They've tried hiring freezes, layoffs,
limiting office hours and plundering their reserve accounts, but it
hasn't been enough.
In the midst of an unusually harsh
recession, nonprofit legal services groups are caught between the
most severe funding shortage anyone can recall and an unprecedented
demand for legal help from the poor. There simply isn't enough
money, and too many people need help.
So they're trying something new. A
number of things, actually.
They're raffling off new cars. Hosting wine tastings. Auctioning
off art. Raffling off stocked wine coolers. Even partying it up at
Irish pub nights. All in an effort to try and minimize the impact
of the massive budget shortfalls they're facing this year and
Finding new sources of funding
MetroWest Legal Services, which is
based in Framingham and each year represents about 2,500 people in
its 36-town area, has been at the forefront of fundraising through
events. It's already held an online auction last December and a
golf tournament on May 18 in honor of late Executive Director Nancy
King that raised nearly $450,000.
Now MetroWest is raffling off a 2009
Smart Car Passion Coupe, which retails for around $14,000, on Nov.
12 at another big fundraising event, an "Evening of Wine Tasting
In all, MetroWest is hoping to raise
$125,000 this year through a variety of events, raffles, auctions
and appeals. But even if the group hits that target, it will still
be operating at a $200,000 deficit for the year.
"This year is a whole different
ballgame," said MetroWest Executive Director Betsy Soule. "Given
the times we're in, we had to think about additional fundraising.
We thought, 'Because we've been pretty successful at doing events,
what else can we do?'"
Working through a member of its
Campaign Committee, MetroWest arranged to buy the car at cost from
Herb Chambers, paying for it with the money it raises from selling
$100 raffle tickets. The raffle is a relatively low-risk endeavor
because MetroWest will only buy the car if it sells enough
MetroWest wants to sell a minimum of
350 tickets, but won't sell more than 750. The group has been
selling tickets at various town fairs and local events - with the
car on display - over the summer, as well as online at its Web
site, www.mwlegal.org. As of Sept. 1, it had sold about 60
By promoting the raffle at town
fairs, MetroWest has also been able to publicize itself to
residents - and attorneys - who may not be familiar with the work
it does. Out of roughly 4,700 attorneys living and working in the
three dozen communities it serves, only about 278 donate to the
organization, and another 225 are signed up to handle pro bono
cases, said Janice Camp, MetroWest's marketing and development
MetroWest, which was previously
known as South Middlesex Legal Services, has also used the car
raffle to publicize the work it does in the community.
"We're doing a re-branding, and we
thought that this was a great opportunity to get our name out
there," Camp said.
For example, a man at an event in
Carlisle who was unfamiliar with MetroWest agreed to buy a raffle
ticket after hearing about the work the group does. And the need
for free civil legal aid has never been more urgent.
In the last six to eight months,
MetroWest has seen a 25 percent increase in requests for help, but
it, like every other legal aid organization, doesn't have the staff
to meet the needs of the community it serves, leaving two positions
MetroWest has to turn away about 50
percent of the people eligible for free legal aid simply because it
doesn't have the financing, staff or volunteers to help
"They're turned away solely because
of a lack of resources," Soule said.
Not every organization is using
events to find new funding sources, though.
The Legal Assistance Corp. of
Central Massachusetts, which covers Worcester County, launched a
private bar campaign this summer asking each lawyer in Worcester
County to donate the value of two hours of their billable time.
Michael P. Angelini, the chairman of Bowditch & Dewey, is
leading nearly two dozen attorneys who will personally appeal to
the county's 2,000 lawyers for donations.
"It's not that innovative in terms
of what other organizations have done, but it's the first time
we've done it in our 50-year history," said LACCM Executive
Director Jonathan Mannina. "We just decided that this was the
approach we would take. If it helps us avoid further layoffs, it'll
be a success."
LACCM's $3.5 million budget for
fiscal 2009 has been cut to $2.4 million for fiscal 2010. The
organization has spent money in its reserve fund, frozen salaries,
had furloughs, left open positions unfilled and recently laid staff
off. Through attrition and layoffs, the 41-person staff is now at
"You can only make so many cuts before you have to take a hard
look at staffing, unfortunately," Mannina said.
"Very dire times for legal services"
Legal aid groups are accustomed to
stretching out limited resources to meet an overwhelming demand,
but this recession has made the impossible even more daunting.
"We are in very dire times for legal
services, so people are trying whatever they can to raise a little
money," said Lonnie A. Powers, the executive director for the
Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corp. "People are certainly stepping
up their efforts more than they ever have before."
MLAC, the largest funding source for
civil legal aid programs in the state, had its state funding
chopped from $11 million last year to $9.5 million in this year's
Powers said MLAC has been
encouraging organizations to develop additional funding sources and
not rely entirely on MLAC and the Massachusetts Bar Foundation to
distribute money from the Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts
(IOLTA) program. Even in a healthy economy, civil legal aid
organizations typically turn away a large percentage of the
eligible people seeking aid.
After years of modest gains, total IOLTA funds plummeted by 66
percent this year. Funding sources have done what they can to
soften the cuts. After distributing $6.3 million in IOLTA grants in
2008-09, the Massachusetts Bar Foundation recently announced it
will award $5 million in grants for 2009-10. It was only able to do
so by using some reserve funds, but MBF leadership decided it was
necessary given the plight legal aid groups are facing."In addition
to facing a dramatic reduction in its own funding, the MBF has
observed devastating cuts to so many service providers statewide,"
said Massachusetts Bar Foundation Executive Director Elizabeth M.
Lynch. "Our grantees certainly know how to stretch scarce
resources, but the lengths to which they've gone to survive this
crisis is unprecedented in recent memory. From one end of the state
to the other, groups that provide legal assistance to our state's
poorest residents are working hard, despite the funding cuts, to
ensure these services remain available to those who need them."
Fundraise, fundraise, fundraise
Annual appeals are a necessary part
of running a cash-strapped legal services organization. Golf
tournaments are a fairly common method for raising money, too, but
legal services groups are brainstorming with volunteers and board
members to come up with money-generating ideas so they can continue
providing free legal services in their communities.
The problem is that legal aid groups
usually don't have much experience organizing fundraising events,
and the time they do spend on planning and marketing them is time
they would otherwise spend handling cases. But given the
environment, they're making the time.
Brianne S. Miers, MLAC's
communications director, provides local groups with advice and help
with organization and production for some of their marketing
"Everyone's wearing a lot of hats
these days" at legal aid groups as they become event planners,
Some of this year's events "are more
unconventional that the usual legal services fundraising efforts,"
Miers said, noting that MetroWest and Neighborhood Legal Services
Inc. in Lynn have taken the fundraising efforts further than most
organizations. NLS drew 150 people to its "ShamROCK for Justice" on
March 13 in Lawrence and raised $5,000. After that "low key" event,
staff started thinking of other possibilities.
"We're trying to think creatively
what would be fun events and get people out to understand the work
we do," NLS Executive Director Sheila Casey said.
Now NLS is raffling off a "wine
cellar" - a wine cooler stocked with 50 wines donated by local
liquor stores, staff and volunteers. And like MetroWest, NLS is
combining the wine cellar raffle with another event, a golf
tournament on Sept. 21 at the Andover Country Club - the
"We had researched doing a golf
tournament for a number of years, but this year, with all the
funding cuts, this was the motivation behind it," said Casey. "It's
a tough year to start a golf tournament, but we figured, you have
to start somewhere."
NLS, which has held silent auctions
before, has also stepped up its donor solicitation effort. But it's
hoping its efforts will bring in between $20,000 and $50,000. And
it's had success in the past. NLS held a farewell bash for a
previous executive director and raised between $25,000 and $30,000.
In 2003, it raised $45,000 at its "Celebration 31" fundraiser
roasting and toasting longtime staff attorney John J. Ford; in
2004, it held a gambling cruise; and in 2006, it held a farewell
fundraiser for its departing director, Ross Dolloff.
"We see our fundraising efforts as a critical piece of making up
the deficit for 2010," Casey said. "We need to make up about a half
a million dollars, so these are critical. It makes the staff feel
like they're able to do something to mitigate the crisis we're
the need is greater than ever
Neighborhood Legal Services • Sept.
First Annual NLS Golf Tournament
Andover Country Club
Featuring a "wine cellar" raffle
MetroWest Legal Services • Nov.
Evening of Wine Tasting and
Featuring a 2009 Smart Car raffle
(tickets available online)
"What we're hearing for stories in
this economic crisis is that people who were comfortable have slid
into the income level that we address," Casey said. "There are lots
of foreclosures. Very rarely did we used to see homeowners in our
offices, but that has changed. It's a difficult time, and we're
trying to change with it."
NLS is building on its business ties
to help it both with short-term and long-term support. Eastern Bank
is sponsoring its golf tournament, and NLS is reaching out to
vendors and business leaders in the community, asking them to be
donors, as well as partners in its fight to help lift people out of
"We really see our work as
going hand-in-hand with the economic recovery that our business
community needs to see as well," Casey said. "Our ultimate goal is
to help people navigate their way out of poverty by working through
their legal problems. That really resonates with the business
In the past, Casey said, NLS'
message about legal aid for the poor would often fall flat. But in
an economic crisis, people see their own family members and friends
being laid off, evicted and foreclosed on, so the message is
resonating that free legal aid helps fight poverty and
"We're certainly hoping to build a
bigger circle of supporters through this," she said.
Building relationships is helping
Greater Boston Legal Services weather the storm and build a strong
base of support for the years ahead.
"To have people give you significant
money, you have to build a relationship," said Jack Ward, associate
director for finance and development at GBLS, which represents
about four dozen communities.
A $240,000 grant from an overseas
foundation that it regularly works with on housing issues has
allowed GBLS to save four advocates positions that it was expecting
to cut. The $240,000 is part of a two-year $840,000 Emergency
Bridge Fund that GBLS launched last year, targeting both new donors
and asking current donors to give additional money.
"That has helped preserve
positions," Ward said.
GBLS has already been hit hard.
After fans celebrating the Boston Celtics 2008 championship smashed
their storefront windows and lobby, GBLS was hit recently with
another building cost: Its air conditioning system is failing and
will need to be replaced at an expected cost of $35,000.
To help offset this year's funding
decreases, GBLS will probably draw $2 million out of its reserve
fund. It's determining the minimum level it will need to maintain
"We are significantly dipping into
our reserve accounts," Ward said.
Through attrition and voluntary
layoffs, GBLS has lost nine staff attorneys (out of 70 originally),
two paralegals and two or three support staff. Given its size and
resources - it has a $14.5 million budget - GBLS is in a better
position to apply for grants and solicit individual donors than
some of the smaller legal aid groups.
"We do not do any special events,"
Ward said. "We feel like we would be drawing from our same pool of
donors. We don't want to be in competition. They're so labor
intensive, and the net return is minimal."
It has pulled in $2.8 million from
its three-pronged campaign focusing on donations from law firms,
in-house legal departments and associates, but maintaining that
level of donations will be difficult, especially in a year when law
firms have limited hiring and increased layoffs.
"The challenge this year is to
maintain that level of giving," Ward said. "We don't want to divert
our energies looking elsewhere."
In all, GBLS relies on funding from
40 different federal, state and municipal grants, and it's applied
for more government grants this year, particularly with money
available through the federal stimulus package. GBLS applied for
seven different stimulus grants that would total upwards of
$500,000 over a number of years. It expects to find out if it will
be awarded any of them by mid-September.
Ward says the Emergency Bridge Fund
has probably maxed out, and GBLS has applied for every grant it
could find, but he still wonders if he's left any stone
"I'm sure I have," he said, "but not that I know of."