TITLE: Program Officer
FUNDING AREAS: Public interest litigation
CONTACT: Visit PeopleFinder for email and phone number (paid subscribers only)
IP TAKE: This longtime "capacity builder" administers an integrated system of grantmaking and fellowships seeking to train a new generation of tough litigators to defend low-income and marginalized people who would not otherwise have access to legal service.
PROFILE: One of a small nest of program officers at the Independence Foundation, Sue Lum Heckrotte provides "capacity building services to grantees" at the foundation, according to an article she published in Philadelphia Social Innovations Journal. She also runs Independence's fellowship program in public interest law.
Capacity building is the process of making non-profit organizations more effective at doing what they set out to do. If you're an advocacy nonprofit, for example, Heckrotte helps you become a better advocate. It's her responsibility to make you better at being you.
The legal fellowships administered by Heckrotte go to 3-5 newly minted juris doctors each year. The fellowship has three goals: gearing up young attorneys for careers in public interest law, getting more legal services to low-income people and—here's the capacity building part—working toward a more robust Philadelphian "public interest legal sector in both the short term, with the Fellowships, and in the long term as former Fellows take their places in the public interest arena and move into leadership roles."
The fellowship program hooks cleverly into Independence's Public Interest Legal Aid Initiative, the one with which Heckrotte seems most closely affiliated. This initiative "address[es] civil legal issues confronting individuals from diverse populations who do not traditionally have adequate access to legal representation, including the indigent, the elderly, the disabled, and the homeless." Fellowship recipients go to work for the foundation's grantees in this area, and Independence offsets the cost of their employment as they get started in their career; the initiative also helps out recipients with student loans.
Again, disadvantaged clients represent the principal interest of this initiative. Although it understands the value of "broad-based policy development," it is most interested in helping to foster the talents of burgeoning attorneys. Fellowship applicants choose a specific organization for which they would like to work and develop a proposal for what they want to accomplish there. Recent recipients have worked on reducing discrimination in the farming community and helping the homeless disabled gain access to available federal support.
The fellowship program was started in 1996 and remains the only Philly-area program of its type. Now approaching its 20th birthday, the program has helped to propel 61 young lawyers into public interest law. Many of these lawyers remain in the Philadelphia area.
To get an idea of how this all works, take the case of Community Legal Services (CLS) and attorney Louise Hayes. Founded in 1966 by the Philadelphia Bar Association, CLS helps with all things related to low-income people and law: disability services, housing, employment, the works. When the U.S. General Assembly cut its funding in 1994, Independence Foundation stepped in with $50,000—alongside $25,000 from the Philadelphia Bar Foundation—to keep CLS's lights on. Throughout the 2000s, the Independence Foundation has slowly increased its donations to CLS for operating support: $50,000 in 2001, $110,000 in 2004, and $150,000 recently.
On that same timeline, Louise Hayes graduated from Harvard Law in 1997. She was accepted to Independence's fellowship the same year and joined CLS to do legal advocacy for food stamp programs. Fourteen years later, Hayes was still working with the group.