Civil legal aid groups lean on private fundraising

Pro bono lawyer Glenn Thompson (right) and DVLS Recruitment Attorney Thomas McDonough (left) outside of the New Castle County Courthouse

Delaware’s civil legal aid groups have long relied on donations from private law firms to help pay the costs of providing legal assistance to those in need. For nonprofits, it’s a matter of appealing to donors who understand their value to society. For the lawyers, it comes from a professional ethic to support the pro bono work they may not be able to do themselves.

But the legal community only provides a portion of the money necessary to meet the demand for civil legal aid, which includes landlord-tenant disputes, foreclosure proceedings, welfare rights, consumer rights, assistance to domestic violence victims, and countless other legal issues that happen outside the criminal justice system.

“We’re constantly underfunded,” said Dan Atkins, director of the Community Legal Aid Society, Inc., Delaware’s oldest civil legal aid group. “Demand is constantly outstripping our resources.”

Unlike in a criminal trial, the U.S. Constitution doesn’t guarantee an attorney for a civil case. Instead, state and federal governments offer grants to nonprofits that provide civil legal aid — but that contribution has fallen significantly since the 1990s, according to the American Bar Association.

“We’re looking at retrenchment at the federal level. We’re looking at retrenchment at the state level, and those were our biggest funding sources,” Atkins said. “More than half of our budget is state and federal funding.”

This has left Delaware’s three main civil legal aid groups — Delaware Volunteer Legal Services (DVLS), Community Legal Aid Society, Inc. (CLASI), and Legal Services Corporation (LSC) — looking outside the legal community for help.

“We think we have room to grow, and we think we have room to tap into other community members outside the legal profession who understand the importance of civil legal services,” Atkins said.

The Combined Campaign for Justice, a volunteer-driven fundraising campaign that serves all three groups, sits at the center of this shift in strategy. The campaign started in 1999 as a way to improve funding and spare the organizations from using precious time and resources cold-calling lawyers. As a part of joining the campaign, the organizations signed a contract stating they would no longer solicit private money on their own.

“The hope was that by having one combined solicitation effort each of the three agencies would see more money,” said Carmella Keener, co-chair and organizer for the campaign.

While some of the organizations’ staff were concerned at the time that the Combined Campaign would lead to less donations overall, the first year proved that working together could be more efficient.

“I know the first year the gross was more than the three agencies had ever raised before,” said Janine Howard-O’Rangers, executive director of Delaware Volunteer Legal Services, which specializes in family law and in connecting private attorneys with pro bono work.

The campaign raised $1.03 million in 2016, up from about $360,000 in its first year.

A secondary goal was to make the solicitation less confusing for the lawyers.

“I think there had been confusion in the [State Bar Association],” Howard-O’Rangers said. “They would get a solicitation from Community Legal Aid, depending on the time of year. Then a few months later they’d get a solicitation from Delaware Volunteer Legal Services.”

Another benefit of the campaign is the type of funding it provides. Government grants are often designated for a particular goal or project. Money from the private sector, however, can be used however the organization sees fit.

“One of the best things about the Combined Campaign is its unrestricted funding for us,” Howard-O’Rangers said.

The current goal of the campaign, according to Keener, is to figure out how to tailor its message for new donors who may be less familiar with what civil legal aid is and how it could benefit their community.

“The work that we do is fundamental to our system of democracy and justice,” Atkins said. “We need to ensure that people have equal access to our legal system. If not, our democracy doesn’t work.”

Atkins added that civil legal aid should also be seen as an economic benefit. In the case of a home foreclosure, for instance, legal aid could stop someone from having to live on the streets. This saves the government from spending money on shelter and other services, Atkins said.

In addition, the campaign recently received a grant from the Longwood Foundation to hire a development officer. Lisa Lessner, an experienced nonprofit professional and fundraiser, came on this year. Her job will be to help guide the organization through this transition.

Despite the relative lack of funding, the Combined Campaign puts the civil legal aid sector ahead of the curve in the nonprofit sector.

“Jointly fundraising certainly would be a useful strategy to help with collective impact,” said Sheila Bravo, executive director of the Delaware Alliance for Nonprofit Advancement. “I think you’re actually going to see more of that.”

The United Way of Delaware and the Jewish Federation of Delaware are two other organizations that help fundraise for multiple nonprofits.

“Here in Delaware, where we’ve seen, in the last decade, the shrinking of philanthropic donations, the landscape for receiving corporate and private funding is more competitive,” Bravo said. “In order to prepare, they should have a clear message.”

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