After nearly 34 years in the corporate sector and getting downsized in mid-2008, I began to work part-time with the Essex County Legal Aid Association (ECLAA), a small legal services nonprofit organization. Serving as ECLAA’s business administrator, my role has grown over the years — as have the demands on our small staff to provide free emergency legal advice on civil matters to indigent residents of our communities. While demand has risen over the past four years, the financial support available from traditional funding sources has shrunk — sometimes dramatically. The result is that we have cut back hours and salaries — so that we can keep our doors open four days/week at ECLAA’s small office in the Hall of Records building — 465 Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard in Newark.
ECLAA had been around since 1906. But we needed to start thinking of it as a start-up — particularly related to communication and development work. What we have learned to practice is non-delusional optimism. We are always trying to seek both financial support and active moral support. The 9 volunteer members of our board have worked with me to build awareness and credibility among potential donors. And we have spent virtually no money on such efforts. How?
The first path that allowed us to engage in innovative fundraising without a marketing and development budget was and continues to be found online. We created a website, started tweeting (@eclaanj), and have sought and received the third-party endorsement of leading online nonprofit vetting resource GuideStar that ECLAA is “transparent and proactive in providing information and documents to help donors and funders make their giving decisions.”
Now we have been selected to be the one nonprofit organization to represent the greater Newark area in a unique kind of online fundraising event that mixes passion for community service with a distinctly competitive model. For one 24-hour period (from 3 a.m. June 14 to 3 a.m. June 15 on the East Coast), more than 250 nonprofits in the U.S. will compete with each other to raise funds and to represent their communities. I applied to this program because of its mix of values from both the nonprofit and the profit-seeking sectors. For more information, please click here.
I ask Baristanet’s readers and writers to donate to ECLAA on June 14 — and I urge you to ask your friends and your colleagues to do so. If you work at a law firm or other business with a commitment to ensuring that civil justice is accessible to everyone, please ask the managers of your organization to make an ECLAA donation on June 14. What is the competitive incentive to ask for your donations on one particular day? The three nonprofits raising the most money on these event-specific websites will earn grants from the event sponsor (Razoo.com) of $15K, $10K and $5K. Please help ECLAA earn one of those grants.
This online-only works well for many small nonprogits because it requires no fixed costs being invested up front by any of the nonprofit participants. This allows ECLAA and its “competitors” (who I believe will all “win” by engaging actively with their communities between now and June 14) to do outreach based on a variable cost model. To be specific, none of the nonprofits paid a fee to participate. So, Razoo retains 2.9 percent for the Razoo Foundation’s expenses (including credit card transaction costs). Participating organizations like ECLAA get 97.1 percent of what each donor gives, and we can stay focused on our core mission rather than entering the business of processing credit card information.
Our Commitment of Time
Such tools only go so far — without old-fashioned efforts to create and build relationships. Given the absence of a marketing or development budget, we have relearned that personal communication works best — and particularly when done in synch with online and e-mail tools. Our support from the legal community during our first-ever “Campaign for ECLAA” this year has been based largely on writing and mailing personal letters to individuals, making personal phone calls, sending personal e-mails, and talking to people face to face. We have invested our most valuable resource – time. Time wasted is lost forever, so we have built focused fundraising time into the already busy schedules of my board members and other volunteers.
Why Community Support Matters
ECLAA gets no money from municipalities, the county, state or federal governments. We rely entirely on foundation grants and on donations from businesses and individuals. ECLAA is not an advocacy organization. We help poor clients face-to-face and one-on-one with their legal emergencies. No banners. No causes. Just direct emergency help to poor people in our communities who desperately need a lawyer’s advice but cannot afford to pay one.
We have raised about 80% of our small $170K annual operating budget for 2012 through the support of the legal community — either directly from 33 law firms so far this year or from the Legal Services Foundation of Essex County and the IOLTA Fund of the Bar of New Jersey. However, IOLTA funding of ECLAA has already dropped 58 percent since 2009, and all IOLTA grant recipients were just told that IOLTA’s “2013 grant pool will be the lowest in fifteen years because of very, very low interest rates.”
We continue to seek support from area law firms through our 2012 Campaign for ECLAA. We are also working to build awareness of ECLAA among the people in the Essex County communities we serve — whether potential clients or potential donors. We have made our services known to local churches and to other nonprofits serving needs other than related to emergency civil matters. When our clients need representation in court after our emergency help, we often refer them to Volunteer Lawyers for Justice — which runs an outstanding pro bono program.
My thanks to Baristanet for the opportunity to write about ECLAA — and about what we have learned by doing more with less. I welcome any constructive advice and volunteerism from Baristanet’s readers — particularly if it will help us raise funds on June 14, and maybe even on many days thereafter. Remember, we try to practice non-delusional optimism.