Legal Aid & The Value of Working Via Partnerships in a Time of Increasing Specialization

Gary Housepian is the thoughtful executive director of Legal Aid of Middle Tennessee & the

Chocolate, Peanut Butter & Nonprofit Management
Chocolate, Peanut Butter & Nonprofit Management

Cumberlands.  He’s written a Tennessean op-ed, focused on the power of institutional partnerships between organizations that take varied approaches to solving systemic problems “…like poverty, access to health care, domestic violence and unemployment. Undertaking even one of these pressing problems is too massive for one organization to accomplish alone.”

Housepian (pronounced who-SEP-ian) continues:

Dialogue between potential partners can unlock common ground and goals that can produce unified, efficient efforts to maximize impact and further the reach of formerly isolated organizations. In 2009, Simon Sinek wrote a book called “Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action” that outlines the persuasiveness of leading with the motivation behind an organization’s work rather than the details of what an organization does.

By focusing on the broader human impact of our work, it will remind partners of shared goals.  Such communication can also reveal recurring struggles and patterns within a community.

Referrals are another important tool… Having a strong network to turn to, an organization can offer direction and alternative solutions when answers can’t be found within its own walls.

Take our Oak Ridge Preschool Education-Legal Partnership for example, the only formal education-legal partnership in the U.S.  This partnership addresses legal issues that hinder a child’s education — particularly those of the community’s most at-risk children.

Housepian’s right that partnerships are increasingly important to holistically serving legal aid clients.  And it’s gotten me thinking a little; while the “power of partnership” is hardly a new idea, it sure is resonant right now.

Increasingly, in innumerable professional fields and both on the individual and organizational levels, we are becoming specialists. Providers and their paying clients value depth of expertise over breadth.  This surely appears to be the case in law practice, where the past few decades have borne witness to the emergence of new niche and specialty services.  Clients are increasingly comfortable paying piecemeal for specific expertise rather than for general services and the possible inefficiencies that come with them.

The “valuing depth over breadth” discussion is its own big can of wax worms – now I not only use trite metaphors, I get them confused – so here’s my point for present purposes: nonprofits can achieve an end result of holistically serving client communities by working with partner groups that bring very specific kinds of expertise to the task.  Medical-Legal Partnerships are a good case in point – want your lawyer providing advice about your kid’s asthma? – as are state Access to Justice Commissions which can work systemically on legal aid funding and other projects.

And if all of that was too long/boring for you, here’s the bottom line: a good legal aid partnership can work just as effectively as chocolate and peanut butter.  Which is to say the partnership will live on a divine plane of existence.


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