Friday, April 26, 2013

On Leadership

Leadership has been very much on my mind this week.

First, I attended Coro New York's annual civic leadership benefit.  Back in 1992, I spent a life-changing year as a Coro Fellow.  The experience fundamentally altered my career trajectory, introducing me to New York City, the field of criminal justice, and a number of people like John Feinblatt and Maddy Lee that would go on to have a huge influence on my life.  Just as important, Coro profoundly shaped the way that I think about the world.  In particular, it helped me to see that there are numerous ways to be an effective leader -- and that autocratic and charismatic leadership styles aren't always the best, particularly in the long run.

I think my Coro experience is one reason I have been drawn to the behind-the-scenes style of reform that Herb Sturz pioneered at the Vera Institute of Justice and that John Feinblatt embraced at the Center for Court Innovation.  Last night, I attended a small farewell gathering for one of Herb's successors, Michael Jacobson.   One of the things that I admire about both Herb and Michael and John -- and that I have tried to emulate -- is their commitment to research.

It turns out that this trait is crucial not just for non-profit management, but for the field of criminal justice in general.  We are putting the finishing touches on a national survey of criminal justice leaders, including police chiefs, elected prosecutors, corrections officials and state court chief judges and administrators.  In reviewing a draft of the study this week, one of the things that struck me is that there appears to be a strong relationship between research and innovation.  Leaders who invest in research also are more likely to rate themselves and their agencies as innovative.  

More to come on our national innovation survey in the weeks ahead...

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Tales from the Green Monster

Last Friday, Newark came to Manhattan in the form of a staff meeting featuring Jethro Antoine and Judge Victoria Pratt of Newark Community Solutions.  Together, Jethro and Judge Pratt offered a ground-level view of life at the "Green Monster," as the municipal courthouse on Green Street in Newark is sometimes known.

If the conversation had a theme, I think it would have been "small things can make a big difference."  Like many of our projects, Newark Community Solutions is attempting to reengineer how the justice system responds to minor crime.  For us, this means reducing the number of defendants who go to jail or receive fines and increasing the use of alternative sanctions such as community restitution and social services.  And it means making great efforts to promote compliance so that defendants aren't set up to fail.

One of the ancillary benefits of our approach is that, if all goes well, it should reduce the number of individuals who receive warrants.   Warrants are more than a nuisance.  For many, they are essentially a walking jail term -- at any given moment, on any given day, they are susceptible to being picked up by police and dragged into jail, even if they are guilty of no misbehavior at present.  And, in many cases, the outstanding warrants are decades old or involve small, unpaid fines.  No matter how ancient or minor, the presence of outstanding warrants on a individual's record can have a massive impact on his or her behavior and life prospects.

In addition to reducing the use of fines, Newark Community Solutions also seeks to decrease the issuance of warrants through a focus on procedural justice.  Judge Pratt is one of the leading practitioners of procedural justice that I have ever had the privilege of observing.   She is particularly adept at using plain language in the courtroom to ensure defendant comprehension.

Judge Pratt gave a nice example of this on Friday, talking about how when she started on the bench she used to ask defendants about their use of "psychotropic medication" -- and received nothing but blank looks and demurrals in return.  When she instead started to ask defendants about whether they took anything to "clear their minds," the conversations became much richer and more productive.

It may seem like a small thing but, according to Judge Pratt, tweaking her language in the courtroom has helped to reduce the stacks of bench warrants on her desk.  And that can add up to big change indeed in the lives of hundreds of defendants each year.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Law Schools and Problem-Solving Justice

I spent last night at Brooklyn Law School, guest-lecturing at a class on problem-solving justice taught by Anne Swern of the Brooklyn District Attorney's Office.  This is a somewhat regular assignment for me -- I think I have taught the class four of the past five years.  

The class at Brooklyn Law is, at least in part, the product of a push we made a few years back at the Center for Court Innovation to try to introduce problem-solving justice into the legal curriculum.  Our thinking at the time was that if we wanted to institutionalize the concepts and practices associated with problem-solving courts, then it made sense to try to influence how the next generation of lawyers were being educated. 

I think you'd have to call our efforts to influence academia a mixed success at best.  In fairness, we didn't devote a lot of resources to the effort. We did some convening of interested law school professors, devised a model curriculum, piloted it at Fordham Law School, and then posted the curriculum on our website.   A handful of folks, like Anne Swern at Brooklyn Law, picked up the course and chose to adopt or adapt it. By and large, the people who did so were adjunct faculty -- mostly sitting judges teaching a law school class on the side.  We didn't really make any inroads with core law school faculty.  And the number of law schools who added a class on problem-solving justice was minimal.  

Awhile back, we attempted to do a review of problem-solving classes at American law schools.  The list is dated, but worth checking out for anyone who is interested.  I've since noticed a few newer classes emerging, like this one at New England Law.  Also worth checking out is this list of therapeutic jurisprudence courses compiled by the University of Arizona.  Therapeutic jurisprudence has developed alongside problem-solving courts and the two movements have much in common.  Therapeutic jurisprudence has been more successful in influencing academia thanks largely to the efforts of David Wexler and the late Bruce Winick, the two leading proponents of the idea.

In all honesty, I had mostly given up on law schools and moved on to other things, but last night may have rekindled my interest -- it was heartening to meet two dozen bright, well-informed young people who were keenly interested in thinking through the implications of drug court, mental health court and other problem-solving models.  I wonder whether the current challenges faced by many law schools, which are struggling to both maintain enrollment and place their graduates in jobs, will create some sort of opening for new curricular ideas.  We'll see.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

How To Raise Money

Yesterday, I spent some time with a friend who runs a non-profit advocacy group.  He revealed that he is stepping down as executive director.  The reason?  He has grown weary of fundraising to support the organization.  This is not an uncommon refrain among non-profit administrators, sadly.

I have worked my entire professional life in the non-profit sector.  Like other non-profit executives, fundraising is a significant part of my job.  Awhile back, I tried to distill some of the lessons that I have learned about fundraising for staff here at the Center for Court Innovation.  (I tried to come up with ten lessons, but ran out of steam at nine.)  I have reproduced a version of that memo here in the interests of helping other non-profit directors avoid burn-out.  One caveat: fundraising is a highly idiosyncratic endeavor;  what works for one person may not work for another.

1. It Ain’t Magic
The screenwriter William Goldman’s famous declaration about Hollywood – “Nobody knows anything” – applies equally to fundraising.  Distrust anyone who tells you there’s a “secret” to successful fundraising.  The real secret is to do quality work.  Good ideas, clearly-thought-out strategies, and well-implemented programs tend to sell themselves.

2. Listen Before You Talk
It is important to know your audience before you open your mouth or put pen to paper.  You need to understand where the funder is coming from in order to craft the best possible message.  Are they Democrats or Republicans?  Do they have a national perspective or are they neighborhood-focused?  What language do they use to talk about their work?  Look at the funder’s website, annual report, and 990.  Look at the grants they have made in the past. You need to show funders how your program’s work connects to their mission.  Lots of funders have their own buzzwords (e.g. “civil society,” “global inclusion,” “place-based initiatives”).  It is always helpful to parrot back to the funder their own rhetoric.  It is also important to be flexible: shape your message to suit your audience.

3. Don’t Flatter Yourself
Many funders hear nothing but good news – day after day, they see a parade of programs extolling their own virtues.  As you might imagine, skepticism is an occupational hazard for most foundation executives.  As a result, it is best to avoid self-congratulation when dealing with them.  Try not to use flat, declarative statements like “Our program is a success.”  Far better to say something like, “Researchers have documented that our program has helped improve compliance rates with alternative sanctions.  This led the National Center for State Courts to give us an award for innovation.”  If possible, let the facts speak for themselves and allow your listener to draw the appropriate conclusion.

4. Admit Your Flaws (But Do It Selectively)
Reality is messy and doesn’t always conform to our desires or best-laid plans.  Some program participants fail.  Some partnerships are fraught with tension.  It is ok to admit to a few shortcomings – in fact it bolsters your credibility.  The trick is to highlight the right shortcomings.   Like a lawyer in court, you should never ask a question or raise a problem that you don’t know how to answer.  An example of a “good” shortcoming to highlight would be: “The hardest part of this project has been our relationship with Probation.  We made a number of mistakes in the early days because we hadn’t identified the right contact person and we hadn’t earned the agency’s trust.  But ever since we figured out a way to get probation officers the information they need quickly, the partnership has taken off...”  This sounds more credible than simply saying “Our relationship with Probation is great.”

5. Less Is More
Both of these statements are 100 percent accurate.   Guess which one is better from a fundraising perspective:

Statement #1: “Our program serves both criminal defendants and walk-ins from the community.”

Statement #2: “Our original vision for the program was to serve criminal defendants, but we couldn’t get judges to send us enough participants, so in an effort to boost our numbers, we decided to accept walk-ins from CFAR and SBLDC, and now we’re serving a mixture, although on any given day, the program might have all criminal defendants or all walk-ins, it just depends upon what day of the week it is, because on Mondays, there’s a judge that loves sending us participants, but on Tuesday, there’s a substitute judge, so we get fewer participants on that day...”

You get the idea.  Whenever possible, keep it simple.  Don’t get bogged down in the details.  Use numbers sparingly.  And by all means, avoid “inside baseball” – stay away from insider jargon, acronyms and abbreviations whenever possible.

6. Tell A Story
Almost every play, movie or novel has a basic three act structure: beginning, middle and end.  We tend to think in stories – it helps us make sense of the world.   Keep this in mind when dealing with funders.  Provide them with narrative arcs whenever possible.  In my experience, the best place to start any conversation or proposal is with a compelling need statement.  Describe the problem that you are trying to address as concretely as possible.  We are, after all, in the business of trying to solve problems.  And wherever possible, use real people to highlight how the program works: the defendant who got clean and sober, the victim who feels safer, the judge who now does things differently, the community resident who thinks her neighborhood is safer.

7. Sell Yourself
Fundraising is, in many respects, like dating.  Funders like to invest in people as much as they like to invest in ideas.  Look for ways to make a personal connection to the funder – perhaps they are a soccer fan like you are.  Or maybe you both live in the same neighborhood.  Or have kids the same age.  Maybe you know someone in common.  Any small connection helps.  Also, as in dating, neediness can be off-putting.  No matter how dire your funding situation, don’t convey desperation.

8. Failure Is Inevitable
There’s an old Nike commercial that I love.  In it, Michael Jordan says, “I missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I've been trusted to take the game-winning shot…and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life.  And that is why I succeed.”  The same wisdom applies to fundraising.  Rejection is part of the process.  You’ve got to risk failure in order to succeed.  For every ten proposals you send out, maybe one or two will come back with a positive response.  Try not to get discouraged.

9. Success Breeds Success
If you can find one funder to invest in you or your idea, you’ll find others.  The bad news is that funders tend to be risk-averse.  Very few like to be the first one to fund something, so finding the initial funder is usually the hardest.  The good news is that, like wolves, many funders travel in packs – if one of them funds you, all of them will.