At the Bigglesworth Family Foundation in San Francisco, legal services have been a passion and priority since day one. “Legal services provide the best tool to reduce poverty, and everyone in a fair and humane society must have access to justice,” says Claire Solot, foundation co-founder and managing director.
Yet, in the funding world, she says legal services are often a forgotten area of the safety net. “Historically people have assumed that the government or for-profit law firms fully fund legal services, which isn’t true,” she says. “Ironically, legal services are disproportionately underfunded in comparison to other types of safety net providers, yet when we look at the return on investment compared to other social strategies, legal services outpaces all of them.”
The foundation isn’t huge in terms of corpus, yet because legal funding is a relatively small universe, it has been able to make a big impact.
One way is by connecting and convening other funders. In late 2014, Solot and colleague funders formed the Legal Services Funders Network, a San Francisco-based group that funds civil legal service organizations as a strategy to alleviate poverty. The group has grown to 60+ local funders, as well as a dozen national funders and peer organizations—including the Kresge Foundation, Pew Foundation, Public Welfare Foundation, and American Bar Association.
Although there is no group grantmaking, many informal partnerships and calls to action have emerged from this network. For example, the group helped incubate a disaster relief fund at the California Bar Foundation weeks after the Northern and Southern California fires in fall 2017. “It was an incredible morale boost for the legal aid organizations who assisted those effected by the wild fires to know this fund exists, and that people outside their community care about them,” says Solot. “We’re now working to strengthen some of the disaster relief planning infrastructure before the next disaster comes.”
“We are a robust group of local funders who see the value of legal services organization in addressing and alleviating the host of challenges that result in continuing the cycle of poverty. Networking, learning, and supporting each other’s efforts is incredibly powerful,” she says.
“We’ve picked a specific area that we are passionate about, and one that happened to be under-funded. Doing so created a place for us at the table.”
As a smaller foundation, the role as a convener and a risk taker is important, says Solot. “We are able to fund pilots—projects other funders may be hesitant to consider. We also look at replication when we fund: how we can replicate something that is already working well somewhere else or help to develop a program that can be replicated nationwide. In this way, we can use our dollars to the max.”
The foundation also maximizes its dollars and time by streamlining giving. For example, it created a program called Access Grants, in which legal services organizations can simply submit a form to receive up to $5,000 annually for their organizational development needs.
“A lot of organizations tell us it sounds too good to be true to fill out a form and get a check. Many requests we see are for staff to attend trainings and conferences, expert witness fees, and updated technology tools that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford.”
According to Solot, if a funder is small in size or scope, it doesn’t mean they have to be impact-small. “For us, we’ve picked a specific area that we are passionate about, and one that happened to be under-funded. Doing so created a place for us at the table. We formed relationships with other small funders, and we’ve found that our larger foundation peers are incredibly excited to work with us. Some of our best allies are giving out hundreds of millions per year, and, yet, they value us.”