Vol. 42, No. 6

A new executive director walks into a bar … foundation: Strategy and rebranding

by Steve Grumm

I have been on the job for 18 months. Like many small bar execs, my portfolio includes both the association—with a 700-attorney membership in a county bar—and our foundation. The foundation’s footprint, presently, is modest—a $250,000 endowment and an annual operating budget of $120,000. The foundation board is eager to grow our total assets and our community impact. This is part of a revitalization effort that will: 1) position us a niche funder of public interest law programs, 2) increase attorney volunteerism, and 3) consistently offer a program of free legal and civics education classes.

I have found that the key challenges facing both my foundation and association are, while not identical, interrelated. This is the case for two reasons. First, it’s just natural: Being new in both roles and being charged by both boards of directors to shepherd along revitalization efforts, I draw connections between the two endeavors. Second, association members are the foundation’s … well … foundation, with the bar foundation embodying our professional and moral commitments to public service. It follows that association challenges—the coming glut of Baby Boomer retirements, for instance—also challenge the foundation. “Yikes, we may start hemorrhaging dues-paying members!” becomes “Yikes, we may start hemorrhaging donors and volunteers!” (I use cries of alarm of a stronger ilk than “Yikes,” but this article is rated PG.)

This article’s goal is to outline our guiding priorities as our foundation embraces growth and change. Interwoven are thoughts about the foundation/association relationship. More sophisticated bar foundations will find some (much?) of this to be rudimentary. But I’m modestly hopeful to offer fresh insight for both more evolved foundations and those like mine. (Or, if you’re an experienced foundation director, you can laugh at my naivete. That’s fine, too!)

Foundation, find thyself—self-assessment & strategic planning

The Honorable Lawrence F. Stengel, now the Chief United States District Judge for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, presided over our foundation’s launching in 2002. “In the early years, our priority was raising funds for our local civil legal aid provider,” he recalls. “In this, we’ve succeeded, and our leadership has been steady and responsible.” Indeed, our Safe at Home Custody Attorney Campaign is by far our foundation’s largest philanthropic output. We’ve funded a successful staff attorney at MidPenn Legal Services for over a decade.

We’re proud of this, but, as Judge Stengel continues, “At this point, we should expand our reach, becoming more involved in the broader Lancaster community.” Our board agrees. We see numerous other needs—from stimulating more lawyer volunteerism to supporting language access in our courts—that we are uniquely suited to address.

Last autumn, we sought insight from those who have successfully grown. We invited longtime Chicago Bar Foundation Executive Director Bob Glaves—under whose watch the CBF has expanded from two employees with annual grantmaking of $200,000 to 12 employees, making grants of $2.5 million per year—to lead a strategic planning session. We also invited my counterpart in neighboring York County, Victoria Connor—who has helped shepherd that bar foundation's endowment growth from $600,000 to $4.2 million during a focused campaign since 2011—to relate her experience. Bob broadened our perspective, while Victoria, with a bar organization the size of ours, offered an apples-to-apples vision.

Our seven-hour strategic-planning session went like this:

  • Foundation History Exercise. We went through a fun, interactive memory-lane exercise to put folks in a positive mindset.
  • The Chicago Bar Foundation Story: What Can the LBA Foundation Learn? As a “Yes, you too can do it” lesson, Bob explained the CBF’s capacity growth, including the potholes along the path.
  • Updating Our Mission Statement. We tightened up our mission statement to three core priorities and punched up the statement with action verbs.
  • Rebranding. Nonprofit brand management is a topic that merits its own article.[1] If I had my perfect-world druthers, we’d spend significant time and money on a rebrand. Druthers and money are in short supply. So, we may end up with the diet-cola version of a rebrand. Nonetheless, we made two important decisions. We voted to change our name from Lancaster Bar Association Foundation to Lancaster Law Foundation. Part of this was simply syllable reduction. But more so, we think “law foundation” more intuitively suggests the nature of our work than “bar association foundation.” How many of you have told a stranger you run a bar association only for them to say, “That’s awesome! Do the bars give you free booze?” Aside from the name change, we will do an accompanying logo change, helping to set off the foundation from the association.      
  • Board Composition. Our board had been composed of lawyers since our founding. We determined that we needed forms of expertise that prevail in other professions. We amended our bylaws to permit three directors who are not bar members. (I will cover this more in the second half of this article.)
  • York County Bar Foundation Story. Just before our lunch break, we heard from Victoria about the York County Bar Foundation’s endowment growth campaign, which began in large part with the addition of nonlawyer professionals to their board and then a successful matching campaign. The real value for my foundation’s board hearing this was that, despite some differences in our bars’ financial positions, they could draw a parallel between the YCBF’s successes and a projection of our foundation’s future successes.      
  • SWOT. After lunch, we performed a variation on a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis. We asked:
    • What do we do well?
    • Where can we improve?
    • Is there anything we should stop doing?
    • How can we match our capabilities with community needs? (This prompts the question, “How do we determine community needs?,” addressed in the second half of this article.)
    • Where can we build community partnerships?
  • Immediate Next Steps. Finally, we developed specific, achievable, short-term goals to get us out of the blocks. These included the mission statement and bylaws amendments, along with planning a simplified 2018 fundraising campaign so we can turn toward 2019 goals of community outreach, more online engagement, and launching planned-giving options for our members.

In retrospect, I am happy with this meeting structure, except for the early afternoon portion. For me, the SWOT analysis component stood to be very important. It would offer me guidance and insight into my board members’ thinking. But we were caught up in the after-lunch energy lull. Perhaps building in a lighter activity to recharge people right after lunch—and/or doing SWOT in the morning—would have worked better.

Nonetheless, the strategic planning session has borne fruit. We have the new mission statement, new prospects for board recruitment, and a simplified 2018 fundraising campaign underway. We have broadened our programmatic footprint through new volunteer projects, and we will soon plan out a new fundraising strategy. We have partnered with, and funded, other nonprofit service providers. And while this is perhaps an unorthodox way to begin a branding project, I believe that in about a year, this new activity will cause us to (re)discover both our foundation’s personality and our identity here in Lancaster.    

The second half of this article contains a short (and hardly exhaustive) list of themes that have emerged as I’ve settled into the foundation’s executive leadership role. I will explain how I have observed their impact in/on our foundation.

[1] This passage from the State Bar of Michigan’s Design Standards hints at branding’s complexity and importance: “An organization’s visual identity is its business suit. It often presents the first impression a person will have of the organization, and sometimes the only one. Therefore, a weak or capricious visual identity must be avoided. An organization’s image is not the same as its identity. They are intertwined but different. Image derives from how the organization’s personnel behave, and how its products and services are perceived by its clients or consumers. Its visual identity is established by the use of specific visual elements, symbols, practices, and procedures.” State Bar of Michigan, Communications Procedures and Practices—Design Standards, retrieved from: http://www.michbar.org/file/public_mediaresources/pdfs/designstandards.pdf. (With thanks to Nancy F. Brown, State Bar of Michigan Director of Member & Communication Services.)   

Steve Grumm

Steve Grumm is the executive director of the Lancaster Bar Association and the LBA Foundation, having begun in both roles in November 2016. Bar Leader asked him to share his thinking about the foundation’s future, and how that relates to his work with the association.