Sean Delany

Executive Director, Lawyers Alliance for New York

How old is your organization? Founded in 1969
What sector do you work in? Public interest legal (nonprofit and tax exempt organizations law)/legal capacity building
How long have you been working in this sector? 30 years
How long have you been with your current organization? 22 years

What has been the most significant development in your sector over the last 40 years?
The dramatic growth of the nonprofit sector has led to an increased demand for affordable, high-quality legal services that enable nonprofits to be more effective and efficient. The increasing sophistication of nonprofit organizations has led to an increased demand for sophisticated legal services to support their work. Increased expectations of accountability for nonprofit boards and managers has led to an increased need for legal services to strengthen governance and promote legal compliance.

What has been the greatest challenge during this same period?
Helping resource-constrained nonprofits, particularly community-based organizations, access the legal services they need on an affordable basis. Making pro bono legal services more widely available to them helps meet that challenge.

How has risk-management changed over this period?
Nonprofit boards and managers must assess risk in a vastly differently way than they did 40 years ago. The expectations of their performance, and the consequences for any shortcomings, can be much more significant. They face a complex array of legal and contractual obligations – as managers of tax exempt entities, as employers, as government contractors, as providers of regulated services, and in many other ways – and they require expert technical assistance, like that provided by Community Resource Exchange or Lawyers Alliance, to successfully navigate those risks.

How have your sector’s needs changed (or those of your clients) in the last 40 years?
The combination of increased program sophistication and heightened accountability means that nonprofits need legal services that match those changes. For example, complex structuring by a nonprofit in order to support innovative revenue-generating activity without adverse tax consequences requires attorneys who are experienced guiding clients through those challenges. At the same time, the proliferating regulation of nonprofit stewardship at the federal, state, and local levels requires expert counsel that understands the interplay between those overlapping and often confusing regulatory demands.

What opportunities exist now for nonprofits to break through into success that did not exist 40 years ago?
The nonprofit sector has assumed a very different role in the economic fabric of the city, state, and nation than it played 40 years ago. In the late 1970’s, the privatization of services previously provided by the government was barely under way, a trend that expanded in the decades that followed. Today, the sector is a part of the fabric of our life, not only the safety net but a driver of the economy and an incubator of innovative ideas. That creates opportunities to be a force for positive change that could not have been envisioned 40 years ago.

What leadership qualities are necessary to succeed as a nonprofit executive today?
The qualities necessary for successful leadership are as varied as the sector itself. Nonprofit managers must be visionaries, fundraisers, program authorities, financial wizards, personnel experts, and so much more. Most importantly, they must be believers – in the mission, in their colleagues, in themselves.

What are some of the trends you’re seeing today that will impact your nonprofit and your sector in the future?
A generational change is now underway that is reinvigorating the way that we work and redefining success in the sector. Though it may seem odd coming from a veteran leader, this shift to the next generation of leaders is already bringing a different approach to the role of technology in pursuing our missions and a new appreciation for diversity that means the next generation of leaders will be better equipped to face the challenges of inevitable change.

What are your sector’s biggest challenges in the future, and what must be done to address them
Some of the challenges that have held too many in the sector back for so long that they seem intractable – over-reliance on unsustainable contributed revenue, misguided acceptance of inadequate human infrastructure and overhead for our work in government contracts and philanthropic grants, inadvisable reticence to participate in policymaking that effects our work – are slowly giving way to a recognition that these fundamental issues can and must be addressed. Nonprofit leaders are asserting themselves as advocates for their missions and their communities, pushing back on the assumption that they can and will “do more with less,” and questioning the efficacy of the fundraising treadmill. We are a long way from resolving these systemic constraints, but the important questions are now on the table.

Why did you join this sector?
I began my career in the nonprofit sector as regulator at the same time that I began service as a volunteer. As a regulator in the Charities Bureau in the New York Attorney General’s office, I was exposed to the worst side of the sector, a steady diet of fraud, waste and abuse. As volunteer counsel to the Board of a social services agency in the Bronx, I saw the very best side of the sector, talented, dedicated people devoting themselves to positive change in those neighborhoods, one family, one block, one neighborhood at a time. From those experiences, I recognized the power and the promise – but also the challenges – of working in the nonprofit sector.

Why did you want to become the Executive Director of Lawyers Alliance for New York?
I was inspired to come to Lawyers Alliance because I had witnessed the importance of the nonprofit sector and the power of voluntarism first hand. At the Attorney General’s office, I was exposed to the vast reach and variety of nonprofits in New York – and to the many ways that nonprofits could get into trouble without the guidance of adequate counsel. I came to Lawyers Alliance because I understood the value of making high-quality, affordable legal services more widely available to the sector.

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