You have graduated law school, passed the bar, and even managed to find a job working as a real attorney. When you were looking for jobs, it felt like nobody wanted to talk to you, but now as a working attorney, a subset of people and organizations are eager to meet you — fundraisers. Whether it be your alma mater, a nationally recognized nonprofit organization or your child’s elementary school, there is no shortage of people and groups seeking your money and/or assistance. And as a young attorney, whether true or not, the general public believes you are well-paid and able to make significant donations. The reality is that most new attorneys get paid less than people think, and often are paying a variety of student loans and other bills. Even if you did have significant resources, the demands are so numerous that it is impossible to support everything. Below are some tips for using the resources and skills you do possess for maximum efficacy.
Maximizing Your Potential
Ideally, one day you will be able to simply write a large check to make a significant impact on an organization. However, as a newer attorney paying school loans and other bills, likely your most significant impact will be in helping an organization raise money from other donors. The first step in this process is to pick an organization that you want to help. You should like the mission and enjoy the other volunteers, but there is no “right” reason for choosing any particular organization. I have joined nonprofits for reasons as varied as wanting to support my alma mater, being friends with other board members, a family member has a personal connection with the organizational mission, and the organization had a good mission and could use more volunteers. The fact is, you want to be comfortable and excited to take part wherever you go.
Once with the organization, listen and pay attention to what is asked and wanted from you. Some groups have a number of smaller fundraisers throughout the year, while some have one large event. Determine how you can best serve the group first. Many people, myself included, try to make big changes from the beginning. But you will be far more effective, and appreciated, by spending time learning and listening before acting.
On most boards, the most important job is bringing in donors and monetary contributions. Typically, several board members have been with the organization for many years and either these board members, or the development staff itself, will have connections with generous donors that have made significant contributions over the years. You are unlikely to have the same types of connections early in your career. But you can do a few things to help.
First, provide skills not currently on the board. Many, but not all, long-term board members are unsophisticated with technology and social media. Use your knowledge of all things social media to help promote the organization and upcoming events. If you have other skills and talents, musical, artistic or even organizational, use these skills to compliment the other skills of the organization. You also might have a better understanding of what bars, breweries, wineries or restaurants are currently popular. On more than one occasion I have used my knowledge of what was currently popular in the area to help organize locations for people to visit after the main event. In this situation, I will usually communicate with the bar or restaurant to have a special or discount for those coming from our event. While this doesn’t directly lead to money for the organization, it does round out the event and leaves people enjoying the event more, which they remember when deciding to return in the future.
Similarly, while you might not have access to individual wealthy donors, you likely know a large number of potential donors. In law school, your network of friends and colleagues was vast, and as a new lawyer you are likely still in touch with many of them – unfortunately, as you get older and other work and family demands take time, you may lose touch – but as a newer attorney you still have many fresh contacts who are interested in supporting you. As a result, you have an excellent opportunity to bring people to your new organization. If you can get your friends and colleagues to show up to the event once, and they enjoy it, the next year when the invitation comes around they will have fond memories of the event and likely try to make it. I’ve been to countless events, and met hundreds of people with little connection to the organization we were supporting. Many can’t remember why they started coming to the specific event, but nonetheless enjoy it every year and keep coming back. Building up a new donor base is critical to any organization, because established donors leave every year for a variety of reasons. You have the ability to bring new energy and people to the organization and over the years that can become very significant.
Finally, do not be afraid to seek in-kind donations from clients, colleagues and other businesses you frequent. While it can be awkward to ask for a cash donation from a client or a business owner you barely know, in-kind donations are marketing opportunities that interest many businesses (just be sure that you have consulted with your boss/partner before talking to one of their clients). Cash contributions are very important, but in-kind donations can add great quality to an event, and can even bring in cash (for example, if you hold a silent auction of in-kind donations).
Effectively Attending Events
While it is important for business and personal reasons to get heavily involved with one organization, as a new attorney you also are likely to get invited to a number of events where you are expected to make donations. If you can’t make a large donation, but still want to help make a difference, here are a few tips. First, before attending the event, research the organization to see what different donations can do. Most organizations will be able to say that for $X we can do this, and for $Y we can do this. Determine before you arrive what you would like to do and show up with your check ready. That way, you don’t have to worry about spending more than you expected because you got caught up in the excitement, and by doing research early you will know exactly what you are supporting.
Second, always be willing to fill a seat. If you work in a firm, or have friends in firms, often the firm will purchase a table to an event and then have people back out. If you have been flexible in the past and willing to go at the last second, you can often find a seat. Then, any donation you make is likely all going to the organization. At most events I’ve attended, 50-75 percent of the ticket cost goes to overhead (the meal, room rental, decoration, etc.). If you spend $100 on a ticket, it could be that only $15-25 of that ticket is going to the organization. But if you go as a seat filler, the ticket has already been purchased, and a donation of that same $100 all goes to the organization.
Finally, scout the silent auction items. Usually silent auction items have been donated, and all of the proceeds go to the organization. I have found many deals at an auction for golf outings, restaurants and other activities that I would have paid full price to do normally, but at the silent auction they were slightly undervalued. As a result, I end up with a deal on something I would normally do, and the organization I am there to support gets another cash contribution.
As a new lawyer, your focus is likely devoted to your practice and your firm. But as you will soon discover, many organizations can use your help. While you might not think you have enough money to help, you do have skills and knowledge and contacts that can make you a very valuable commodity.
About the Author
Colin Andries is the founder of Andries Law Offices in Portland, Oregon.