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Vol. 44, No. 1

Rebranding the bar foundation: A case study in change

By Marilyn Cavicchia

At his final interview before being hired as executive director of what was then the California Bar Foundation, Christopher Punongbayan learned something big: As part of a major rebranding, the organization would soon be renamed as California ChangeLawyers.

The mission—to build a better justice system for all Californians—never changed, Punongbayan said. Still, the rebranding, which was overseen by Mission Minded, has transformed much more than just the organization’s name: It was an opportunity for a top-to-bottom rethinking of everything the foundation does. 

The rebranding created a new way for the foundation's beneficiaries to think of themselves, too. In a recent video, recipients of California ChangeLawyers' scholarships and fellowships explain what led them to pursue law and how they hope to improve the legal system—and then they proudly declare, “I am a changelawyer.”

At the 2019 Annual Meeting of the National Conference of Bar Foundations, Punongbayan shared a few “practice tips” for other bar foundations that might want to consider rebranding, whether via a name change or a more subtle reevaulation of what the foundation is and what it does.

Practice Tip 1: Go deep, not wide

For anyone in philanthropy, Punongbayan said, there’s a natural impulse to want to help as many people as possible, such as by giving small grants to many organizations. To illustrate the problem with that, he drew from the oft-cited parable about giving someone a fish or teaching them how to fish. In that expression, teaching someone how to fish is seen as a longer-range solution. Instead, he said, someone could also focus on “changing the fishing industry so food insecurity is addressed on a systemic level”—but if they’re too busy teaching as many individuals as possible how to fish, they’ll never get around to those deeper issues.

For California ChangeLawyers, the primary focus is not on the act of providing scholarships for law students and fellowships at small legal aid organizations, but on changing the legal profession and justice system from within, ultimately making it more fair and equitable for everyone in California. The scholarships and fellowships are a means to that end, Punongbayan explained.

This realization has led to a profound shift, he added: Scholarships and fellowships both last just one year, but ChangeLawyers has realized that there are ways to continue those relationships and offer a deeper, ongoing connection. Past scholarship recipients and fellows are now called alumni, Punongbayan said, and they are encouraged to connect with each other as a community for networking and leadership training. They are also given high visibility on the foundation’s website, with photos and bios.

ChangeLawyers also sends out a weekly email, spotlighting recent news from the organizations and individuals it has helped. The list of subscribers continues to grow, Punongbayan said, because “people want to see examples of lawyers as change makers."

Practice Tip 2: Listen

California ChangeLawyers wanted to understand its beneficiaries and what they want and need, so the organization sent a survey to 800 of its alumni, dating back to 1990, and received 122 responses. Among the data points that emerged were:

  • Seventy percent of alumni were the first in their family to go to college, and 95 percent were the first to go to law school.
  • Fifty-two percent are Latinx, 19 percent are white, 17 percent are black, 9 percent are Asian, 7 percent are “other,” and 3 percent are Arab/Middle Eastern.
  • Thirty-five percent practice law in a language other than English.
  • Forty-six percent said they are interested in becoming a judge, which Punongbayan said was a surprise, and which has led to some programming on how to pursue that goal.
  • Sixteen percent founded a nonprofit, and 17 percent hold a nonprofit leadership role.
  • While 61 percent said they’re looking for better pay and benefits, 83 percent said they were satisfied with their careers—which Punongbayan said seems to indicate that changelawyers are driven by something other than monetary concerns.
  • When asked what else the foundation could provide to help support them, 80 percent of alumni indicated that they needed mentoring, and 54 percent said they could use more help in making connections.  

Practice Tip 3: Level up your philanthropy practices

Because they do such noble work, Punongbayan said, philanthropic organizations often think there’s nothing they need to change about themselves. But “Philanthropy 2.0,” as he called it, demands being open to evolving and growing.

For grantmaking organizations, he recommended a simple place to start: “How many of us have actually filled out the grant application that we’re asking others to complete?” Often, he explained, these applications, as well as the reports that are submitted at the end of the grant period, have requirements that sound important but may not be—and that place an unnecessary burden on small organizations that need funding.

Adding a letter of intent (in which an organization briefly explains its work and requests an opportunity to apply in more detail) can significantly reduce this burden and can also make the process more fair and open to smaller organizations that are not already known to you, Punongbayan said.

Bias can be a factor, too, he added: Does your grant application process make any allowances for newer, smaller organizations that may not yet have a lengthy, strong track record? Similarly, if you give scholarships, do you consciously or unconsciously favor students from elite schools? And if an applicant has a lower grade point average, do you allow an opportunity to explain it?

“Leveling up” may also require thinking differently about who is in your donor pool, Punongbayan said. For example, he said, ChangeLawyers (including under its previous name) had never thought to ask scholarship recipients from decades past whether they would like to give back now that they are well established in their careers.

Practice Tip 4: Be bold

“If we took an honest look at what we’re doing, would we call ourselves bold?” Punongbayan invited attendees to ask themselves. Even if a name change isn’t the best choice or isn’t feasible, there are other ways to be bold.

Among fellowships, scholarships, and a pipeline project, last year, California ChangeLawyers gave around $700,000—which is fairly small in the foundation’s home city of San Francisco. But whatever the amount, Punongbayan advised, “own it” by saying, “This is what we have. Are we doing the most that we can do? Are we being the most impactful we can be?”

For Punongbayan, the answer became clear soon after he started his new job. That was in June 2018, and at the September board meeting of that year, he told the president and president-elect that he thought there should be a new committee that would focus on public policy and on ways the foundation could use its voice while adhering to IRS limitations.

The board established a task force and brought in a guest speaker from a similar organization that has found ways to speak up on issues that affect its focus, which is fighting poverty. The board then voted to establish a committee, which resulted in the first policy positions being taken in June 2019. One issue the committee plans to examine is the racial disparities in bar exam pass rates, Punongbayan noted.

Beware, he advised, that if you do something bold, it’s possible that not everyone will like it. For example, he said, some former donors and former board members were not pleased with the name change. But, he added, it has been a hit with the core constituency that the foundation wanted to reach: beneficiaries themselves.

“Younger people love the new name,” he said. “They love being called changelawyers."