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Standard 1.2 on Governing Body Members’ Responsiveness to the Communities Served

Standard 1.1-6 | Table of Contents | Standard 1.2-1


A legal aid organization should have a governing body whose membership and manner of operating are responsive to the communities served.


General Considerations

An organization's governing body has a responsibility to be aware of the needs of the communities that the organization serves and to make policy decisions that respond to those needs. This responsibility should be addressed as the governing body carries out its responsibilities to support the effective operation of the organization, including oversight, resource developmentand serving as a resource for the organization.All members should understand the broad needs of the communities served.To the extent practical, the governing body should have members who are representative of the varied interests of those communities. The governing body should operate in a way that fosters effective participation by all its members, so diverse ideas and interests are considered when policies are adopted.

Diversity of Viewpoints 

The governing body needs a diversity of interests and perspectives among its membership in order to be responsive to the communities the organization serves. Diversity on the governing body protects against domination by a single group, ensures that the needs of important subgroups of populations are recognized, and promotes thoughtful debate of diverse points of view before policy is set. 

The governing body should include a variety of supportive persons who bring important skills, knowledge, and outlook to governance. Its membership should include persons who reflect the broad diversity of the community served by the legal aid organization and are drawn from various geographic locations, including major cities and towns as well as rural areas. The governing body should include persons who are or who have been eligible for the organization's services. Organizations that base eligibility for services on income should include governing body members who are or have been financially eligible for them.

All organizations will find a variety of interests in the communities for which the organization is responsible. Some organizations, particularly large ones, serve diverse communities and it may not be possible for the governing body membership to include representatives of all these communities. Other organizations may focus on offering assistance in a limited, substantive area or to a specific population, but even they are likely to find varied interests and outlooks among the members of the population served. Having diverse representation can enhance the governing body's awareness and understanding of the interests and needs of all segments of the population. It can also improve the organization's understanding of how to respond to unique service delivery and legal problems of particular groups.

The membership of the governing body should include attorneys who support the work of the organization and who can bring their professional experience and perspective to inform policies that affect the organization's operation as a law office. The governing body members, in particular its lawyer members, should be aware of any professional conduct rules that apply to lawyers' participation on legal organization's governing body with both attorney and lay members.

The governing body may also benefit from including among its membership persons who support the mission of the organization and come from places such as law schools, the business community, or social service organizations. Having at least one member with experience in management, business planning or corporate finance can significantly benefit the governing body in carrying out its responsibilities. Choices about which individuals to include on the governing body should be made in the context of the particular needs of the organization and the special skills or knowledge that would be beneficial to have on the governing body. The governing body should include members who can assist with fiscal oversightand resource development.

Each governing body member's knowledge of the community's interests should inform that person's participation in decision-making. At the same time, each member should recognize that the primary fiduciary duty of a governing body member is to the organization rather than the interests of communities of which the member is a representative. The responsibility of each member of the governing body is also to consider the legal needs of the entire population, not just the particular community with which they may identify. In addition, all members need to be aware of the legal needs of those communities served by the organization that are not represented on the governing body.

For practical reasons associated with the size of its governing body, an organization may find it impossible to reflect the full diversity of the communities it serves and to also include all the skills that would be useful to include within the governing body's membership. It is important that all members be individuals who are sensitive to the overall needs of the communities, who are supportive of the organization's mission and who recognize the importance of the organization operating in a manner that reflects an understanding of race equity, cross-cultural communication, and cultural humility.

It may be impractical for a legal aid organization that is part of a larger organization that exists for a variety of purposes - only one of which is related to legal aid - to achieve the desired level of diversity on its governing body. Many factors may dictate the makeup of the governing body of such a multipurpose organization. The organization should nevertheless strive to find other means to seek input from the communities it serves. It may, for instance, create an advisory committee that reflects the community's diversity. The staff of the organization should also work directly with organizations and individuals who represent the diversity of the communities served.

Recruitment and Selection

Identification of governing body members. The process for selecting members of the governing body will substantially affect the makeup and operation of that body. Consistent with requirements imposed by funding sources and the practical limitations imposed by its institutional structure, the governing body should seek representation from a broad cross‑section of the low-income population and from the legal community. The organization should work cooperatively with bar associations and other groups from which members may be drawn to keep them informed of the organization's activities and to encourage the identification of individuals who can serve effectively as governing body members. 

Governing body members from rural areas. Organizations that serve rural areas should be aggressive in their recruitment of members from those areas and attentive to their ongoing participation in governing body activities. It is particularly important to keep rural members involved in governing body activities because providing services in rural areas is often difficult and policy issues arise that affect rural service delivery, including budgeting, priority setting, and approval of large capital purchases, such as technology. 

The organization should cultivate relations with local community groups serving rural areas to assist with identifying and selecting community members of the governing body. Similarly, the organization should maintain positive relations with local bar associations in rural areas that may be a source of appointments of attorney members.

Operation in a Manner that Fosters Effective Participation on the Governing Body by All Members

The role of each governing body member is important, particularly since responding to communities calls for engagement of diverse viewpoints. The organization should recognize that recruitment of members does not guarantee their engaged participation on the governing body, and that many aspects of the governing body's operation will affect the degree to which all members become appropriately involved. Many aspects of the governing body's manner of operating will affect how fully members participate. 

Technology support. Technology, such as the use of board portals, should be used to allow governing body members to better serve the organization and interact with each other. Such portals facilitate engagement and the ability to review materials on demand. Organizations should be mindful that some members, such as those who are client-eligible or who may be retired, may not have access to necessary technologies personally or through their employment, so the organization should accommodate their technology needs in order to ensure equal participation. For governing body members who do not prefer English as their primary language, the organization should provide on-time language accommodations, during meetings and in the sharing of documents so they can vote on matters and fully participate. Machine translation of board materials is not acceptable, as it is not accurate and or effective.

Remote participation. Organizations that cover a large service area may find that members of the governing body from more distant areas are difficult to recruit and even more difficult to keep involved. Often input from such individuals is particularly important because of the special needs of such remote areas. Allowing for participation by conference call or video conferencing, and providing the tools to access these systems, can be essential to the ongoing participation of some members. Rotating locations of meetings, if feasible, to different parts of the organization's service area may help significantly in maintaining interest and participation by members from across the service area. 

Operation in a culturally competent manner. The governing body should not only be sensitive to the responsibility of the organization to operate in a manner that reflects the values of race equity, cross-cultural communication, and cultural humility, but should also be attentive to its own functioning. The governing body should be conscientious about supporting open communication among attorney and community members and among the governing body's diverse elements. The governing body should engage in training to increase its cultural competence and to enhance good communication.

Maintaining engaged participation by members of the governing body. One aspect of effective governance is for the governing body to have well-informed members who are committed to the mission of the organization. The governing body needs to strike a balance between longevity and the insight that long experience brings with the need for new ideas and fresh outlooks. 

A governing body can use several means to strike an appropriate balance to ensure that all members actively carry out their duties and are fully engaged in governing body activities. Its nominating committee, if it has one, should recommend individuals to serve as members who are committed and enthusiastic about their participation on the governing body. The committee should recruit new members who meet the varied needs of the organization for responsiveness to the community, oversight, resource development, and sound policymaking. It should recommend replacement of those members who have lost their enthusiasm or no longer participate effectively. If governing body members are designated by outside organizations, the organization should work with the appointing organizations to recruit engaged and committed members. 

A governing body may find it useful to identify a pool of potential new members who can succeed those members whose service on the governing body is ending. Potential members, for instance, may initially be invited to serve on committees or advisory groups and learn about the organization's work and operation.

The governing body should have clear policies on attendance at meetings and participation in governing body activities. Because each seat is important to the governing body's ability to respond effectively to the communities the organization serves, no position should be left de facto vacant because the individual is disengaged. 

Some organizations have term limits requiring members to leave the governing body after serving a specified period of time. Term limits have the virtue of guaranteeing that new faces will be brought to the governing body at established intervals. On the other hand, term limits can require retirement of key members of the governing body who have invaluable insight into the operations of the organization and intimate knowledge of how to respond to the legal needs of persons being served. 

No best way exists to ensure that a governing body will maintain the enthusiastic, engaged participation of all its members and that it will find the right balance between maintaining experience and inviting new ideas. The governing body should adopt policies that are best suited to its circumstance to accomplish the goal of this Standard. 

Governing Body Size. Governing bodies generally consist of a relatively small number of persons. The appropriate size of a governing body depends upon the specific needs of the organization. Most governing bodies consist of 15 to 21 members, although some organizations operate with governing bodies as small as nine individuals and as large as 35 or more. A governing body that is too large risks losing the involvement of some members who may be content to rely on others to carry out governance responsibilities. Inconsistent participation by members can lead to unpredictable outcomes in issues facing the governing body, particularly if different members attend each meeting. A governing body that is too small may not have enough members to share the burden of governance, including committee work and fundraising. Very small governing bodies also have greater difficulty reflecting the diversity of the organization's communities for obvious practical reasons. 

Use of Committees. Committee work is an integral part of the governing body's decision‑making processes. The agenda of governing body meetings is often too full to permit adequate consideration of the full range of details of complex issues. The governing body should appoint committees, when necessary, to consider issues in depth prior to meetings so they can make appropriate recommendations for action by the full governing body. It should also have permanent committees that oversee key aspects of the organization's operations, such as audit and finance,personnel, resource development,and planning.Membership on committees should include representatives of the community served as well as attorneys.