to change the nature of fines and fees, and then move on,'” said Yalamanchi. “[But] there a lot of people in the mix still.”

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