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IP attorney heads fundraising campaign for United Way

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An Indianapolis attorney has taken on a nontraditional pro bono role, on top of his practicing intellectual property law at one of the city's largest firms.

Possibly the first practicing attorney to take on a task of this nature, veteran lawyer Don Knebel has set out as the 2010 campaign chair to expand the United Way donor base and raise as much as $40 million this year in central Indiana, which includes Marion and the surrounding counties.

He hopes to inspire both business and community members to offer more charitable contributions and get the legal community more involved than it has been, while branching out from those businesses and individuals who may not have contributed in the past. All are tough tasks in this struggling economy, but Knebel is confident that he can use his legal experience to help boost the amount of money and number of donors from years past.

"The motto last year was for the community to step up and increase donations despite the economy, but mine is that we're all in this together," said the Barnes & Thornburg partner who chairs the firm's IP group. "We all have people in our community who are less fortunate, and we all have to be a part of helping out."

Knebel took over the campaign chair role March 25, but this is the latest in a line of growing leadership roles that Knebel has held for the non-profit organization. Looking back on his involvement through the years, Knebel said he's proud to have finally stepped up and taken more of a leadership role. When he joined Barnes & Thornburg in 1974, his annual contribution was about $100 and that gradually increased through the years.

"I was not a particularly energetic contributor," he said. "But as the years went by, that changed."

At Barnes & Thornburg, Knebel volunteered on the firm's fundraising campaign through the years, helping to create an internal matching program for more involvement and working to get more associates involved, according to partner Wendy Brewer, who co-chairs the firm's United Way campaign. Contributions have nearly doubled in the past five years as a result, she said.

"Since Don's gotten involved, we've had more focus on fundraising here," Brewer said. "We've doubled what the firm's been giving through our attorneys, not the firm writing a check, and it's great to have him as an ally on this both internally but also as one of the emerging leaders of the overall United Way program."

In 2005 and 2007, Knebel chaired the United Way Tocqueville Society, a group of people willing to contribute at least $10,000 a year to the organization. He increased the number of donors to that high-dollar society during the two-year period, and as a result of that leadership and success, the United Way management decided to ask him to lead the central Indiana campaign.

"When you're a good volunteer, we don't let those people go at United Way," said Ellen Annala, United Way president and chief executive officer. "We wouldn't call Don a campaign chair in training, but he's got all the hallmarks of that. He did such a good job, and that's why he surfaced in leadership for United Way. He is very strategic and goal oriented, and he has the drive and organization to structure this campaign remarkably."

When the idea first surfaced more than a year ago, Knebel said he wasn't initially convinced that he was qualified or the best person for the task. Traditionally, the role has been filled by a high-level company executive, he said. But as he thought more about it, he determined that if he weren't able to step up, it wouldn't be appropriate to ask others to take on that role. With 36 years of experience as an attorney, Knebel admitted he may have some credibility to offer in doing this.

"As a lawyer, you get experience in organizing and pulling people together and presenting cases that resonate with people," he said. "That is what my job is here. To identify people and bring them together to get involved in the campaign, and get them enthused about the campaign."

With the tough economy and struggling business world, Knebel knows he has challenges to overcome. The United Way has raised considerable amounts of money in past years but has fallen shy of its goals for the past two years - $38.8 million of the $39 million goal last year, and $38.8 million of the $40 million goal in 2008. The $39 million goal was met in 2007, figures show.

During the past eight years, donor numbers have dwindled from 100,000 to 80,000 as larger companies have closed or cut back, and employees who may have contributed have either slashed their charitable giving or moved on to smaller businesses or into different areas, Knebel said.

Setting a fundraising goal doesn't happen until June, but Knebel has already filled his volunteer roster of cabinet members to handle specific areas such as life sciences, information technology, logistics, and manufacturing, he said. The cabinet members have monthly meetings, and Knebel said he's currently spending about 5 to 10 hours a week coordinating the United Way tasks on top of his own legal work.

So far, Knebel said the most gratifying part of this experience is increasing the visibility of this fundraising campaign and watching more people get excited about United Way. When the campaign began last fall, he said the little visibility in the community meant that anyone interested in knowing the status would basically have to drive to the office on North Meridian Street to look at the big fundraising thermometer.

That's changing overall, he said. But one area he hopes to personally focus on is the Indianapolis-area legal community, which by comparison doesn't contribute or get as involved as comparable markets, such as Atlanta. The central Indiana legal community gave $300,000 last year, up from the $130,000 five years ago.

That's positive growth, but Knebel said it pales in comparison to the likes of Eli Lilly, which raises about $9 million from employees.

"I know it's possible for our lawyers to be a bigger part of this, and one of my objectives is to make lawyers and firms see their obligation to the community," he said. "When the community looks back on my tenure in doing this, I hope we'll be as proud of the lawyers as anyone else in the community."

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