Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing a local nonprofit trailblazer, Linda Peyton, who has spent her career as an attorney serving those who may not be able to help themselves or access resources that would move them out of unhealthy or unjust circumstances. Linda has served as the Executive Director (ED) of the Legal Clinic for the Disabled (LCD) since 2008, after serving as a Staff Attorney for the organization for five years. Prior to working at LCD, Linda worked as a public defender in Philadelphia. During her career, she has worked with a variety of low-income clients, including individuals with disabilities, as well as situations of domestic violence. Working with vulnerable populations who were not being served otherwise became her passion. In seeking new opportunities in the area, LCD stood out as an organization that would allow her to have high and hands-on impact and give her the ability to work with many community partners who were serving the community in other ways.
After joining the team in 2003, Linda took on the task of being the founding project director for the Anti-Violence Initiative through LCD, work that is still a major part of the organization today. Linda pointed out that domestic violence in this community is more complex and still undefined in certain contexts. Take, for example, a person who is paralyzed and a wheelchair- user who has a caretaker who treats them poorly or abuses their power over the individual. As it stood, these individuals were left to fend for themselves and often were not truly aware of the situation they were in and the abuse they were being put through. It was through Linda’s work that this became and continues to be an area of focus for LCD.
Before taking on the directorship role that Linda has today, her predecessor observed that LCD’s future challenges as an organization were primarily fiduciary. Having seen this, there was a clear increase in grant writing and fundraising, which resulted in the start of an annual fundraiser in 2004 that would result in a yearly event and increased capacity for the organization. A year later Linda became the ED and things began to pick up and move forward for LCD. At the time when Linda came on board as the ED, LCD was still finding its footing in regards to the breadth of legal services it would provide, and was only supported by four staff attorneys. With increased resources and additional staff attorneys, the first focus for LCD was to move towards increased community outreach that included more visits to homes, hospitals and other health-based clinics in the area, as well as phone consultations for clients who may not know if the LCD was the right place to fulfill their needs. If LCD was not the best place to fill these individuals’ needs, LCD made sure to find organizations that are equipped to do so.
Since then, LCD has hired six full and part-time staff attorneys, one of whom also supports Linda directly in day-to-day management of the nonprofit, as well as part-time fellows and interns who help innovate and create outreach materials or some of the educational trainings now part of LCD programming. Linda mentioned multiple times during our conversation that a solution to many of the organization’s short-falls would be full-time administrative support; however, it is difficult to justify spending money on that type of support when there is still so much work to do in the low-income disability community in Philadelphia who could use more attorneys going to bat for them. That said, Linda acknowledged the high need for such administrative support, and likely will focus her energies on that type of full-time support in the coming year.
Among programmatic innovations within LCD that have demonstrated impressive results, the LCD team has been incredibly effective at building Medical-legal Partnerships (MLPs) in the area, which started outreach and development in 2009. This disruptive model of partnership has ignited a new movement in the arena of nurse-handled health centers, as well as hospitals and health centers where legal services may be widely utilized. This partnership requires educational efforts to train health professionals around signs of health harming legal injustice and distress, as well as provide a general legal presence for clients who may have questions for attorneys they may not have access to otherwise.
Knowing that other leadership will have to step in at some point in the future, it has become a major mission for the organization to be consistent and focused in its mission-driven efforts that will make them sustainable in the decades to come. Not only this, but because the way the organization has run, the biggest donors and fundraisers for LCD tend to be tied to the Executive Director or key Board Members. This is not necessarily a sustainable model for an organization that is growing. As such, part of the strategic plan, devised by an outside consultation company in 2015, a first for LCD was to increase and expand the efforts demanded of the board members. The board now commits to a minimum personal donation as a specific annual fundraising goal when they renew their commitment to the organization. This not only revitalizes the board’s energy but also their commitment to the efforts of each individual and to assess the direction of the organization as a whole. Linda has seen the board evolve and is excited to have a more engaged membership.
It is clear, though, that the main quality that Linda brings to the table is her capacity to endlessly care for the community she works to empower. Her passion in creating a program in her early years at LCD has become an infectious quality that is part of the core values of the organization. New staff attorneys and fellows are encouraged to support preexisting programs and also expand and create their own efforts that serve the mission and vision of LCD, as well as contemporary needs. Take, for example, the work of one volunteer, a retired attorney, who is working to understand the housing needs of low-income community members, and where representation for them falls short. The ability to innovate, effect tangible change, and promote independent, solution-oriented work is a unique and stand-out quality of LCD. This can be attributed to the organization’s leader who not only provides administrative support, sets and meets fundraising goals, and provides necessary feedback, but also, most importantly, believes that individuals who join the organization are mission-driven and valuable members of LCD who will really take these services into the future.
About the author
Aman Goyal is a current student at the Fels Institute of Government at the University of Pennsylvania, working toward a Certificate in Nonprofit Administration. He is interested in understanding how leaders of organizations continue to evolve to do the important, mission-driven work especially in an uncertain socio-political environment. Aman currently works to support students at Penn in the Office of Student Affairs, and is a graduate of the Penn Graduate School of Education Masters in Higher Education Administration program.