Some days, Shane Edington thinks about putting a statue of St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes, outside his office.
Edington, attorney adminstrator of the Whitewater Valley Pro Bono Office, which provides legal services to the indigent residents in Wayne County, has struggled to find the money to keep the office operating.
The situation got worse when the state’s pro bono districts were reorganized a few years ago and the agency lost all the funding it had been receiving from the Interest on Lawyer Trust Accounts. A year later, the office began recording an uptick in people coming for legal assistance and, since 2013, has posted a 20 percent annual increase in the need.
Looking ahead, Edington does not expect things to improve. “I don’t foresee any decrease in the need for services,” he said.
Whitewater Valley is like many legal aid providers across the state. These offices tended to rely on one main source of funding to cover the bulk of their budgets but in recent years, those sources have cut back and curtailed the donations and gifts. This has created more financial pressure on the legal service agencies at a time when more people are coming for help with family, job or housing problems.
Now the providers are looking for alternative supporters in the public as well as private sectors. Legal aid offices are not only competing against each other for donations but, as they approach foundations and private citizens outside the legal profession, they are trying to get attention in a pool brimming with other kinds of charities.
“It all boils down to money,” said Indianapolis Legal Aid Society general counsel John Floreancig. “Money allows us to have the staff to do the work and also helps create the infrastructure that helps the lawyer volunteers. If you don’t have the money, you can’t help poor people.”
In its home county, Whitewater Valley is one of 60 nonprofits seeking contributions. Edington differentiates his organization from the pack by hosting an annual race, golf outing, and recognition luncheon. Together these events raise an estimated $18,000 each year, which is more than a fourth of the office’s annual budget of $65,000.
Also in 2013, it began drawing money from the state’s Civil Legal Aid Fund. This pool is earmarked for organizations around the state that offer civil legal help to the indigent. Since 2008, the fund has stagnated at $1.5 million while the number of groups getting appropriations has grown.
Recognizing an increasing financial struggle among legal service providers, the Indiana Supreme Court has requested a half-million-dollar boost in the appropriation to the state’s Civil Legal Aid Fund. The Indiana General Assembly will ultimately decide whether to increase the fund level but the court is emphasizing to the Statehouse that providers cannot meet demand and Hoosiers are being turned away.
Indiana Legal Services Inc. is the largest recipient of Civil Legal Aid money —$12.7 million since the fund was established in 1998. It also receives several million dollars (in 2016, it was $6.5 million) a year in federal funds from the Legal Services Corp.
Still, the statewide organization has added more development staff to attract private contributions.
“Every year, more people seek assistance from us than approached us in the preceding year,” said ILS Executive Director Jon Laramore. “Every year, we turn away large numbers of applicants simply because we don’t have the resources to provide help.”
In 2015, ILS provided representation to 1,500 state residents and offered advice to another 8,500. It had to turn away 4,000 people for lack of resources.
However, raising private dollars likely will require legal aid organizations to first educate, then solicit. Even though ILS has helped residents across Indiana, it is not widely known beyond its clients and the legal profession.
In 2015, with a $15,000 grant from the Public Welfare Foundation, Charles Dunlap, executive director of the Indiana Bar Foundation, assembled a team to tour the state and introduce legal aid to community foundations, private foundations and grantmakers. Many of the fundraising professionals from these organizations were unaware of civil legal aid.
Complicating the introduction is trying to explain in a simple message how solving someone’s legal problem can help the larger community. Advertising that a legal aid provider helped a family get divorced does not inspire giving until the larger story is told of legal services representing a woman in a divorce proceeding who was able to keep her house and get child support payments so the family remains stable.
Both Kelly Shrock, president of The Community Foundation of Muncie & Delaware County, and Marissa Manlove, president and CEO of the Indiana Philanthropy Alliance, said legal aid must tell its stories of clients helped when making an appeal to private donors. Foundations and granters will want to also know the track record of the legal aid organizations. They will want to see evidence of success.
Even then, legal service offices might have to reach out for upwards of five or more years before they start realizing significant support from outside groups.
“There’s always going to be more need than philanthropic dollars,” Manlove said.
The District 10 Pro Bono Project has been able to diversify its funder base since its IOLTA appropriation was significantly reduced by the Great Recession. It solicits private dollars from the bench and bar as well as private foundations such as the American College of Bankruptcy Foundation.
Also, like Whitewater Valley, it has turned to the Civil Legal Aid Fund, where for fiscal year 2015, it received nearly $35,000.
Diane Walker, executive director, said having to fundraise has been beneficial because it has helped her agency diversify its support. Having a broader base of donors has made the organization more financially stable and allowed the agency to introduce itself to a wider audience.
Indianapolis Legal Aid Society had to get very aggressive with its fundraising after its primarily source of support, the United Way of Central Indiana, chopped its allocation by more than $200,000 starting in 2013. Floreancig described the United Way cut as “the death blow.”
The agency ramped up its annual holiday campaign but seems to have hit a ceiling of $150,000 and Floreancig is worried that as he continues to ask for money, the loyal donors will get burned out. He sees the grantmakers as mostly wanting to fund specific initiatives while he needs general operating dollars to cover the rent, utilities, staff salaries and office equipment.
Moreover, ILAS and other legal aid providers are not getting the support they need from their own legal community. Foundations are reluctant to give when they believe the home team is not contributing enough.
ILAS has not had to cut staff but it is leaving two lawyer positions unfilled, and that has Floreancig concerned about being able to serve the clients.
“Just because you’re poor doesn’t mean you should get second-rate legal help,” he said.•