The Shift Fund: Shifting Outcomes through Small Sum, High Impact Giving

Contributors: Pratyusha Yalamanchi, MD’18, WG’18 and Elston He, JD’20, WG’20
To learn more about Pratyusha and Elston, click here


image013_1.jpgWhat does $60.50 mean to you?
For one young man, it was freedom.

Z was arrested at age 15 for armed robbery. He was not alleged to have touched a weapon or to have taken any items from anyone, but he was present during a robbery and was charged under conspiracy liability as an adult. He spent approximately 6 months in an adult jail pre-trial and then was sent to a juvenile placement for 5 months.

Z lost one of the most formative years of his life behind bars – a year of high school when many young people, including us a decade ago, were studying for the SAT, playing sports and musical instruments, and thinking of college.

Once he was released, $60.50 of his remaining non-waivable court costs kept Z on probation. The $60.50 prevented Z from attending class and basketball practice. $60.50.

Small sums [to some] keep others from moving forward in life.
Each day, seemingly small sums present disproportionate barriers to personal progress. Modest fines and fees entrap people in court systems, making it difficult to hold a steady job and emerge from poverty. Small co-pays and accumulating medical bills preclude individuals from seeking the care they need. Technical school and college application fees as well as the cost of a commute to school or employment remain prohibitive for those seeking to better their lives. 

In 2016, NPR covered the story of a young man in Detroit who, having been wrongly convicted of murder at the age of 14, had spent nearly nine years in prison until his conviction was overturned. $2500 of unpaid court fines and the cost of a public defender nearly kept this young man behind bars. The kindness of an anonymous donor allowed him to reconnect with his family and freedom. Similar stories demonstrate how fees and fines disproportionately affect the poor; small ticket fines lead to drivers’ license suspensions and a cycle of debt, and a recent study of juvenile cases in Pittsburgh demonstrated that unrealistic fines and fees contribute to recidivism.  

In our own work in medicine and finance, we have seen how fines, fees, and co-pays can impede the wealth accumulation necessary for upward social and economic mobility. We’ve seen families borrow at unforgiving rates to bridge paychecks and find themselves in a cycle of ever-increasing debt, collection agency harassment, and the inability to build sufficient credit to rent an apartment. We’ve witnessed patients’ inability to access preventive care services due to cost and time constraints, which leads to avoidable sickness, hospital admissions, and jeopardized employment.

Small sums not paid today cost society more tomorrow.
Like Z, juveniles are often jailed for missing appointments and other conditions of probation. In Pennsylvania, that is at an average cost to society of $362 a day.1 Still, the direct cost of confinement for missed fines and fees are pocket change compared to the long-term costs for families, communities, and society. As Gladys Carrion, Director of New York State Office of Children and Family Services, stated, “We could send [a juvenile justice youth] to Harvard for [what we pay for incarceration], and we don’t get very good outcomes.”

Specifically, estimates of the long-term costs of young people’s confinement may add up to an additional $8 billion to $21 billion each year, including $7.6 billion of lost future earnings of confined youth, $3.87 billion of lost future government tax revenue, and $1.50 billion of additional Medicare and Medicaid spending.2 

Fines and fees, like driver’s license suspensions from unpaid tickets or medical co-pays, contribute to absenteeism and the inability to hold a steady job. Employers bear indirect costs to employee poor health – lower productivity, higher rates of injury and disability, and more workers’ compensation claims – that can be two to three times the costs of direct medical expenses. Research from the Milken Institute suggests that a modest reduction in avoidable risk factors could lead to a gain of more than $1 trillion annually in labor supply and efficiency by 2023.3

Collective pocket change can make change.
The realization that small sums can generate high impact has compelled us to find a way to connect individuals with the means to address their needs.

The Shift Fund is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that seeks to connect individuals with needs left otherwise unaddressed with the means to make it happen. By applying small sums to break down constraining barriers, the Shift Fund seeks to generate high impact at an individual level.

By partnering with community organizations, the Shift Fund learns of individuals with needs left otherwise unaddressed with the means to make it happen. Through organizations like the national Juvenile Law Center, Youth Sentencing and Reentry Project, Civil Rights Corps and the Flint Youth Build, the Shift Fund identifies small dollar sum, high impact opportunities where the application of funds in the $0-500 range can remove barriers preventing a person from moving ahead in life. For instance, state-issued identification and birth certificates are $49.50 and necessary to apply for social services and continuing education. Other commonly funded barriers include court fines and fees, diversion program entrance fees, payment of driving/parking tickets, usually associated with license suspension, transportation related barriers such as a monthly bus pass, and medical co-pays.

So what’s in it for you?
Donors of all capacities have the opportunity to contribute to these needs, with the understanding their funds will have a transparent, direct impact for an individual. $40 can fund an individual’s technical or community college application fee, and $50 can help an individual get the identification needed to access the system and move forward in life. Our pocket change can make change when pooled together. 

Philanthropy does not have to be reserved for those at the end of their career or able to contribute large sums. For young professionals, a small sum donation to Shift can (1) have a direct impact on another person, (2) lead to an increased sense of happiness (according to a Harvard Business school study), and (3) have tax benefits.4

So what happened to Z?
The Shift Fund’s payment of Z’s court costs allowed him to get off of probation and move on with his life as a scholar and athlete. Z is now 16 years old and back in the same high school in West Philadelphia where he was enrolled prior to his arrest. Z is an avid athlete - a standout basketball player. He works as a youth advocate and plans to work at a recreation center in Philadelphia this summer. 

Learn about other shifted outcomes and help make more stories like Z’s a reality by joining us in shifting outcomes today at 

Contact Pratyusha at: [email protected]



  1. Juvenile Law Center – Debtors Prison.
  2. Justice Policy Institute - Calculating the full price tag for youth incarceration for youth incarceration.
  4. Anik L et. al. “Feeling good about giving: The benefits (and costs) of self-interested charitable behavior.” Harvard Business School Working Paper 2009.