Neighborhood Legal Service Association gets creative with fundraising

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Katie Kenyon has never been at ease asking people for money -- even for wrapping paper sales that benefit her children's school.

So Ms. Kenyon, a partner with Downtown law firm Pietragallo Gordon Alfano Bosick & Raspanti, admitted she was a bit squeamish at recent training sessions where she and other board members of Neighborhood Legal Services Association learned how to appeal for donations.

"I myself wasn't all that comfortable and I'm sure a lot of people around the table said, 'I'm not sure this is what I signed up for,' " said Ms. Kenyon, treasurer of the nonprofit organization that provides free legal help for individuals in need.

Faced with a 25 percent drop in funding since 2011 that has resulted in staff and service cuts, the association's board has been taking a hard look at creative ways to generate support and decided to start with its own members.

"At the core of it, I think there was a consensus among the lawyers and officers and executive committee that the board needs to be asked to do more," said Max Laun, president-elect of the legal services association board and general counsel for Alcoa. "In some nonprofits, there's almost the expectation that if you're on the board, you'll get involved in fundraising. But we've never had that and never been in the position to say, 'Please fundraise for the organization.' "

As NLSA and other nonprofits scramble to make up deep funding shortages in the wake of the economic recession and government cutbacks, many have looked inward for fundraising, said Peggy Morrison Outon, executive director of the Bayer Center for Nonprofit Management at Robert Morris University.

Among those the Bayer Center has worked with to provide staff and board members with fund development skills, she said, are the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh; Transitional Services Inc., Homestead; the Community Foundation of Greene County; and the A. Philip Randolph Institute, Washington, D.C.

"For lots of nonprofits, the rules of the game have changed so dramatically. They haven't been promoting themselves and now have to supplement their revenues," Ms. Outon said. "They have to find a way to become more competitive in a tremendously crowded marketplace."

For the Neighborhood Legal Services Association, the Bayer Center conducted a day-long retreat focused on fundraising and encouraged staff and nearly 40 board members to "tell their stories in ways more compelling than social services normally do."

To that end, the staff has produced vignettes about clients and what kind of services the association provides. Then board members and staff will spread those stories -- in the form of YouTube videos or print and electronic newsletters -- to foundations, individuals and other potential or existing donors.

For instance, an upcoming newsletter will feature the story of a World War II veteran who was denied Social Security retirement benefits because he was orphaned as a baby and didn't possess an official birth certificate. The association took the case and the man was awarded almost $90,000 in accrued benefits.

The video testimonials feature clients telling their own stories of how NLSA attorneys helped resolve other civil court issues such as elder abuse, mortgage fraud, child custody and disability benefits.

"Storytelling gets deeply into why you matter," Ms. Outon said. "People want to know if what you're doing matters or if it makes things better."

Aside from pitching their message to traditional nonprofit funding sources such as foundations, the association's board and staff members are being trained to deliver their message to people they already know and with whom they interact regularly at their churches, offices or children's schools, Ms. Outon said.

"They represent NLSA in the community and can be more directly an advocate by taking the opportunity to speak up and say, 'Here's what we do.' "

The organization has taken a dramatic hit from state and federal funding cutbacks, including the recent federal sequestration, said Robert Racunas, executive director.

Its annual budget fell from $5.5 million in 2011 to less than $4.2 million this year, he said. Total staff was slashed by the equivalent of 19 full-time positions during that time period.

Meanwhile, client demand hasn't wavered.

The Neighborhood Legal Services Association handled legal issues for about 11,000 clients last year in Allegheny, Beaver, Butler and Lawrence counties.

While the staff of about 30 lawyers worked on the majority of cases, volunteer attorneys picked up about 2,000.

The association reduced office hours for clients at its Pittsburgh office a year ago and is currently examining possible reductions of services in Butler and Lawrence counties, Mr. Racunas said. "We've tried to do a lot of innovative things like a very sophisticated help line so [clients] can call in and don't need to come in. And we're trying to maximize service for those that do come in with a paperless intake system."

As for the board and employees pitching in on fundraising duties, he believes it's a critical step toward generating more donations.

"They are acting as ambassadors to let people know we are a community service that everyone should have a stake in. Sometimes because of necessity, you become creative. I think our staff, because they are in the trenches and see the clients, can be very effective in communicating our message."

At the retreat and training sessions for the association, Ms. Outon picked up on the fact that fundraising made some board and staff members nervous. "Some of them would rather have their back teeth extracted than think like fundraisers."

Despite her own apprehension about appealing for donations, Ms. Kenyon expects the group will rally for the cause. "Everyone has such belief in NLSA that they will push themselves for the greater good."


Joyce Gannon: or 412-263-1580.


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