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Vol. 29, No. 2

Beating the Time Crunch : How to Motivate Foundation Volunteers

by Marilyn Cavicchia

“Coercion, guilt, cookies, and wine” can all be great motivators, said Cindy Davis, president of the San Diego Bar Foundation. But they may not be the best ways to energize your foundation’s attorney volunteers.

Along with Bob Glaves, executive director of the Chicago Bar Foundation, and Laralyn Sasaki, director of programs and communications at the Ohio State Bar Foundation, Davis offered some other suggestions at the Annual Meeting of the National Conference of Bar Foundations.

What’s my job?

Attorney volunteers are notoriously busy and tend to overcommit and then not follow through, Davis said. How can you make sure foundation work stays on the calendar? “Attorney volunteers must understand their jobs,” Davis said, adding that if volunteers don’t have clearly defined roles, they may end up doing nothing at all.

That’s why the San Diego Bar Foundation has a job description that says a board member must attend meetings and conduct fundraising, and can’t simply donate a large sum and then disappear. The board member job description was a big help when the foundation hired an executive director—Briana Wagner—a couple of years ago, Davis noted. Volunteers who might say, “Doesn’t the executive director do all the work?” can see on paper that they have responsibilities, too.

And that sense of responsibility applies to everyone on the board—even the couple of named board members who are retired justices. “I’ve never had so much power over a retired justice in my life,” Davis joked.

Meaningful, positive time

Davis has a couple of rules regarding meetings. First, she said, “I will never have a meeting just to have a meeting.” If a committee only needs to talk for about 20 minutes, then an online meeting might be a better idea than a physical one, she said. Also, executive committee meetings have a strict time limit. “If attorneys know you’re going to start on time and they’ll be out in one hour, they’re going to come to your meetings,” Davis said.

Because volunteer time is so precious, Davis believes it must be tightly focused. At her foundation, much of that time is directed toward fundraising and visits to the organizations helped by the foundation’s grants. Few people enjoy making fundraising calls, Davis said, but she tells volunteers that “Fifteen minutes on the phone to a managing partner they went to law school with is the best 15 minutes they can spend.”

The site visits to every organization the foundation helps are a great way for volunteers to see where their time and money are going, and to reinvigorate their efforts, Davis said. The visits make clear that the foundation’s work is “not just moving money onto a balance sheet and then off the balance sheet.”

Another way to show volunteers that you value their time, Davis said, is to also value their staff’s time. For example, she advised, when calling on a volunteer to send a fundraising letter, have it all ready to simply sign and mail, rather than having certain elements that the administrative staff must print out or copy.

Busy volunteers will give their time more freely if they know they’re coming to a place that is upbeat and devoted to its work, Davis said. That’s why at her foundation, potential board members are screened out if they’re “not nice folks,” even if they have other great qualifications. Adding one negative person and then trying to find a committee to “stick them on” sets up a downward spiral that will affect the other volunteers, she explained.

A place for nonlawyers

When Bob Glaves arrived at the Chicago Bar Foundation 41/2 years ago, he saw that there was a vast untapped pool of potential volunteers—all the secretaries, paralegals, and other nonlawyers who “make a law firm go.” The problem was that a member of the foundation board must be a member of the bar, and a member of the bar must be a lawyer.

At the same time, the median age of the foundation board was 52, and Glaves was looking for a way to involve younger attorneys. Unlike at bar associations, he noted, not many bar foundations have an entity specifically for younger attorneys. And the Chicago bar’s Young Lawyers Section was unfamiliar with the foundation, thinking of it “as if we were an alien nation,” Glaves recalls.

The solution on both fronts was to create the Young Professionals Board, made up of half attorneys and half nonattorneys. Some of the best fundraisers on the YPB have been nonattorneys, Glaves noted; among those are an office manager from one firm and a controller from another.

In its fifth year, the YPB now nets $50,000 a year. Most of the funds go to the foundation itself, but the YPB has discretion to make grants from a quarter of the money it brings in. In some cases, the projects it funds are ones under the auspices of the bar’s YLS. The foundation now tries to reach YLS members early, to let them know about the foundation and the YPB.

For lawyers, the YPB can be a pathway to the main foundation board, Glaves noted, especially because joint projects bring the two groups together. Two attorneys who started on the YPB are now on the main board, which sometimes jokingly calls itself “the old professionals board,” Glaves said.

A class act

During the 1995-96 bar year, the Ohio State Bar Foundation came out of what Sasaki called “a sleeping period” and sharpened its focus (see “Start with the mission,” November-December 2003, page 20). From that point forward, Sasaki said, all new foundation members “sign on the dotted line that they will actively support the mission.”

The foundation has about 700 members, all called fellows. Each fellow, who must be nominated, commits to donating $2,500 over 10 years. Each year’s 30 to 40 new fellows are called the “fellows class” for that year; the class meets every other month for 18 months, plans a project related to the foundation’s mission, and then graduates.

The projects go beyond something simple such as a brochure or a party, Sasaki said. One class created a storybook on conflict resolution, which won last year’s NCBF Award. Another conducted a conference on the jury system.

The “class” idea pervades everything the fellows do, Sasaki said. “Class advisors”—lawyers, judges, and others—guide the fellows as they complete their project. At the class orientation, where the fellows are typically dressed up and “jockeying for position,” Sasaki said, each receives a golf shirt. The shirt is designed differently each year and identifies each fellow as part of that class—thereby breaking barriers between different practice areas or parts of the state.

The shirt must be worn at every working meeting, a requirement the fellows take seriously. If they have to appear before a judge on the same day as a class meeting, Sasaki said, “they will come to their class meeting and in the parking lot, the restroom, or the room itself, they’re putting on their golf shirt” over their dress clothes.

Members who came in before the classes began decided they wanted classes, too, Sasaki said. So at the foundation’s most recent annual meeting, these members met as part of the class of the ’60s, ’70s, etc., according to when they joined the foundation. They received shirts, too, and they, too, were energized, she said.

The fellows class program is in its seventh year, and its alumni are now assuming leadership positions in the foundation. Eleven of the 17 members of the board of trustees came through the fellows classes. That includes President Stuart W. Cordell—a first, Sasaki noted.

Once they complete their project and graduate, the fellows tend to go into “withdrawal,” Sasaki said—which means postgraduation is a great time to engage them in giving campaigns and other fundraising efforts. Fellows are also called upon to meet with future classes to discuss their projects and give a sense of history. It’s important, she said, that the foundation continue to reach out to fellows after they graduate, and that they not think their involvement ends once the class does.

“This is only the beginning,” Sasaki stressed. “They’re with us for life.”