I’ve been thinking about the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s TrustLaw Awards event for the past few weeks. Aside from being a beautiful event with compelling speakers, the Awards were a chance to honor the best pro bono work the TrustLaw program supports. This was a big undertaking, as over the years TrustLaw has facilitated services worth more than $70 million to organizations in over 170 countries working on diverse human rights and social justice issues.
Such reach is stunning for a project that only began in 2010. Yet the most striking thing about the TrustLaw Awards event was how clearly the role of collaboration came through as the building block of impact. The style of the awards, the nominees, and the ways in which winners spoke about their work all made it seem like nonprofits and law firms working together is a simple task. Most of us in the social sector know that true and functional collaboration with any other organization is never so easy.
TrustLaw’s approach is to thoughtfully connect leading nonprofit organizations and social enterprises with law firms and corporate legal teams to address some of our most difficult social problems—ending slavery, educating children, supporting new business ventures through social enterprises globally. The Awards honored the best of this work in the categories of Innovation, Impact, and Collaboration, among others. (See descriptions of Award recipients here.)
The keynote conversation between Muna Wehbe, Chief Executive of the Stars Foundation, and Gayle Peterson, Co-founder of pfc Social Impact Advisors and Associate Fellow at Oxford University Saïd Business School, further amplified the role of collaboration in social change. Exploring the leadership characteristics needed to tackle our most complex problems (which we at pfc call Deliberate Leadership), Wehbe touched on the importance of building honest relationships with grantee partners and learning to use their input and feedback to make progress on shared goals.
Closely linked to this topic is the need to be aware of and intentionally responsive to the power dynamic between funders and grant recipients. Honest relationships can’t thrive in a system where one partner has more power and control, unless there is acknowledgement of this structure and agreement that a shared work process must take this into account.
Reflecting on our firm’s own research, we know that the keys to collaboration include a desire to leverage the skills of different partners, an ability to put others’ needs ahead of one’s own personal interests, and a willingness to let go and trust a group process. Our staff was lucky enough to learn about the consideration Monique Villa, CEO of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, put into the development of TrustLaw when we crafted a case study about TrustLaw’s creation. We learned that a strong program begins with collaboration in the form of consultation about ideas, strategies, and lessons learned with others who have embarked on similar experiences. We also saw how TrustLaw leaned form its missteps and refined its approach to remain relevant and authentic. It has placed a primacy on the experience of the nonprofits seeking legal assistance, making sure that services meet real needs. At the same time, the TrustLaw team knows that pro bono service providers want to learn and grow from this work, so they take care to make the best match of skills, issues, and passion for change.
The TrustLaw team’s investments of intelligence and compassion have clearly paid off, with clients and pro bono partners that have seen legal and social change on the ground on issues such as domestic worker rights, anti-trafficking laws, women’s rights, children’s rights, housing law reform, freedom of expression, health care access, and addressing energy poverty. More importantly, the teams honored at the Awards are clearly partners and friends for the long term.
The rewards of collaboration will likely only continue to grow, as Villa noted that TrustLaw is embarking upon work in several new countries and partnerships continue to form. I’m excited to see how TrustLaw evolves to help ever more activists push for change.
For more information about the TrustLaw Case Study “How the Thomson Reuters Foundation Built the World’s Largest Pro Bono Legal Network to Drive Social Progress,” please contact me at Hvega@pfcsocialimpact.org