December 21, 2004
From compassion, justice
By Catherine J. Douglass
In 1993, I left my partnership at a major law firm to create a new organization that would deliver free legal help to women in New York City who could not pay for attorney representation when they were facing family crises. A clear novice in the nonprofit sector, I was at first quite overwhelmed by the daunting challenge of bringing in the resources necessary to support the organization.
I have since learned many lessons about resource development, in its broadest sense, through hard experience. But looking back 12 years later, I am surprised to find myself acknowledging that one of the most satisfying parts of my job is attracting new contributors to our cause, people and institutions eager to provide the essentials not only for survival but for growth. The need for financial support is a given. But so is enlisting the time and talents of people who care—the bedrock of any nonprofit that, like ours, delivers its services by recruiting, mentoring and supporting a cadre of volunteers.
Our primary challenge is, and has been from the beginning, to let people know what needs our organization addresses and why they matter. Even most lawyers don't really appreciate that most indigent and working-poor people in our city are forced to fend for themselves in court without lawyers when they need basic legal protections.
We, therefore, make use of hard statistics and compelling stories to demonstrate to people in a position to help the immensity of the need. We start with the fact that one in five New York City residents lives below the poverty level; one in three of the city's children. We quote results of research about the risks women and children face, research like the just released study by the city health department concluding that young, foreign-born and minority women face the greatest risk of being killed by their intimate partners, or the significant body of scientific evidence which quantifies the long-term harm to children of witnessing violence at home.
We look to leading judges to help us convey our message, among them U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who observed recently, "There has never been a wider gulf between the need for legal services and its availability." New York State's Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye, commenting on the need for increased pro bono efforts by members of the bar in 2004, said, "[T]he lack of legal representation for poor persons in civil matters is reaching epidemic proportions and threatens to create an unfair system of justice in this state."
Another equally important challenge is showing people and institutions how they can help. How, indeed, does someone without legal training contribute something worthwhile to an organization focused primarily on helping women gain legal protections? Even many lawyers who don't practice family and immigration law are initially hesitant to step up to represent women seeking orders granting them protection from their abusers, custody of their children, child support, divorce or legal residency in this country.
Among the most critical lessons I have learned over more than a decade working in the nonprofit sector is that most people gain true satisfaction from giving, so long as they can see that their gifts matter to someone or something they care about. Recognition and thanks matter, as well, so we publish newsletters applauding our clients' major victories and, through our Commitment to Justice Awards, annually we honor over a thousand attorneys, legal assistants and individuals who provide extraordinary pro bono services to our clients.
InMotion has attracted volunteers with an amazing array of interests and skills—lawyers and paralegals, students in law and other graduate programs as well as those still in high school, judges and court personnel, people fluent in many languages, and committed board and benefit committee members. Our annual benefit succeeds because galleries and photographers donate valuable art for auction. The contributions of major institutions are equally impressive.
In one sense, I entered a whole new world when I left the corporate sector to do publicinterest work. But fortunately, I discovered a way to remain connected to the most important part of the world I left—highly talented and generous human beings with a desire to make the world a better place for those less fortunate. Together we will continue the search for new and creative ways to corral resources to bring justice to more women and children.
Ms. Douglass is the founding and current executive director of inMotion, Inc., a nonprofit organization that provides free legal services to women in New York City.