Category Archives: Life

Posts about my family and personal interests and pursuits

Peter Does Not Approve

Peter Does Not ApproveLast week, at the Nonprofit Technology Conference, I co-led a session on “Leading in Uncertain Times” with my friend Dahna Goldstein. At one point, while discussing layoffs, an attendee asked a question that I heard as “Aren’t layoffs a good opportunity to lose the organizational dead weight?” and before I had time to edit my reaction, I just blurted out “I don’t approve!”, getting quite a laugh from the room – a good feat when one is discussing layoffs. On Monday, my nptech doppelganger, Steve Heye, blogged about the conference and included the meme to your left, leaving me to conclude that there is no better excuse for a long overdue rant blog!

So here are some other things that I don’t approve of:

American Association of University Women members with President John F. Kennedy as he signs the Equal Pay Act into law

  • Unequal pay. Yesterday was Equal Pay Day, a day so named because if one were to take the 93 days of 2017 that to that date and add them to the 365 days of the full year, that would be the number of days that a woman has to work to earn as much as a man doing the same job, per the current wage gap. And, as Lily Ledbetter pointed out at the “Salesforce World Tour” event that I was at, lower pay means many things, including lower retirement earnings. Salesforce shows a lot of leadership here – they have now twice made salary adjustments to address this gap. One three years ago when they first acknowledged that they, like most companies, and particularly tech companies, engaged in this discrimination; then this week, after buying out 14 companies and inheriting their equal pay problems. Here’s hoping that other tech companies start following their lead!
  • The Internet of Things. If you gave 50 monkeys 10 years to write software designed to internet-enable appliances, automobiles, and consumer electronics, they would probably come up with a more ethical and secure product than we’re seeing from the current bunch of manufacturers. We’ve had the dolls that talk to the children and then broadcast all of their responses back to the manufacturer; the TVs that do the same thing. We’ve had the hundreds of thousands of cameras hard-coded with the same password, which were subsequently hacked so that the devices could be used to take down half of the internet. We’ve had the vibrators that sent their users moans and squeals back to the
    40492213_9650d24cf4_m

    Picture by Pete Toscano

    manufacturer. And this week we got a device that checks to see if your garage door is closed from a manufacturer who will brick the gadget if you give them a bad review on Amazon. It’s not just the complete disregard for security that allows bad actors to say, hack your car and steer it off a cliff – it’s the bad ethics of the former retailers/now service providers who can void your investment by simply unplugging their server – or deleting your account. This whole futuristic trend needs to be regulated and run by people who know what they’re doing, and aren’t completely inept and immoral.

  • The Walking Dead. My son and I watch this show religiously, and we’re beginning to wonder why. As one of my heroes, Joe Bob Briggs, used to say “There’s too much plot getting iThe Walking Deadn the way of the story!” I’ve read the comics (or, more accurately, the compendiums), that take me a bit past the Negan storyline, and they do things much, much better than the show by keeping the story moving without stretching out the violence to completely cringe-worthy extremes. Bad things happen, but they propel the story, as opposed to drowning it.
  • The White House Budget Proposal. I try and keep the politics subdued on this blog, but that’s hard to do when the proposed budget zeroes out funding for the Legal Services Corporation, where I work. It’s hard to see how our patriotic mission – pulled right from the constitution – isn’t worthy of the relatively small amount of federal funding that we receive. We insure, as best we can at our funding levels, that Americans have equal protection under the law. Because, in most jurisdictions, Legal services Corporation Logothe court only appoints an an attorney in criminal matters, not civil matters like foreclosures, family law, domestic abuse, and consumer fraud. Defunding LSC would unfairly deprive a vulnerable populace of the access to justice that our country was founded on. They’ll be at the mercy of unethical landlords, banks, and abusers who can afford attorneys. The courts are overwhelmed with defendants who are poorly prepared to defend themselves, but have no other choices if they can’t get legal aid. We’re optimistic that Congress, who sets the budget, will reject this recommendation and continue to fund us, but it’s shocking that the White House can’t see the core American principle that we seek to protect.

There are plenty more things that I disapprove of, like the overhead ratio, beer made with cherries, and don’t get me started on any recent Batman or Superman movie! What’s irking you these days?

Year-end Reflections

This post was originally published on the NTEN Blog on December 24th, 2015.

As years go, 2015 was a significant one in my career. The work of a CIO, or IT Director, or whatever title you give the person primarily responsible for IT strategy and implementation, is (ideally) two parts planning and one part doing. So in 2015—my third year at Legal Services Corporation—we did a couple of the big things that we’d been planning in 2013 and 2014.

First and foremost, we (and I do mean we—I play my part, but I get things done with an awesome staff and coworkers) rolled out the first iteration of our “Data Portal.” The vision for the Data Portal is that, as a funder that works primarily with 134 civil legal aid firms across the U.S. and territories, we should be able to access the relevant information about any grantee quickly and easily without worrying about whether we have the latest version of a document or report. To reach this vision, we implemented a custom, merged Salesforce/Box system. This entailed about a year of co-development with our partner, Exponent Partners, and a move from in-house servers to the Cloud. We’ll complete our Cloud “trifecta” in early 2016, when we go to Microsoft’s Office 365.

This was particularly exciting for me, because I have been envisioning and waiting for technology to reach a level of maturity and… collegiality that makes the vision of one place where documents and databases can co-exist a reality. Integration, and one-stop access to information, have always been the holy grails that I’ve sought for the companies that I’ve worked for; but the quests have been Monty Python-esque through the days when even Microsoft products weren’t compatible with each other, much less compatible with anything else. What we’ve rolled out is more of a stump than a tree; but in the next year we’ll grow a custom grants management system on top of that; and then we’ll incorporate everything pertinent to our grantees that currently hides in Access, Excel, and other places.

I’m working on a much more detailed case study of this project for NTEN to publish next year.

Secondly, we revamped our website, doing a massive upgrade from Drupal 7 to… Drupal 7! The website in place when I came to LSC was content-rich, navigation-challenged, and not too good at telling people what it is that we actually do.The four separate websites that made up our entire site weren’t even cross-searchable until we addressed that problem in early 2014. Internal terminology and acronyms existed on the front page and in the menus, making some things incomprehensible to the public, and others misleading. For example, we often refer to the law firms that we fund as “programs.” But, in the funding world, a “program” is a funding category, such as “arts” or “environment.” Using that terminology. along with too buried an explanation that what we actually do is allocate funding, not practice law ourselves, led many people to assume that we were the parent office of a nationwide legal aid firm, which we aren’t.

The new site, designed by some incredibly talented people at Beaconfire-RedEngine (with a particular call out to Eve Simon, who COMPLETELY got the aesthetic that we were going for and pretty much designed the site in about six hours), tells you up front who we are, what we do, and why civil legal aid is so important, in a country where the right to an attorney is only assured in criminal cases. While civil cases include home foreclosures, domestic violence, child custody, and all sorts of things that can devastate the lives of people who can’t afford an attorney to defend them. This new site looks just as good on a phone as on a computer, a requirement for the Twenty-Teens.

My happiness in life directly correlates to my ability to improve the effectiveness of the organizations that I work for, with meaningful missions like equal justice for all, defense against those who pollute the planet, and the opportunity to work, regardless of your situation in life. At my current job, we’re killing it.

Happy 10th Anniversary!

Cyber-cafeJust a quick post to commemorate ten years of blogging here at Techcafeteria.  That’s 268 entries, averaging to 22 posts per year, or damn close to two posts a month, which is not too shabby for a guy with a family and a demanding day job. The most popular stuff all now lives in my Recommended Posts section.

The goal here has never been much more than to share what I hope is useful and insightful knowledge on how nonprofits can make good use of technology, peppered with the occasional political commentary or rant, but I try to restrain myself from posting too many of those. After my recent reformat, I think I’ve made it much easier for visitors to find the content that interests them, so if you’re one of my many RSS subscribers, and you haven’t actually visited the site for some time, you should take a look.

I’m ever thankful to Idealware, NTEN, Techsoup, CommunityIT, and many others in the nptech community for giving me the opportunity to write for their blogs and republish here (about two thirds of the content, I suspect). And I’m happy to be part of this global, giving community.

Here’s to the next ten years!

A Healthy Skepticism About Medicine Shouldn’t Deter You From Vaccines

We interrupt this blog for a public service announcement.

medical trust

 

Here’s what I get — the 21st century U.S. medical establishment is not all that trustworthy. HMO’s sometimes limit testing and doctors prescribe unnecessary drugs. I am not a doctor, or any kind of expert, but I have read enough doctors’ opinions to have a healthy skepticism that the number of ADHD and anti-depression prescriptions being written seriously outpaces the actual instances. I think they are over-medicating and misdiagnosing regularly.

True, funny story: one of my son’s school’s staff asked my wife what medications he was on. When she said “none”, they were visibly shocked. We don’t know whether this is because our kid is a complete exception to the rule, or because they assumed that he was drugged because he’s such a sweet-tempered kid, or both. But it is disturbing. This isn’t a special ed school. Kids should not be spending five days out of each week on drugs without very good reason.

So I think a skepticism regarding modern medicine is a healthy thing. I follow my doctor’s instructions, but I’m picky about who I choose to be my doctor. And I do ask questions. I’ve had doctors do things like recommend a month in bed when my back went out — the opposite of good advice — and another that left a stitch in my back and denied it — I had to see another doctor to get it out.

So, when it comes to vaccinating your kids, well, yes, pay attention. The number of vaccinations recommended today is about four times the number required in the mid-seventies. Get a pediatrician that you trust and work with them. There might be circumstances that justify varying the recommended schedule a little bit — the Doctor will have a much better perspective on that than you will. But here are two things that should be completely obvious to anyone who isn’t ridiculously self-deluded:

  1. The established, half-century old vaccines like the Measles, Mumps Rubella vaccine are extremely safe, and your children will be safer if they take them, as well as mine.
  2. This isn’t about laws and Government and family rights. This is about civilization and social contracts. We vaccinate our children because we live in a society, not a vacuum tube.

There’s a curve here that, at one end, has accepting anything a doctor says as fact; not far from that end, having a healthy skepticism; and, far on the other side, deciding that you are more of an expert than 1000 doctors with PHDs. It does take work, research, and thought to determine what is BS and what is real. But parents have an obligation to tackle those questions, to seek good counsel, and to not let paranoia be your guiding light. Because believing that you are protecting your child, or anyone else’s, by skipping the established vaccines, is pure paranoia and ridiculous ego. You owe it to your children to be more reasonable than that.

Graphic by me, CC No Attrib.

Career Management In The Social Media Era

Boy! I sure did a good day's work today!

Picture: National Archives and Records Administration

If you believe that your current job is your last job — the one that you will retire from — raise your hand.  You can stop reading.

Now that those two people are gone, let’s talk about managing our careers. Because its a whole new discipline these days.

Gone are the days when submitting a resume was sufficient.  Good jobs go to people who are referred in, not to those with no one to vouch for them. Per the ERE recruiter network, between 28% and 40% of all positions in 2012 were given to candidates that were referred in, but only 7% of all candidates were referrals. That 7% had a serious edge on the competition.

Earlier this year, Google announced that they were changing their hiring criteria, giving GPAs and college degrees somewhat lower priority and focusing more on prior accomplishments and the strength of a candidate’s social network.  This is a smart move.  College costs average to $92,000 for a four-year degree. Google is changing their criteria so that they won’t miss out on hiring the perfectly brilliant people who aren’t interested in amassing that level of debt.

So what does that mean for you and me, the people who aren’t likely in the job that we will retire at? My take is that career management is something that you can’t afford to not be doing, no matter how happy you are at your current gig.  And that it involves much more than just identifying what you want to do and who you’d like to work for.  I’m highly satisfied with my current job, and I have no concerns that I’ll be leaving  it anytime soon. But I never stop managing my career and preparing for the next gig. Here are some of the key things I do:

  • Keep my network strong, and make a point to connect with people whose work supports missions that are important to me.
  • Network with the people in my sector (nptech). I regularly attend conferences and events, and I make a point of introducing myself to new people.  I’m active in forums and discussion groups. Like any good geek, this type of social behavior isn’t something that came naturally to me, but I’ve developed it.
  • Speak, write, blog, tweet. I generously share my expertise. I don’t consider it enough for people to know my name; I want them to associate my name with talent and experience at the things I want to do for a living.
  • Mentor and advocate for my network. Help former employees and colleagues in nptech get jobs.  Freely offer advice (like this!). ID resources that will help people with their careers.
  • Connect to the people that I network with, primarily on LinkedIn. This is how I’m going to be able to reach out to the people who can help me with my next gig.
  • Keep my LinkedIn profile/resume current, adding accomplishments as I achieve them.
  • Stay in touch with recruiters even if I’m turning them down. I always ask if I can pass on the opportunity to others, and I sometimes connect with them on LinkedIn, particularly if they specialize in nptech placement.

As I’ve blogged before, I’m picky as hell about the jobs I’ll take. They have to be as good as my current job — CIO at an organization with a killer mission, great data management challenges, and a CEO that I report directly to who gets what technology should be doing for us. The tactics above played a significant part in my actually landing my current (dream) job.

So this is why you need to start securing your next position today, no matter how happily employed and content you are. Job hunting isn’t an activity that you do when you’re between jobs or looking for a change.  It’s the behavior that you engage in every day; the extra-curricular activities that you prioritize, and the community that you engage with.

NTC Summary 2014 Edition

Me and a friend at the Science FairI’m back from the 2014 Nonprofit Technology Conference.  This one had some real high points for me, and a few things that made me a little sad, but I think I might have learned more than I do most years and I had a simply great time with old and new friends.

Here’s a  summary of highs, lows, and links:

This was my longest conference (of the nine I’ve attended): I met up for breakfast with some good friends at 8:00 am  on Wednesday, and I was one of the last people at the hotel at 6:00 pm on Saturday.

The IT Leader’s Roundtable that I led with Richard Wollenberger and Katie Fritz started out a bit rocky when Katie’s plane was delayed, but Richard and I facilitated a healthy conversation with the 20 or so attendees.

#NTCBeer was wild and woolly. There’s no way of knowing how many people showed, but we were turning people away from the 225 capacity bar from 9:00 to 10:00, so about 250  is a safe assumption, with 50 or more turned away. The beer was great (80 on tap!), as was the company. This is my last year as the main organizer of #NTCBeer, but NTEN will keep it going and I’ll always be ready to show up.  In NTEN’s hands, we should be able to secure larger locations.

On Thursday, I found myself roped into performing at Steve Heye’s Plenary Ignite session called “Bringing Techie Back“. Steve had Dahna Goldstein and I join him, on guitar and backup vocals respectively, on his rewrite of the Justin Timberlake hit.  I’ve seen the video (about 55% of the way through this plenary recording. MyNTC login required), and all I’ll say is that people are kind regarding my performance.  But Steve and Dahna rocked it with a rousing call for loving the tech that supports our missions.

Midday I joined the panel on “Marriage Therapy for Communications and IT Staff“. These have been dubbed “Franken Panels“, because the session was a mashup of proposals by me, Caring Bridge and Picnet, but I think we really pulled ours off.  The Nonprofit Times posted a recap of it, and here are the slides.

I had a great dinner Thursday night.

nten14foodie
Friday’s plenary put me off a bit. Titled “Where Does Tech Belong And Who’s In Charge?“, I had high hopes that this would address some of the chronic problems that technologists at nonprofits face when management thinks of tech solely as a cost center. I had reasons to be optimistic, as one of the panelists is a strong CTO at a large nonprofit.  But the other two panelists — who are bright, nice people — came from tiny NPOs (one a one person operation!) and had little perspective to offer on this topic.  It ended up being a very feel good session that left the issues that we really struggle with unmentioned.  I’m not sure who put this panel together, but they really let me down, particularly when one panelist suggested that we take the word “tech” out of everyone’s title, because we all use technology, but still said nothing about the damage done when technologists are shut out of the key decisions and have no parity with other company directors.  I get the point that he was making, but I can see a thousand techno-phobic CEOs taking that advice while still under-staffing, under-budgeting and under-thinking about their technology needs. Way to undermine nptech from the NTEN stage, guys.

I lunched with many of my LSC colleagues and special conference guests Richard Zorza and Katherine Alteneder.  Richard is handing the leadership of the Self Represented Litigant’s Network over to Katherine, and they came to the NTEN conference both to introduce her to the community, and celebrate Richard’s role in founding NTEN.  Richard was an early member of the Circuit Rider’s Network, which eventually morphed and merged it’s way into the Nonprofit Technology Network. At their second national get-together, in 1998, just before NTEN was proposed, Richard said “We must all act with non-territoriality, and actively share and pool our collective knowledge. If we act as competitors, we won’t get anywhere.”

I presented solo on Making Requests For Proposals (RFPs) That Even Your Vendor Will Love. This session went really well, with a robust discussion that I learned a lot from. Slides are here. Thorough collaborative notes are here.

On Saturday, I attended great sessions on Funder/Grantee collaboration and strategic tech planning (the latter featuring high-level advice and astoundingly silly visuals by Steve Heye, Lindsay Bealko and Andrea Berry). Then I ended the conference hanging out near the karaoke stage (but not on it!) at the Geek Games. Check out the T-Shirt I got (or a reasonable facsimile on Farra).

Farra Joleen Bingo

 

Congratulations to Jason Shim for winning the NTEN award! This is well-deserved for one of my Communities of Impact partners who is generally the smartest person in any given room.  You can see some of his work in the free NTEN ebook, Collected Voices: Data-Informed Nonprofits.

Next year, we’re in Austin.  Who’s going?

Where I’ll Be At The 2014 NTC

NTEN‘s annual, awesome Nonprofit Technology Conference is (obviously) my favorite annual event.  No failure on the part of other cool annual events, like LSC‘s Technology Innovation Grants conference, Halloween and my birthday; they’re great events as well, but they don’t have over 2000 attendees; four days of jam-packed networking, collaboration and education; and the inspired antics of Steve Heye. If you read this blog regularly, there’s a good possibly that you’re already booked for the event, and I look forward to seeing you there. Here’s where you’ll be able to find me:

Wednesday, 3/12: From 1:00 to 4:00 I’ll be leading the IT Leaders Roundtable with my colleagues Richard Wollenberger and Katie Fritz. Here’s a description:

Fill in the blank: “the toughest job an IT person can do is ______________.”  You might guess “program a Cisco router” or “design a SQL database”. But let’s face it — the hardest thing is gaining the trust and camaraderie of the non-technical staff who depend on our competence and, often, have little understanding of what the tech department (or person) does. Join us to share our challenges, tips and success stories about integrating IT into the organization.  Making it work. If you manage technology (as an accidental techie, a CIO, or anything in-between) or you depend on it (as a CEO, data entry clerk, or anything in-between), we’ll use this time to share our best ideas about how technology and staff successfully integrate to support an organization’s mission.

Then, at 7:00 pm, you know it: #NTCBEER. The event so iconic it’s name is it’s hashtag. The 6th annual #ntcbeer is shaping up to be the biggest – as of this writing, two weeks before the event, we have over 180 people pre-registered and the numbers go up progressively every day, as people start setting their MyNTC schedules.  We will likely fill the 225 person capacity of the Black Squirrel and spill out to DC Libertine, their sister bar, four doors down.

Thursday, 3/13: I’ll be part of a very therapeutic panel, Marriage Counseling for Comm and IT Staff, with Melissa Bear, Brad Grochowski and Andrew Kandels. This one grew out of concerns that there was animosity between the technical and marketing staff brewing at 13NTC, and seeks to not only smooth those relationships, but dispense good advice and examples of IT and Communications departments that successfully partner and collaborate.

Thursday evening is NTC party time, and I’ll be stopping by the NPO Engagement party hosted by Idealist Consulting, but probably looking for something more intimate to escape to after a while. My evenings aren’t as sewn up as usual this year, so they’re good times to have dinner and connect. Most years, I put together a dinner for the legal aid attendees, but this year we don’t seem to have as many of our colleagues showing up, although there are a few, like Brian Rowe and Ken Montenegro. There are a whopping seven of us coming from LSC, I think our biggest showing ever.

Friday, 3/14: If you want to get down and get wonky, I’m presenting solo on Requests For Proposals: making RFPs work for Nonprofits And Vendors.  I blogged about this: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The RFP for NTEN, where I said

At the RFP session, we’ll dive into the types of questions that can make your RFP a useful tool for establishing a healthy relationship with a vendor. We’ll learn about the RFPs that consultants and software vendors love to respond to.  We’ll make the case for building a critical relationship in a proactive and organized fashion.  And maybe, just maybe, we’ll all leave the session with a newfound appreciation for the much-maligned Request for Proposal.

So, how’s your second week of April shaping up? Want to connect?  The best way to reach me is Twitter. I’m looking forward to seeing you in two weeks!

Notes From Here And There

IMAG0236_1
Long time no blog, but I have good excuses.  Moving cross-country, even with a modest family of three, is no picnic, and we are now, over 13 months since I was offered the job in DC, starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Since summer, I’ve been frantically house hunting and, since December, busy relocating (for the third time) to our new, tree-laden home in Reston.

This, however, doesn’t mean that I haven’t been writing or totally neglecting my nptech duties. So here are some things to look forward to:

#ntcbeer. First and foremost. The annual Nonproft Technology Conference runs here in DC from March 13th to 15th, and the 6th Annual #ntcbeer will take place, as always, the night prior (Wednesday, 3/12, 7pm).  This year we’re at the Black Squirrel, a bar that’s a 15 minute stroll from the hotel (in the trendy Adams Morgan district) with three stories and 80 craft beers, which one would hope will meet the requirements. But I’m willing to bet (seriously!  Who wants to get in the pool?) that we will top their max standing room of about 200 people.  Here’s my logic: we averaged about 175 people last year in Minneapolis and the year prior in SF.  Minneapolis likely would have been bigger but a lot of planes were delayed by weather.  This year, we’re in DC, and that means two things: first, this is the largest center for NPOs in the world.  A lot more of the attendees live here. Second, it’s a very social place.  So I think that it’s not only likely that we’ll top 200; I don’t think 300 is out of range. We’ll have the Facebook page up in a week or two and we can hammer it all out there.

Also, #ntcbeer has sponsors this year.  We’ve been bought out by Blackbaud. (kidding!). Blackbaud and CommunityIT will be on hand with snacks and possible giveaways.  We’re figuring all of that out. Sponsorship is good, because this year we did manage to find a bar that doesn’t require a financial commitment up front, but I don’t think that will be possible in SF next year, given what a hard time we had finding a location in 2012.

Related, details to come, is that, prior to #ntcbeer on the 12th, I’ll be hosting a pre-conference workshop on IT Leadership with Richard Wollenberger and Katie Fritz.

As to that writing, keep your eyes open this week and next for NTEN’s release of “Collected Voices: Data-Driven Nonprofits. I spent 2013 participating in NTEN and Microsofts’ Communities of Impact program, where I joined 17 other nonprofit staff in diving into the challenges of managing, maximizing and sharing data in our sector.  We had two in person, two day meetings; numerous calls with bright presenters; active and professional facilitation by Julia Smith, NTEN’s Program Director; and this is the final product.  In addition to a few case studies and short pieces, I contributed an article on “Architecting Healthy Data Management Systems”. As this is really the focus of my career, whether it was unifying the database backend and building a portal to all client data at a law firm in the 90’s, or developing an open source retail data warehouse at Goodwill, or migrating/connecting all of LSC’s grantee data and documents to a Salesforce instance at my current job, this is the work that I think I do best, and I have a lot of best practices to share.  So I’m somewhat proud and happy to be publishing this article. it will be a free download for NTEN members.

Speaking of LSC, I’ve been busy there as well. We held our 14th annual technology conference two weeks ago, with record attendance. Among the crowd were frequent collaborators of mine like Laura Quinn of Idealware and Matt Eshleman of CommunityIT. It was a great time, with a lot of valuable sessions and discussions on data, internet security, and business process mapping.  We held a “Meet the Developer” session where our grantees, for the first time, got to speak directly with the guy that programs our online applications and give him some direct feedback. I attended in order to both facilitate and act as a human shield.  😉

The conference followed the release of our report on the two year technology summit that we hosted.  This consisted of two gatherings of leaders in the access to justice community from legal aid law firms, the courts, the ABA, the State Department, and the NLADA, along with key application developers and strategic thinkers.  We worked on a goal:

“to explore the potential of technology to move the United States toward providing some form of effective assistance to 100% of persons otherwise unable to afford an attorney for dealing with essential civil legal needs.”

Currently, the research shows that only 20% of those that qualify for and need the legal assistance that our funding provides are being served by the limited pool of attorneys and resources dedicated to this work. The report makes the case that 100% can receive some level of assistance, even if that isn’t actual legal representation, by innovative use of technology.  But we are working on the assertion that some help is better than no help, which is what 80% of those who need help get today.

The key strategies include:

  • using statewide portals effectively to connect people to the available resources
  • maximizing the use of document assembly to assist individuals in preparing court forms (a goal that lives or dies by the standardization of such forms, which is currently a big challenge)
  • Expanded use of mobile and SMS (many of the people who need assistance lack computers and smartphones, but can text)
  • Business Process Analysis, to insure that we are efficiently delivering any and all services, and
  • Expert Systems and intelligent Checklists, in order to resource individuals and attorneys to navigate the legal system.

As I mention here often, the right to an attorney only applies to criminal cases, not civil, but the peril for low income families and individuals from civil lawsuits is apparent.  You could lose your house, your children, your job, or your health if you can’t properly defend yourself against a wealthier accuser.  Equal justice is a cornerstone of American ethics. Take a look at the best thinking on how technology can help to restore it.

Notes From All Over

Did you know that Techcafeteria isn’t the only place I blog?  You can find me posting on topics related to legal aid, technology, and my work at Legal Services Corporation at the LSC Technology Blog.  My latest there is about my favorite free task management tool, Trello.

I also do the occasional post on NTEN‘s blog, and they published my article on the history of Circuit Riders, the nonprofit-focused techies that got many an org automated in the 90’s, and my pitch for their new mission.  Related: I’ll be doing a webinar for NTEN this fall; an encore of the Project Management session that I did at the recent NTC. Look for that around September.

Next up here? I finally sorted out what bugs me about Dan Palotta, renowned fundraiser, rabble-rouser and keynoter at the NTEN conference last April. I should have that up in a day or two.

In non-blog related news, this is the month that my family finally joins me in DC.  We’ve rented an apartment in Arlington (within walking distance of LSC’s Georgetown offices) to hole up in while we look for a house to buy.  I’m flying to SF to load up the moving truck and say one last goodbye to the best beer on earth (Pliny the Elder, by Russian River Brewing Co.) (What? You thought I was speaking more generally?)

 

My Birthday Campaign: Justice For All

And Justice For All

Image by Steven Depolo

I’m sure that you’re all familiar with birthday campaigns: this one is a little different. For my birthday, coming up on June 1st, I want you to do something for me and a cause that is very important to me.  But I’m not asking for money, I’m asking for your voice. Here’s the deal:

Legal services (aka legal aid), is the offering of free legal counsel and services to those who can’t afford an attorney otherwise.  Many Americans know this, but they have no idea why it is so important. They might ask, “What’s the big deal?  In America, everyone has the right to an attorney” and the answer is that the court only appoints attorneys for those who can’t afford one in criminal cases.  In civil cases, that’s not a standard protection.  Here are some examples of civil cases:

  • A bank forecloses on a house.  The family living in the house has no place to go and can’t afford an attorney.  Even if the foreclosure is not legally justified, without legal help, they’ll lose their home.
  • An abusive parent hires an attorney and gains custody of the children.  The non-abusive spouse has no job and no resources to defend his or her claim, leaving the children in the hands of the abusive parent whom he/she divorced to protect the children from.
  • An Army Reservist is fired from his or her job. The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act protects service people from wrongful termination due to their armed forces commitments, but, without “hundreds of thousands of dollars” to mount a legal defense, what can an unemployed reservist do to address the firing?

These are all examples of common civil cases, and the challenges that our poor and working poor citizens have in accessing the justice for all that is promised in our constitution, our founding principles, and the pledge of allegiance that I remember reciting every school day in my youth (this is a birthday drive — I’m old!).

And, aside from addressing these injustices, consider what highly available legal aid for the poor can do to improve the quality of life in the community. In addition to misunderstanding the need for legal aid, there’s a poor understanding of how legal defense supports many nonprofit causes.  Our orgs do great work, but often undervalue the effectiveness of legal solutions in addressing systematic problems like poverty, disease and environmental injustice.

And this is what it boils down to:

Our nation is founded on the right for individuals to defend themselves from persecution.  That defense is contingent upon skilled legal advice and representation being available to every American, regardless of circumstance. My employer, Legal Services Corporation, tracks mountains of data on the effectiveness and impact of legal aid providers, and our research tells us that only 20 percent of those who qualify, financially, for legal aid are actually getting legal aid.  In the current economy, that translates to millions of people with no access to justice.

So here’s what I want for my birthday: I want you to tell everyone that you know what legal aid is, and why it’s important.  Make it clear that civil law lacks the level of protection that criminal law provides, but civil lawsuits can tear apart families, remove basic rights, and make people homeless. Explain that we can’t, as a nation, promote our democracy while we let it flounder, by depriving the increasing number of poverty-level citizens the freedom that our constitution promises. Freedom needs to be constantly defended, and many are deprived of the resources to defend their own.

Blog about this. Tweet it! Post it on Facebook and Google Plus.  Link to the resources I’ve provided in the links, or use some of the sample tweets and quotes below.

Hashtag: #Just4All

Most importantly, come back here, or ping me on Twitter, Facebook or Google+, and let me know how it goes. Tell me any good stories you collect about people who really didn’t know, or people who did, and were possibly saved by a legal aid attorney, or desperately needed one and didn’t know where to look.

For my birthday, I want the world to know that, in America, freedom isn’t just a perk for those who can afford an attorney; it’s a right for all. And we still have work to do to secure that right.

Sample Tweets (add more in the comments!):

Right to an attorney not guaranteed in civil cases; homes, families, + jobs are at risk for poor. #just4all

How legal aid saves lives + families: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/16/us/16gideon.html?_r=2& #just4all

Is legal aid one of your NPO’s strategies? http://publicwelfare.org/NaturalAllies.pdf #just4all

Only 20% of those who need legal assistance receive it: support your local Legal Aid program. #just4all

Quotes:

 “Equal access to justice contributes to healthy communities and a vibrant economy. No community thrives when people are homeless, children are out of school, sick people are unable to get health care, or families experience violence. Likewise, when a person’s legal problem is addressed in a timely and effective way, the benefit ripples out and helps that person’s family, neighbors, employer, and community.”
   Chief Justice Carol W. Hunstein, Supreme Court of Georgia
 
“Equal justice under law is not merely a caption on the facade of the Supreme Court building, it is perhaps the most inspiring ideal of our society. It is one of the ends for which our entire legal system exists…it is fundamental that justice should be the same, in substance and availability, without regard to economic status.”
Lewis Powell, Jr., U.S. Supreme Court Justice
 
“The failure to invest in civil justice is directly related to the increase in criminal disorder. The more people feel there is injustice the more it becomes part of their psyche.” 
 —
Wilhelm Joseph
Director, Legal Aid Bureau of Maryland
July, 2003
 
“But more than anything else, we have learned that legal assistance for the poor, when properly provided, is one of the most constructive ways to help them help themselves.”
President Richard Nixon, 1974
 
“Equality before the law in a true democracy is a matter of right. It cannot be a matter of charity or of favor or of grace or of discretion.” 
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Wiley Rutledge, sometime in the mid-20th century