Stories from Smaller Nonprofits: National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel

12/13/2011

StarsAt this holiday season we are encouraged to look beyond face value to the heart of the people who may touch our lives .. directly or indirectly. "Looks" of nonprofits may also be deceiving at first glance.

For the first time we are opening Diva Marketing's Holiday For Small Nonprofits Series to a couple of special programs offered by larger nonprofits. These initiatives often have unique budgets and dedicated staff .. much the same as smaller nonprofits. 

John Pollock _Public Justice CenterThis story is told by John Pollock who manages this unique program. As Jennifer Pelton, Director of Development, proudly told me, "John brings strong leadership -- and helpful tools -- to the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel (NCCRC.)"

John Pollock - This Coalition seeks to address a severe justice gap in this country. People who can afford private counsel will hire a lawyer when something critically important to them – such as their home or the custody of their children – is at stake. Too many people do not have that choice. In what is a surprise to many, the right to a lawyer (in civil cases) is not guaranteed. 

Private counsel is unaffordable and civil legal services (or other “free”) counsel meets only 20 percent of the need. Further compounding the problem, all too often,indigent litigants  face an opponent who does have a lawyer. This justice gap especially hurts families of color, families headed by women, children and the elderly.

In 2004, attorneys and advocates from around the nation created the NCCRC to expand recognition and implementation of a right to counsel in civil cases. The Coalition is led by the Public Justice Center, a legal advocacy organization based in Maryland. As the coordinator, I oversee services to coalition participants by providing advice, information, testimony and other support. I also managed a vast amount of information through a newly created wiki and bibliography.

Judge Annette Marie Rizzo talks about civil rights to counsel in foreclosure cases. 

One of the major problems faced by the Coalition was its lack of an easy way to share its massive research and case-related resources with all 200+ participants in an organized fashion, particularly given the wide levels of familiarity with technology within the Coalition.

Additionally, because of the lack of organization and the fact that few knew the full extent of documents in existence, key resources would go unutilized and reinvention of the wheel (with respect to repeating existing research) was not uncommon.

Social Media Lessons and Challenges

The Coalition chose a product called PBWorks which was obtained at a very steep discount thanks to the generosity of the PBWorks company. I established the wiki and stored the documents in an organized system, then used web-conferencing software to train coalition participants on how to access and navigate the wiki.

In addition to ensuring that Coalition participants could remain aware of all of the Coalition's resources, the wiki  has solved other problems as well.  In the past, when documents to be shared were emailed, Coalition participants that joined the Coalition later on would not have access to such documents without combing through the email archives.  

Now, both new and old participants need only visit the wiki to see a complete picture of the Coalition's resources.  Also, the wiki provides a weekly summary to all Coalition participants about all documents on the wiki that have changed, thus allowing them to know if Coalition staff upload newer versions of memos, case briefs, or other important documents.  Finally, the wiki provides one centralized location for the entire memory store of the Coalition.  For all of these reasons, the wiki has empowered advocates in the various states to benefit from the collective wisdom and work of the Coalition.

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