Donor Preferences and the Crisis in Public Interest Law
53 Pages Posted: 14 Mar 2017
Date Written: March 12, 2017
Public interest law today remains in a perpetual crisis. Public interest organizations of all kinds are underfunded and understaffed. Moreover, some critics argue that our current public interest system fails to help those most in need. Leaders in the worlds of public interest law, government, and private practice regularly decry the situation. Despite this crisis, we know shockingly little about the actual organization of the public interest profession.
This article presents the results of an original survey of donors to a major cause-oriented public interest legal organization. This is the first survey of its kind to study donors. By analyzing this survey, the article presents two central findings. (1) Most donors have a nuanced understanding of the work of public interest legal organizations. They draw clear distinctions between similar organizations, but they vary in which distinctions they consider important. (2) Donor interests are complex and contradictory. Donors often reward high-profile litigation successes, especially on issues that are personally important to donors. However, donors also explicitly support organizations because the organization’s work is broader than the donor’s self-interest. Donors reward organizations that have clear and consistent values and goals that align with the donor’s own values.
Based on these findings, the article argues for a reassessment of how donors constrain the politics of public interest law. The article identifies strategies for better engagement with donors. Donor engagement is critical for expanding support for lower-profile work and for improving the accountability of public interest legal organizations. These findings should reassure advocates working to improve access to justice. Donors are not a monolithic group, and they support new and innovative methods of delivering public interest law. The article concludes by considering broader questions of funding and the structure of public interest law.
Keywords: Public Interest Law, Donors, Access to Justice
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