The Legal Resources Centre (LRC) in South Africa is a forty-year-old organization with a rich history and legacy. Over the years it has reinvented itself several times to meet the current challenges and needs of its country. The LRC was started in 1979 by three lawyers who worked to chip away at the edifice of Apartheid’s legal structures. Finally, after Apartheid ended in 1994, the lawyers of the LRC went on to win many important, ground-breaking cases to give rights to South African citizens, raise their voices and bring basic services and education to their communities.
In more recent years, while still doing outstanding legal work, the organization struggled to stay financially healthy and keep up with their funding requirements. In 2019 a new team emerged that developed a plan to re-ignite the organization with a focus on a new strategy and goals, a reputation-building communications strategy and a new integrated financial infrastructure with clear benchmarks and financial health indicators. Through this work, the LRC has turned itself around and is returning once more to be a leading and dynamic public law organization, standing on the shoulders of the many people that built the LRC over the past forty years. Today the LRC remains as critical as ever: while Apartheid was abolished in 1994, the country still contends with extreme inequality and is far from the realization of human rights for all.
When the LRC joined the FIRE program in 2020 the timing was excellent. The program was a platform to help the LRC’s new team reset the organization, building new processes and financial health indicators, and create new confidence about their path to recovery.
Learn more about their story by checking out this blog, video and infographic below. This Impact Story from the Financial Innovation and Resilience (FIRE) program was created in November 2021.
The Legal Resources Centre: The Mission
The LRC believes that the greatest threat to justice is inequality. The organization seeks to ensure that the principles, rights, and responsibilities enshrined in the national Constitution of South Africa are respected, promoted, protected, and fulfilled.
The LRC’S mission is to undertake evidence-informed action focused on advancing the transformation of South Africa as a democratic society, using the law as an instrument to remove persistent and pervasive structural obstacles to human rights – with a targeted focus on land and education rights.
The LRC team does their work upholding a vision of a democratic, accountable, and transparent society in which equitable and inclusive access to justice, dignity, and human rights are lived realities for all.
The LRC’s Organizational History: A Powerful Legacy
“The founding of…the LRC in 1979, … represented the triumph of an idea – the belief that lawyers had an especial role and a particular responsibility in the face of gross injustice.”
– Justice Cameron, Justice at the South African Constitutional Court
The Legal Resources Centre, the oldest public interest law organization in the country, was established in 1979 to use the law as an instrument of justice, challenging the legal structures of Apartheid. It was founded by three lawyers as a law firm that engaged in litigation and other activities across the full range of rights in the Constitution of South Africa.
Over the past forty years in South Africa, the LRC played roles abolishing the death penalty and corporal punishment. They have advanced and protected the constitutional rights of workers, women, girls, migrants and people with disabilities, and made important breakthroughs in healthcare and environmental justice, as well as established significant precedents in land and education rights. The LRC has produced more judges in South Africa after 1994 than any other law firm centre, including the first head of the newly created Constitutional Court, Arthur Chaskalson. The organization grew in scope under the previous Executive Director Janet Love and today the LRC continues their efforts to make democracy work for people and defending the human rights of everyone in the country.
The LRC before FIRE
In 2018, the new Executive Director, Nersan Govender joined the LRC. He quickly learned that the organization was attempting to do more work than it could afford: income was less than half their budget requirements, critical donors had walked away, and expenses were not being met. Nersan knew the work of the LRC was badly needed in South Africa and began to develop a way forward. He presented the requirements for change to the LRC’s board and they committed to support major adjustments needed to set the organization on a path to financial health and resilience.
To lower expenses, significant cutbacks took place, and the organization became smaller. New program and finance leaders were brought in to serve as part of a new national management team. Many discussions took place with donors to share the vision of revitalizing the organization in order to stabilize funding. As well, in 2020 the team developed a five-year strategic plan that proposed that LRC was working in too many program areas: the work was refocused to two areas: education and land.
The new team began the FIRE training in 2020. The program provided the additional tools and support to help the organization become resilient again in order to carry on its legacy as one of the strongest human rights defenders in South Africa.
“FIRE came when we were turning around – just at the right time.” - Nersan Govender, Executive Director
What FIRE Made Possible:
The new team engaged with the FIRE program with several other organizations in a Southern African cohort. Following are five key areas of the organization’s transformation:
#1: FIRE helps a new team come together and make change
When the Executive Director Nersan Govender arrived at the LRC in late 2018, he soon understood the need for change. He made a clear intention to step into the big shoes of its legacy and embrace the idea that the LRC was “never too old to learn”. He set out to find a new team and ideas to revive the organization.
As the LRC began their new mandate, the new leadership team needed to identify clear priorities in order to restore it to health. These were: to commit to a lean budget in order to manage the gap between expenses and income, including staff and cost reductions and salary freezes; to create a national management team and lead with oversight so that no work was undertaken that the organization couldn’t fund; and to begin to focus programmatic work on areas of land and education.
At the same time as working on the new mandate, the LRC leaders undertook the FIRE program. FIRE provided important cohesiveness to their work and gave support and metrics to the path of rebuilding. The team was heartened when they discovered that much of what they were already trying to do aligned with FIRE principles, such as working to expand and diversify their base of donors. (In 2021, the LRC’s largest donor comprises 25% of their income). Learning alongside the other organizations in the Southern African cohort, the program gave them confidence about what they had put in place.
“FIRE just reinforced what we are doing. We were on the right track - that felt good and affirming. It brought us together as colleagues. We are all new. The FIRE program unified us and created linkages about how we see the world and work with other organizations”. -Yoemna Saint – Fundraising (RMU) Lead
The LRC organization was repositioned as a team that works together and supports each other through aligned processes and objectives. This new way of working was a change in culture for them: previously the efforts of the organization were driven by individual lawyers who steered high profile cases.
“We’re repositioning the organization as a team, not individuals. Now everyone is connected. The staff is with us. And we’re not ‘under renovation’ any more. We have the systems in place now. And this year we are fully funded.” - Nersan Govender, Executive Director
#2 The FIRE Diagnostic shines a light on opportunities
The FIRE program and diagnostic tools have helped the LRC understand best practices among financially resilient organizations. The tools revealed some opportunities in strategic budgeting, assessment of true costs and the importance of a reserve fund.
“FIRE helped bring us forward. The program created structure, gave us benchmarking and helped us understand where we need to do and what needed attention.” – Nicholas Chetwin, Finance Manager
The LRC team learned the importance of giving visibility to the entire budget. An organizational budget, as opposed to a series of project and program budgets, reveals true costs - all of the financial requirements for every part of their work.
“An ‘overhead’ cost implies that the cost is unproductive. For example, the finance function is called an overhead. But that’s a myth. In truth everyone is in pursuit of the same mission. Lawyers can’t work if computers don’t work. And fundraisers are costs – we need them. We ‘re all a part of what it takes to provide our services. We need to tell the funders that.” – Nicholas Chetwin, Finance Manager
The LRC team has changed the way they budget to fully account for what they need, ensuring every project is fully funded and every grant is linked to a program. Presenting their budget this way got a positive reaction from their board.
“Board members saw the new budget and said ‘Wow!’. There were great compliments. Re-labelling overheads and aligning costs to specific projects got this reaction.” – Nersan Govender, Executive Director
The LRC is also committed to maintaining a reserve fund. In 2018 there were no savings or investments in the organizations. The FIRE learnings provide approaches about how to communicate the formal objectives of growing the fund.
“The reserve fund allows us to make long term plans. It effects the psychology of the organization and gives us security that salaries are going to get paid. We want to build reserves to support us around the work we choose. A reserve funds helps us feel confident that we can put up our hand and say – ‘we’ll take this case.’” – Nicholas Chetwin, Finance Manager
The LRC team has embedded the financial health indicators of FIRE’s Diagnostic tool as part of their on-going budgeting and planning processes, to use as guidelines and benchmarks to optimize their financial resilience.
“The Diagnostic helped us understand the current status. And we should reflect on it annually. It shouldn’t be put on the shelf. What has changed? The Diagnostic will help build our vision of where we want to be.” - Yoemna Saint – Fundraising (RMU) Lead
#3: The Front and Back office become aligned
The FIRE program uses the analogy of the bicycle to describe the relationship between the mission (front wheel) and financial model (back wheel). Before the new team at the LRC implemented its new approaches, the Executive Director described the organization’s bicycle shape as that of the traditional ‘penny farthing’ bicycle – a huge front wheel and tiny back wheel – and a cycle that’s very slow and challenging to ride. The LRC’s back wheel needed to modernize: the systems and ways of doing things in the back office hadn’t changed and procedures and old computer systems had gone for years without any re-examination.
The tools in the FIRE program perfectly served issues that needed to be addressed. FIRE challenges organizations to work together across department silos and make all organization members responsible for not only mission success, but also financial resilience.
“Before the structure of the organization had been very siloed. Links between lawyers, Fundraising and Finance were very tenuous, and Finance was a ‘black box’. Lawyers either asked for permission to act and then waited or went ahead with no view of a case’s financial requirements, leaving a bill to be paid.” – Nicholas Chetwin, Finance Manager
At the LRC, three areas now work together to ensure cases have the funding they need: Program Leads, who identify financial as well as operational needs, the Resource Mobilization Units (RMUs) who work with donors to provide funds, and the Finance Team, who ensures that the work is fully funded, and all costs are considered. All three groups have an integrated view, and now the funding matches the programs: the penny farthing has become a “mountain bike”.
“The team works together to determine what we do. The Resource Mobilization Unit can’t put in proposal in isolation. No one can put a proposal together in isolation. Every single person must understand the business of the organization.” -Yoemna Saint – Fundraising (RMU) Lead
Going forward, the challenge and task for the FIRE pivot team is to roll out the FIRE principles to the rest of the organization. In the near future, the LRC aspires to have the program heads lead fundraising, making decisions about what cases they take and what activities are undertaken, and assessing the opportunity cost. The Finance team will become a facilitator to their efforts.
#4. The LRC tells stories in powerful new ways
“Before LRC was a wallflower, they didn’t speak. Now we do." - Nersan Govender, Executive Director
The LRC has been very deliberate about strengthening their communications and making themselves more visible in South Africa. A new communications officer was hired in early 2020 and since then the organization has invested in a new website as well as new content for social media.
Prior to this development, LRC was not proactive with media. Some individual lawyers and cases might have engaged with the press, but the organization itself was not often featured. The new communications strategy is to a make the organization the brand, and to become as visible as possible and consistently deliver a message that the LRC is ready to defend the constitutional rights of everyone in South Africa.
“The mandate of our new Communications Officer was simple: make the LRC seen and heard for work we are doing. Be on all platforms. Reach out to others and make it easier for them to reach us.” - Nersan Govender, Executive Director
The pandemic provided the LRC with an opportunity to build their fame. They fought for the rights of citizens to maintain their homes during the lockdown, defending tenants who were being evicted by their landlord, the city of Cape Town, when homes should have been the first line of defense against the virus. The LRC reported their case progress on social media and gave other media and journalists access to their lawyers.
“We want to make something out of all these legislative wins. We want to make something out of all of these stories that are relatable to others. We want to show the everyday impact of everyday people.” – Thabo Ramphobole, Communications Officer
The LRC is reaching their audience by taking ownership of telling their own stories and being proactive and consistently transparent. This approach aligns to the FIRE principles of communication: sharing compelling stories about real human impact. Today there is a wide representation of the LRC team who serve as media spokespeople, including many young people and women. Taken together, they show a large, strong organization able to do the work. Media-trained case lawyers make themselves available to talk to the press about the strategy of cases - their own or others - and explain the legal concepts.
“We can take on many fights. We have a wide range of people who can speak to many topics and we’re asked to provide comment on many issues. We have developed a knowledge base for people who can contribute to conversations on issues related to the law and our mission.” – Thabo Ramphobole, Communications Officer
Media reports build the profile of the organization. To make sure donors remain informed, these reports are sent to donors every month.
“Our visibility is strengthening. Many different faces of the LRC are represented. When it comes to new donor proposals, it helps. They know us. The visibility opens doors.” – Thabo Ramphobole, Communications Officer
#5 “Money – We’re Coming for You!”
Now that LRC is renewed and rebuilt, the team plans to become more intentional about gathering funding and working towards even greater financial resilience. They are excited about their ability to mobilize resources and have worked hard to renew donor relationships and foster new ones. These efforts have borne fruit: since 2019 they have increased their list of significant donors by fifty percent.
The FIRE program educated the organization about the importance of connecting with donors on more than a transactional level. By reaching out beyond contractual requirements, by nurturing the relationships and sharing news of impact, they have been able bring back some donors who walked away. As well, they have been able to get more engagement from donors about the LRC’s specific needs.
“Funders are people and they are interested in what we do. We get into the mindset that our work is great and people should just know it. No – we have to tell people. Running a Zoom conference for funders on the work that we do is a good idea. It would strengthen the relationship.” - Nicholas Chetwin, Finance Manager
The LRC team also has a new appreciation of connecting with donors and structuring proposals with what they need to do their best work.
“The FIRE program has helped us ask funders for exactly what we need, telling them – “we want you to fund this thing.” This also helps with impressions: we want funders to perceive us as confident; and that money will be well spent and managed.” – Nicholas Chetwin, Finance Manager
The LRC team’s own experience and learnings from the FIRE program means that they don’t take any donor or source of funds for granted. As well, they don’t just want to accept any grant, making sure that costs related to the management of grants, so-called transaction costs, are not too high. Going forward, many new streams will be investigated.
“We have been able to expand our donor mapping. We are OK with resource mobilization for the next eighteen months. but we need more for the next five years. I see us having a more diverse group of donors, including going into multi-lateral agreements. Before we pushed multi-laterals to the side. The requirements are strict. But I shifted what I thought – why not take this on and try?” -Yoemna Saint – Fundraising (RMU) Lead
Despite twenty-five years into the new South African constitution, there is still massive inequality in the country. The LRC exists to create a more equitable and inclusive society where human rights are a lived reality for all.
“The LRC needs to continue to exist for as long as possible. The necessary work we do takes time and doesn’t get resolved quickly.” – Thabo Ramphobole, Communications Officer
Serving South Africans is the greatest priority for the LRC, and to be there for what the country requires. They are ambitious and are prepared to grow. And where possible, they would like to support and take on a role with their neighbours in the Southern African region and be part of a team that monitors fascism in the world. Overall, they hope to be closer to the goals set out in their 2020 strategic plan.
“I want the public to understand that the LRC is there to take care of those who can’t take of themselves. We are prepared to take on big cases regardless of status and fights that matter for all. We hope everyone has assets. We hope everyone has education. And that the poorest of the poor can move out of poverty.” - Nersan Govender, Executive Director
In order to do all this, the team is now very aware of the role financial resilience plays in their future. They plan to build a substantial reserve fund and seek out the best sources of funding in their sector. Communications must continue to be well-resourced in order for the LRC to maintain its profile. Overarchingly, the financial wheel of the organization will continue to build capacities to match the vitality of the mission.
“The back office is strong. And why shouldn’t we be? Doing great financial work and providing good service – that should be part of what an NGO is.” - Nicholas Chetwin, Finance Manager
The FIRE program (Financial Innovation and Resilience) was developed by Spring and is made possible by the Ford Foundation. FIRE is an internationally renowned program that teaches the fundamentals of financial resilience. It includes the latest approaches in innovative financing models, transformative partnerships with funders, changing funding and investment landscape, resource development and diversification, strategic finance, external communications and leadership practice.
This is one of several multi-media FIRE Impact Stories. The FIRE Impact Stories describe and illustrate key moments of transformation that took place during the FIRE program journeys of selected organizations.