May 19, 2016 Dialogue

Lessons Learned (So Far) from Establishing a Nonprofit Technology Center: The Florida Experience

By Joyce Raby

This article is meant as a follow-up to Christine Fecko’s recent article appearing in the Winter 2016 issue of Dialogue, entitled “An IOLTA New Year’s Resolution:  Increase Technology Support.” As she points out, there are many strategies for leveraging technology investments, a sampling of which include shared technology planning and purchasing, as well as fostering partnerships with other professionals and industries to engage in IT audits or business process improvement projects.

One of the possible strategies an IOLTA funder can implement is setting up a technology support center. Such a center can support only the IOLTA grantees or can be structured as a service and support organization to the broader access to justice community. Illinois Legal Aid Online (ILAO) is the model most referenced when talking about these kinds of entities.

Using ILAO as a model, Florida recently created an independent nonprofit technology support center tasked with increasing access to justice in Florida through the innovative use of technology. The Florida Justice Technology Center (FJTC) aims to serve and support the access to justice community in Florida and therefore envisions, as we move forward, working with legal aid programs, pro bono programs, the private bar, the court, the clerks, law schools, and many others interested in access to justice issues.

I wanted to take this opportunity to share with the IOLTA community our early lessons learned in starting a tech center. I hope if you are considering such an endeavor, you find this article useful.

Lesson 1: The Need for a Shared Vision

FJTC was conceived as and is the result of a group effort. The idea for a technology center emerged from conversations between the leadership of The Florida Bar and The Florida Bar Foundation. This dialogue occurred in the context of the Florida Supreme Court convening the Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice, which has brought together a diverse and powerful cross section of leaders from a variety of industries interested in working on access to justice issues.

The first lesson we learned is that, in any effort like this, all of the leaders should have a shared vision from the outset. When I say “shared vision,” I mean not only agreeing on the stated mission, but also on the means for accomplishing it. In Florida, we began with an agreed upon mission statement; but how that mission is to be implemented is subject to some debate. Many individuals and organizations have different ideas about what FJTC could or should be doing. It is challenging to leverage our efforts well for the entire community when everyone has their own organizational priorities and needs. A shared vision of FJTC will be critical to the broad adoption of our work.

Lesson 2: Translating the Shared Vision into Specific Tasks

Once the leaders of an effort to start a technology center have agreed upon a shared vision, agreeing to specific tasks or areas of responsibility is a way to further define the center’s mission and build consensus. Along with our first year of funding awarded in June of 2015, FJTC was given responsibility for the three pre-existing statewide websites: FloridaLawHelp.org, FLAdvocate.org, and FloridaProbono.org. In November of 2015, FJTC was asked to assume project management responsibility for the Florida Triage Pilot Project, which resulted from the work of the Access Subcommittee of the Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice.

These are big programmatic goals to tackle immediately—that’s the downside. So much work, so much to accomplish … all while working to set up the organization itself. However, the upside is that these specific goals have served as a rallying point—something tangible the community can get behind and support. Both projects together—as they are implemented—can provide immediate benefits to many of our stakeholders. Providing some immediate benefits also contributes to partnership building and collaboration.

Lesson 3: Stable Sustained Seed Funding

The Florida Bar Foundation has made a multi-year financial commitment:   The initial seed funding for FJTC has been spread over a three-year period. While it is assumed that FJTC will apply for and receive these funds, a three-year spread provides that the money will flow at a steady pace and allows sufficient time for effective financial oversight by all parties involved.

The three-year commitment from The Florida Bar Foundation to FJTC is a step in the right direction. But I would be remiss not to mention the longstanding funding commitment that was made in Illinois—over 20 million dollars for 15 years, from three key funding partners. This is an astonishing commitment given the fluctuating economy over that same period. As funders, I would encourage you to consider the benefits of long-term and consistent support commitments up front. Certainly ILAO’s sustained funding is not the only reason for their continued success; Executive Director Lisa Colpoys and all her dedicated and talented staff deserve the lion’s share of the credit, but I would venture to say that sustained funding didn’t hurt.

Funder support does not have to be exclusively financial. Creating an organization inside an “incubator” of some sort, like ILAO’s early days inside the Chicago-Kent School of Law’s Center for Law and Technology, is something I would like to see the IOLTA community consider. Treat your fledgling tech entity as a true startup—it might be a very viable model.

Lesson 4: Expect Some Turbulence

I recently discovered the Satir Change Model, developed by renowned family therapist Virginia Satir, as a useful tool for understanding how individuals and communities process change:[1]

As the figure above illustrates, we are operating in a stable environment:  the Status Quo. Something happens to disrupt that environment—a change in the law, a hit in the economy, a radical shift in leadership (Ms. Satir calls this a Foreign Element)—and something new and unexpected (and perhaps negative) is introduced into the community. You can also think of this as a Catalyst.

At first, Resistance forms as the community attempts to address the Foreign Element/Catalyst. But as time continues (the horizontal axis) and the Catalyst proves to be irreversible, Chaos ensues. As the Chaos continues, a Transforming Idea emerges that allows the community to absorb and integrate a new paradigm and, again over time, a New Status Quo emerges.

The part that interests me most about this model is the part where “Chaos ensues.” I don’t think it just happens when the Foreign Element is introduced into the environment—I also think it happens when the Transforming Idea is introduced into the environment.

Chaos always ensues. Take a moment and reflect on your own life; can you remember moments when something radical happened that forever changed your life? Wasn’t there a period of chaos until you figured out the “new normal”?

Chaos seems to me to be the period most people try to avoid. And yet I think some amount of chaos is inevitable. We can plan and strategize and anticipate, but there will be some chaos, some turbulence, some “unknown unknowns” that will emerge anyway. I am not telling you to skip planning—I would never say that—but don’t think that planning can eliminate every possible consequence of the work. It is unrealistic not to expect some bumps along the way. Turbulence happens. Expect it, and keep moving forward anyway.

We can do all the planning we want, all the talking we want, give people reports, negotiate, get them to sign documents, etc., but it won’t be until real life repercussions are felt by individuals and organizations that the Chaos Will Ensue—and then the real work happens. Don’t fear that part. Don’t try to avoid that part. It doesn’t mean you have failed; it means you are one step closer to integration.

And finally…

Lesson 5: Be Willing to Try Stuff, to Fail, and to Try Again.

 

“The cost of being wrong is less than the cost of doing nothing.”[2]

One of the key benefits to technology is that you can build stuff, try stuff, and experiment with stuff at a much lower cost than most of us think. Software companies launch with an MVP (or Minimal Viable Product) as a way to test their work and collect valuable information about their customers. So, go try something and see what works (and what doesn’t), and then refine what you’ve done or try something else. Continue to push forward efforts to serve more and to serve them meaningfully. Use your experiments to learn about your clients and the communities you serve.

A technology support center can be a great (wonderful, terrific, phenomenal) venue for experimentation. Build that into your vision. The access to justice community in Florida has been extremely open to creative, agile thinking. ILAO demonstrates for us over and over again what innovation looks like. We should not be afraid of failure; we should not be afraid to try something new. Because even with all the innovation we have seen in the last 20 years, we are still only serving such a small portion of those who need help.

To my mind, this is the bottom line:  The cost of trying something—even if it fails—and then learning from that failure, and doing it again and again until you make a difference, is less than the cost of doing nothing but maintaining the status quo.


[1]The Satir Change Model,” Steven M. Smith, accessed April 16, 2016.

 

 

[2] Seth Godin, What To Do When It’s Your Turn [and it’s always your turn] (The Domino Project, 2014).

 

 

Joyce Raby

Executive Director, Florida Justice Technology Center

Joyce Raby is the executive director for the Florida Justice Technology Center and in her prior work spent eight years as a founder and program officer of the TIG program at the Legal Services Corporation.