You know the drill when it comes to nonprofit fundraisers: hour-long open bar, followed by an excruciatingly long sit-down dinner. Like hamsters, you are rewarded for sitting through each speech with another course served. Once you’ve finished dessert, you hope for a video or slideshow, so the lights are dimmed and you can slip out unobserved.
Some fundraisers are more fun than others, of course — especially if there’s a photo booth with viking hats, or dueling lawyer rock bands (as there will be at the Black Cat in D.C. tonight). But generally these events are rather staid affairs.
LA-based legal services organization Bet Tzedek wanted to shake that formula up. Thirteen years ago, it launched The Justice Ball. Its founders were “sick of black tie and rubber chicken,” says the organization’s president/CEO Mitchell Kamin, and hoped to attract the young professional set instead of just geriatric philanthropists.
Over 2,500 people are expected to attend this year’s ball on Saturday night, featuring music by Dave Navarro and DJ Skribble, a Guitar Hero battle, legal tattoos, and a J-Date sponsored speed dating session. Since I’m in L.A. after attending Loyola’s Journalist Law School (and a historic taping of Jimmy Kimmel Live), I’ll be in attendance Saturday night too, thanks to comp tickets from Bet Tzedek. I look forward to spotting many summer associates there. Sidley, Skadden, Latham & Watkins, and O’Melveny & Myers are among the many firms that put the Justice Ball on their summer associate events calendars.
I interviewed Kamin about what to expect Saturday, whether tickets are still available (they are), and how he has transformed the LA County legal services firm into an award-winning national network.
Mitchell Kamin is a Harvard Law (’93) grad who got his start in public interest as a Skadden Fellow at the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem. After that, he went into private practice, working for O’Melveny & Myers, and then becoming a partner at a litigation boutique (later absorbed by Jones Day). He’s been head of Bet Tzedek for the last seven years. I got to chat with him today, before he had to head off to his daughter’s pre-school graduation.
The Justice Ball is Bet Tzedek’s second biggest fundraiser of the year. The organization usually raises between $400,000 and $500,000 from the event. Its biggest fundraiser is in January — a more traditional Annual Gala, which garners serious financial support from law firms. But more people attend the Justice Ball than the Gala, and they consider it their biggest “friend-raiser” of the year.
“It’s a group that’s fairly elusive for nonprofits,” said Kamin, of the 20- and 30-something set that the Justice Ball attracts. “Younger people don’t feel as connected to traditional fund-raising, but this appeals to them.”
Bet Tzedek is Hebrew for the “house of justice,” but the organization is non-sectarian, and “helps everyone,” said Kamin. Specifically, on the local level, its large staff, including 30 lawyers, do policy advocacy, education, and direct services — they assist the low-income elderly, protect employment rights for low-wage workers, counsel human trafficking victims, and do housing and public benefits work. They assist approximately 12,000 clients a year. On the national level, they’ve set up a network of lawyers in 31 cities who assist Holocaust survivors — it’s a unit of pro bono lawyers from nonprofits, big law firms, and corporations dedicated to getting reparations, applying for benefits from Germany, Hungary, and Austria. In New York, for example, the Bet Tzedek Justice Network includes lawyers from OMM, Latham, Weil and Skadden; in-house counsel from Aetna, Merck and Bank of America; and pro bono attorneys at Jewish Family Services.
“Our understanding is that it’s the biggest national pro bono mobilization ever,” said Kamin. Over the last two years, the Network has assisted 5,000 clients, and has garnered the organization national awards, including the ABA Pro Bono Public Award in 2009. They plan to expand the work of the network to assist low-income elderly and immigrants.
Biglaw has helped Bet Tzedek in other ways as well. The organization currently employs a handful of deferred associates and has four or five more coming in the fall. “It has been great,” said Kamin. “We have a Weil person in the employment practice now. Even though they are inexperienced brand-new lawyers by definition, it’s great to have smart dedicated people contributing to our efforts.”
The organization has a $6.5 million operating budget and receives $16 million a year in donated services. The funds raised from the Justice Ball are critical. I asked whether Dave Navarro was on board with Bet Tzedek’s purpose.
“The performers are usually pretty clueless about the mission,” said Kamin. “But sometimes we get to know them and they understand the value of our work. Macy Gray and Mark McGrath of Sugar Ray both got it.”
Macy Gray’s singing the praises of free legal services during her performance in 2003 is one of Kamin’s favorite Justice Ball memories. Gray took time to talk about the mission behind the music. “Lawyers are important,” Kamin recounted her saying. “‘And I know from experience how expensive they are. This organization makes sure poor people can get them too.’”
If you’re an LA-based music-loving philanthropist who would like to attend, you can buy tickets online ($75 – general admission or $150 – VIP) or get tickets at door.