How can a Justice Center measure success? What is right and wrong about success in the non profit world.

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An interview with Layli Miller-Muro Director of the Tahirih Justice Center, as part of the ebbf pre-annual conference series of dialogues with event speakers


In terms of definitions of success let me share first how and why I define what I do and what kind of success we look for at the Tahirih Justice Center, I’ll then share with you some of the things I’m questioning about success.

We are a nonprofit organization, needing to fundraise an annual budget of about 15 million dollars annually, we have a 112 full-time staff in five offices around the US.
We provide justice for women and girls who are fleeing human rights abuses so our clients are trying to escape things like female genital mutilation, human trafficking, rape, domestic violence, child marriage and so on.

Our clients are facing these forms of violence, which are simply symptoms of underlying lack of equality of women and men in the world, in order to change their lives.

These are women with incredible intelligence, incredible power, incredible agency however their lives are in danger and need a special king of lawyer able to surround them with justice so that they can be protected as they seek to change their families’ culture and save their own lives.

Unfortunately, specially in the US, it’s nearly impossible to access justice without a lawyer and all of the legal protections available to women and girls fleeing violence are very complex legal remedies.

At the Tahirih Justice Center our objective, our mission is to provide free legal defense, but also in order to change the law, we do advocacy legislative drafting impact litigation to change legal precedents.

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Our over one hundred full time staff are litigating around 2,000 cases at any given time and in doing that work we manage 2,700 pro bono attorneys. These are all lawyers that work at Visa or Chanel or General Electric or HP so they’re in-house counsel at these large companies as well as attorneys at large law firms.

This army of volunteer lawyers that we have behind us allows each of our attorneys to handle approximately four times the amount they would be able to handle by themselves.

There are two spheres in which we look at success: one is on an institutional level and another out of programmatic level.

On the programmatic level obviously we look at our success rate in the cases that we litigate.

We want to win.

People come to us to receive justice they come to us to receive legal protection and an easy measure is: did they receive that legal protection?

There are other indicators that we use to measure success including the experience of the client: did they experience dignity, did they experience empowerment, did they experienced safety, efficiency, respect?
Our survey interviews assess the quality of our treatment.

Pro bono attorneys, volunteer attorneys who work at large corporations and law firms are another important stakeholder group, so we also care about their experience with us: were they adequately mentored and trained, were we responsive, did they get the information that they need, the support that they need?

Then there’s the institutional side and we also have measures of success of what Tahiri achieves there. We look at our management capacity, we look at retention levels of our staff, we look whether we’re adhering as an organization to our values: the Tahiri Justice Center is a transparently Baha’i-inspired organization, even though only six of our full-time staff are Baha’i everyone working at Tahirih is made aware of that.

Being Baha’i-inspired for us is not dependent on people holding Baha’i values personally, it is more of a cultural value, it is an institutional value and so there’s a rather elaborate process for hiring people and aligning them with those core values.

After the orientation and alignment we reinforce their application through professional development training, annual evaluations, regular feedback to make sure that those values are being applied.

We clearly lay out those 14 different values, we measure and assess our staff as well as the organization as a whole against those, thus defining success in that way too.

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Shifting now to some of the challenges, some of the quandaries we are facing about those measures of success.

On the management side the quandary that exists in the non-profit sector is the fact that there is not a rational cause-and-effect, a direct correlation between money revenue, coming in and the quality of the work going out.

To explain better, in the for-profit sector if you make cars that are good, people will buy them so there’s a direct correlation between revenue generation and the quality of the product.

In the non-profit sector our donors are more connected to the emotional stories of the women and girls we are saving from human rights abuses.
Whether the nonprofit receives its funding is the story they tell and how good it is. So it’s a measure of their PR first and a measure of their grant writing abilities; it’s a measure of how important and well-connected their board members are and whether they’re able to gain credibility by their peers. It’s more of a game of PR and portrayal and storytelling and it’s not accurate and it’s not fair and it bugs me a lot.

I have regular meetings with donors, I had one just last week telling a donor of the stories of our clients which of course moved her and inspired her and then I started to share our ROI, because we measure how much we have cared for the human being, beyond the legal defence, how much more efficient we are in hours per case.

We happen to have a 99% success rate in the cases we litigate, we have high marks for client satisfaction.

However every time I try to hand that data to our client, our donors kind of sit back and say yeah I’m actually not really interested in that I just want to know the stories the kind of heart-wrenching emotional stories of your clients and I want to know your annual metrics. These deep dive measures of success I’m not really interested in.

So it’s a quandary in the nonprofit sector that I think has to be confronted because frankly I think it leads to some nonprofits caring more, putting more resources, for very legitimate reasons to improving your PR, thus getting more money but that detracts from the actual quality of the work.

That is something that we talked about at Tahirih and we kind of deliberately choose to ignore sometimes, believing that measuring success by our efficiency and some of these other measures that many of our donors don’t ask about and don’t seem to care about is something that we have to do anyway.

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Another quandary or challenge that we have on success is around our mission, the — Justice — element in the Tahirih Justice Center.

So in American culture having a good lawyer and winning means that you have gained over another. That is like the definition of justice having been done, when you have maybe won civil damages maybe you’ve gotten punitive damages, you’ve won money by the end of the litigation or have succeeded in putting somebody in jail.

So there’s either a punitive measure of success (jail) or a resource measure of success (money damages). The fact of justice defined by what you get out of it or how much you can punish, is so ingrained in the legal system.

The Baha’i writings say that the purpose of justice is the appearance of unity.

So unity usually isn’t in there: when lawyers are litigating, when there is an exercise in achieving justice for your client, unity is usually not one of the measures of success but in the Baha’i writings we’re told that unity is actually the end result it’s the purpose.

So we’ve been thinking a lot about that lately and there is a movement which has been led in fact by the Christian Church called restorative justice and I think it’s very aligned with Baha’i values because it’s this idea that justice is not complete until there’s been restoration, restoration of the relationship between the wronged and the wrongdoer and restitution in the harm that’s been done.

So there’s a restorative objective that looks more like unity frankly than our traditional legal system where you’re supposed to make someone suffer back.

What justice looks like in a Baha’i context is this quotation of “the purpose of justice is the appearance of unity among men” .

By the way that word (appearance) in English can mean two things: it can mean façade like it’s just going to look like it is, but it has another meaning, the emergence of something.

I have been told that in the original language of that last quote, a language that I don’t speak, the word appearance is used to describe the rising of the Sun.

So this quotation then is saying that the purpose of justice is the emergence, the appearance of unity. So at the end of the day it seems to me that justice and whether we’ve achieved it whether we’re good at it should be measured by the level of unity we have achieved.

Unfortunately too many people stop at the punishment part or they stop at the I won in court and now I’ve got your money part and the restore, the restoration part of the relationship or the injustice that gave rise to the litigation to begin with, is not addressed.

There’s another Baha’i quotation that’s been guiding our thinking around: “love cannot dwell in a heart possessed by fear” and so when you put that quote together along with the other quotation that says the purpose of justice is the appearance of unity it makes a whole lot of sense.

When there’s injustice you are in great fear: don’t forget that our clients are suffering domestic violence, rape, female genital mutilation, human trafficking it’s very hard to find the love that is necessary for unity when you are in such a state of fear.

It is when you receive justice and protection and when fear is lifted, it is only then that love can enter the heart and then unity, which as we know is really the end success measure of justice, can be possible.

We know of amazing people like Martin Luther King and Gandhi and Abdu’l-Bahá and others who managed to find love in their heart even under the yoke of injustice but it sure is easier when you are free from fear and and you feel that you’re in a situation of justice.

[After this introduction by Layli Miller-Muro a number of questions arose from the audience, we only offer you the first one and you can view the full dialogue online here]

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That’s a great question I don’t know the full answer but let me give you one example of a client who was a victim of forced and child

marriage. She was 16 years old when her family decided that she had become too Americanized that her behavior was dishonouring the family and causing shame. That’s when they decided to arrange for her to marry her first cousin who was 47 years old and lived back in her home country in the Middle East.

The family told her we are going to force you to marry this man, she said no I don’t want to marry him, and they beat her, they withheld food from her.
They chained her to her bed two days a week because they learnt that in the public school system in Virginia (where she was living)

Child Protective Services would not intervene if a child was appearing in school at least three days a week regularly but they would intervene, there’s a trigger after which they get involved.

The wedding was being planned but she didn’t know exactly the date and so she was living in a state of fear and was trying to resist this marriage. Her teachers noticed that she went from a

straight-As student to not receiving good grades she’d become withdrawn, physically she was looking really different, they expressed concern, they talked to her and she confided in them that her parents were trying to marry her to this first cousin and that she had a cousin who had been beheaded for her refusal to marry the man that the family wanted.

So this was a life and death thing for her and she was really in great danger.

The counsellor called the principal of the school who then called us. We went into the school we met with her we worked out a safety plan for her, we let her know the consequences of leaving her family as she had to understand the severity and implications of what it would take to protect her.

She overheard her mother on the phone and saying that the wedding was planned for that weekend, she knew she would be taken to the airport soon.

We had prepared a safety plan with her had: she’d already packed a bag with her documents and left it at school so that everything was safe at the school. When she went to school the next day she called us, we picked her up during lunch and we headed immediately into court and we petitioned the court.

They gave us custody of her and she went underground: she got off social media and she completely went dark to her family she disappeared from her family’s perspective.

Her family was legally informed of what had happened to their daughter, they hired a lawyer who completely understandably fought the public systems protection of her.

They asked to meet with their daughter and during their first meeting they said how much they loved her and how they did not want this disunity in the family; “we don’t want the shame in the family we’ve lost a lot of money the wedding weekend came and went”.

We made sure that our lawyer who was fluent in Arabic was there to really understand what was going on. So the first meeting went something like “all is forgiven we love you don’t worry about anything please come home” we knew that wasn’t accurate in terms of the emotion of the family.

The second meeting was more emotionally accurate, this is when the family offered statements to their daughter like “we hate you … we disown you, you shamed the family we hope you commit suicide and never come back.”

There were six meetings all together with her and the state meanwhile was prosecuting the family for her child endangerment.
The end result was that she was reunified with her family she actually loved her family and her parents actually loved her, she missed her siblings.

We retained her passport, the court required that she not leave a certain physical jurisdiction, they checked in with her monthly. There were all of these protective boundary mechanisms put in place.

So what justice looked like in that case was a transformation of behavior of the family an ultimate unity and restoration of the family.

Others might have argued that the family being in jail for ten years is what justice should have been and there’s an argument that could be made about that but in this example what what justice looked like for our client was in fact a restoration of the relationship and an actual change of the behavior so as a result of our client standing up, her sister who had also been promised to a man no longer had to marry him. There was a change of behavior in the culture of the family.

So when you say how do you measure success I mean that might be one way to look at success as not just defined by a punitive result or a monetary gain.

[You can watch the full dialogue including answer to questions such as “how do you measure your success in reaching unity? And in achieving dignity? How many strings do donors attach to their donations? How to you ensure a successful on boarding of your staff to ensure they align with and engage with your values?” .. and more on ebbf’s youtube channel here ]


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