How the Legal Aid Society of San Diego has a Thriving Client Board Member Committee, and How They Sustain It

As a longstanding rule, LSC’s grantees are required to have one-third of their boards of directors be composed of eligible client members. The Legal Aid Society of San Diego (LASSD) is compliant with this regulation—its board can have up to 30 members, and 10 of them are eligible clients. However, the program is innovative in the engagement of its client board members.

For more than 40 years, LASSD’s client members have been consistently engaged, representing the organization at community events and helping out with outreach, among other things. But about 15 years ago, the client board members decided they wanted their own meeting, with a separate agenda. This was approved. LASSD’s client committee meeting happens during the third week of every month, a week before the full board meeting.

The meetings themselves—well-attended by the client board members—can be described in one word: robust. In a typical meeting:

  • Each committee member discusses their individual community activities over the past month, as well as emerging issues within their respective communities that might need to be addressed.
  • The committee reviews upcoming community events for outreach potential for both committee members and LASSD staff.
  • Guest speakers are brought in to discuss a variety of topics. Among them have been the African American outreach coordinator at Mental Health America of San Diego County, the program director at the American Friends Service Committee’s U.S.-Mexico Border Program, and the associate director of community engagement at People Assisting the Homeless.

After the meetings, the client board members turn words into action. They address anything that surfaced from that meeting and, because they are the eyes and ears of LASSD, they routinely go out in the community and perform a variety of tasks. These range from doing needs assessment surveys; distributing a list they created of all area food banks, since one didn’t exist previously; and attending and staffing booths or tables at various community events, gatherings, large family reunions, walkathons, parades, festivals, and more.

Given all they do—as a networking arm and as a constant communication channel within the service area—it’s easy to see how valuable LASSD’s client board members are to the program. The success of this committee speaks to the commitment and enthusiasm of the client board members, but also to LASSD’s role in the arrangement and how it has set it up.

According to the program, much of getting and keeping good client board members is about how you integrate them into the board. LASSD entrusts their client board members with key responsibilities and tasks that are important to the future of the program. This invigorates and engages the members. The program also supports the committee in all the ways it can, whether that means paying for client members to attend the annual National Legal Aid & Defender Association (NLADA) conference or paying for banners, collateral and materials, babysitting for meetings, and transportation. (They also receive a stipend for attending the monthly meeting.)

But perhaps the biggest impact of the client committee has been its effect on the lawyers of the program’s board. The client committee makes a report at every board meeting, and its members have shown LASSD’s attorneys how important their work is. The attorneys now have a real understanding of the trauma of poverty that they wouldn’t have had otherwise.

On the other side, the attorneys are very appreciative of what the client members bring to the board, and regularly drop in on their monthly meetings to dive deeper into a particular area of interest. This collegial board atmosphere and relationship between the client members and attorneys—developed over more than 40 years—has made LASSD’s board of directors what it is today.

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