Meredith Dobbs, Daily Report (reprinted with permission)
W. Steve Allen is a banker, not a lawyer, but he became the board president for the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation this year—the first nonlawyer to head the board in its 35-year history.
Allen is a managing director at SunTrust Banks Inc. and heads the bank’s legal specialty group, which offers banking and wealth management services to firms and lawyers.
He said he got involved with AVLF about eight years ago so that he could meet lawyers who might want to bank with him. “I saw AVLF as a target-rich environment, if you will,” he said.
“My very first involvement was drinking a glass of wine at the wine-tasting,” Allen recalled, referring to the group’s popular fall fundraiser.
As Allen learned more about the organization and what it did in the community—especially in helping domestic violence survivors and fighting homelessness through legal services to tenants facing evictions—he got interested in its work.
The legal nonprofit recruits Atlanta lawyers to provide pro bono legal services to low-income people also struggling with debt collectors, unpaid wage claims and probate matters.
Allen said that as a child growing up in Florida, he had cousins and aunts who had experienced domestic violence and at times lived with his family, so AVLF’s domestic violence work touched him personally.
“It brought all that back to me. Getting involved [in AVLF] has been liberating for me,” Allen said, explaining that as a child he didn’t really understand what was going on. “And there is so much that goes unreported—so much that happens every day.”
AVLF runs the Safe Families Office at Fulton County Superior Court with the Partnership Against Domestic Violence to provide legal protection to domestic violence victims and connect them with community resources, such as shelters. Started in 2009, it is the only walk-in domestic violence clinic staffed by lawyers and paralegals (many of them volunteers) in a Georgia courthouse.
AVLF’s executive director, Marty Ellin, said the group asked Allen to join its board three years ago because of his care for its mission, his people skills—and his financial expertise.
“We wanted someone with a strong sophistication about money matters to ensure that the foundation would survive, then thrive,” he said. “He joined the board when things were tough, after the recession.”
“And we wanted Steve. I’ve never met anyone who knows more lawyers than Steve Allen does,” Ellin added. “He gets what we are. He understands our mission.”
Last year AVLF served 5,000 people—2,000 of them through the Safe Families Office—on a budget of only $1.1 million. It is leanly staffed, employing four lawyers to recruit, train and assist volunteer attorneys.
Allen said one of his goals is to tap into new funding sources and lessen AVLF’s reliance on events. The fall wine-tasting is the group’s major fundraiser. Last year it was held at the World of Coca-Cola and netted $460,000—more than 40 percent of AVLF’s annual budget.
Other funding comes from private donors, grants, and civil filing fees from cases in Fulton State and Magistrate courts. Before the recession, Ellin said, each source contributed about a third of its funding, but grants and filing fees have dwindled, so now AVLF raises 60 to 65 percent of its money from the private bar.
Expanding beyond its core donor base of lawyers is a priority, Allen said, and adding more nonlawyers to the board is part of that. There are 33 board members now, with room for two more.
“We are looking out more in the broader community for grants,” he said. Local businesses are one potential source. Many Atlanta-based corporations have foundations, Allen said, so the board members are seeking out those whose charitable aims fit with what AVLF does.
He said his elevator speech to a potential nonlawyer donor would be to say, “The core services we provide are around domestic violence and homelessness. There is a great need for that in our community that is not being met by other organizations,” and then add that only AVLF offers civil legal services using volunteer lawyers in private practice.
This year AVLF’s board is working on its next five-year strategic plan, Allen said. Part of the plan is to increase its budget—likely with a target of $2 million—so it can help more people.
“It is ambitious. That’s one of the reasons we have to broaden the scope of the board,” he said. “The money is out there—it’s just getting the right people and tapping into it.”
Asked if he’s gotten any business from all the time he spends with lawyers through AVLF, Allen said he has. “I rarely solicit anyone. People call me and say they’ve got a friend that needs this or that. I end up doing business that way. I’ve grown our practice based on that.”
Besides his work with AVLF, Allen volunteers financial counseling to families in crisis through his church, Mount Bethel United Methodist Church in Marietta, and provides free résumé reviews to job-seekers in need through the Financial Executives Networking Group.