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LEADERSHIP IN LAW 2018: Zachary S. Kester

Managing Attorney and Executive Director, Charitable Allies Inc., Indianapolis Indiana University Maurer School of Law, 2009

May 2, 2018

Zac Kester seized on a niche in the legal market, forming Charitable Allies to help nonprofits navigate complex tax and compliance issues. He serves more than 100 active clients and writes frequently on legal issues facing nonprofits. He’s active with United Way and the Philanthropy Alliance and volunteers with Ascent 121, an anti-human-trafficking organization. 

lil-kester-2018.jpgHow did you decide to dedicate your practice to helping nonprofits?

I saw a great need in the field, both for nonprofits who needed access to attorneys with a deep knowledge of exempt organization and nonprofit law, and for attorneys who often underestimate the complexity of nonprofit legal issues. Many times nonprofits have excellent, talented attorneys who sit on their board and who they understandably rely upon for legal advice. But those attorneys sometimes don’t know the peculiarities of nonprofit and exempt organization law, which can result in their advice being too conservative and thus handicapping, or just plain wrong. As a firm dedicated solely to the needs of nonprofits, we try to give the right kind of advice to the right people — either nonprofits seeking legal help directly, or attorneys wanting to help out the organization they serve as a director.

What do you most enjoy doing when you’re not in the office?

My wife and I have four kids, including one just about to graduate high school, so a lot of my “spare” time is dedicated to family! We are actively involved in our church and its community service activities, which are a part of our family’s DNA.

When did you first decide you would become a lawyer, and what motivated you?

I was in junior high and witnessed a conflict between community residents and a church over a youth group noise issue. I thought the outcome was unjust and that a good lawyer could fix it. I never saw myself doing anything else after that. That need to see justice done is still what motivates me as an attorney.

Who is someone who inspired or mentored you, and what did you learn from them?

Barry Bostrom, a name attorney at the first firm where I worked, and who continues to work with me at Charitable Allies, taught me that the answer is almost always “yes.” There is a way for the organization to undertake its new programming or outreach or fundraiser and stay within the law, and our job is to help them find the way. That’s been key to shaping how we approach our clients’ needs. Our clients frequently tell me that “can-do” attitude is what makes them appreciate our work the most.

What’s been the most rewarding aspect of your practice?

I get to be part of my clients’ missions on a daily basis. From one day to the next, I’m helping trafficking victims to get counseling and support, or undocumented children find educational opportunities, or clean water advocates learn about tax and grant opportunities, or a mosque to navigate rules regarding public accommodations, or any one of a hundred different causes that come to our office seeking help. Since we are a nonprofit ourselves, our “low-bono” cost-saving approach helps free up precious dollars for the nonprofit to put back into its programming where it can do the most good.

Where do you see yourself in 20 years?

The need for legal services tailored just to nonprofits is everywhere — not just in Indiana. I intend to help Charitable Allies continue to grow and provide its quality legal work and dedication to nonprofits across the nation.

What’s something about you not many people know?

I love turtles. I even have two turtle paperweights on my desk — my staff uses them to let me know when I’ve got work piling up in my inbox.

What has been your most memorable case?

I was contacted by The National Art Museum of Sport as it considered winding up operations and dissolving. NAMOS had a sizable and culturally significant collection of sports-themed art that it was considering gifting to The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. At the time, The Children’s Museum was nearly done with architectural planning for a major expansion. When this gift became available they reconfigured their plans to accommodate the new exhibition and convened a special committee to advise on the transition. This was a major process for the museum as well as NAMOS and the NCAA, which had part of the collection on display at the time. I represented NAMOS and worked with all three organizations closely through every step of the process. Today, that collection is on permanent display at the Efroymson Pavilion at The Children’s Museum for future generations of Indianapolis families to enjoy. Being part of that was a wonderful experience.

What would you say to encourage young lawyers to do more volunteer work?

Two pieces of advice. One, volunteer your time doing something you like to do, or that is meaningful to you — whatever makes your heart smile. You’ll get the most benefit from it and give the most when you enjoy what you’re doing.  Two, if you can’t find that opportunity, then find a match for your specific legal competencies — whatever type of law you do best, give those skills to where they’re needed. In this way, you’ll build your skills and avoid providing overly conservative or otherwise incorrect advice and getting frustrated in the process.

How do you see the legal profession changing in the next decade?

Definitely more growth in technology and automation, as much or even more than the changes we’ve already seen in the last decade. Because they’re cheap, online forms vendors are attractive to potential nonprofit clients. We commonly clean up the messes created by these online “legal forms in a box” sites.

What was your most memorable job before becoming an attorney?

I worked for a major pharmacy chain and had an opportunity to see how corporate bureaucracy and “good-old-boy” hierarchy resulted in poorer quality service and product on the consumer end. It’s one of the key lessons I’ve applied in growing Charitable Allies: never get so caught up in internal procedures and politics that you forget that you’re there to serve the clients’ needs.

If you hadn’t pursued a legal career, what would you be doing instead?

I’d be a pharmacist, but still trying to make the world a better place.•

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