This article was originally published in The Indiana Lawyer. It can be found online here.
By Marilyn Odendahl
Three years ago, attorney Ronan Johnson packed up his life in Los Angeles and moved to Indianapolis. At the time, he knew just four people, including the woman who is now his wife. The Indianapolis 500 was pretty much the only thing he knew about the city.
Johnson has since settled into his associate’s position at Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP, learned his way around the city, and found activities to get involved with outside of work.
But in conversations with other young attorneys, he heard stories similar to his own of how difficult it can be, even for Indianapolis natives, to connect with nonprofits and special interest groups. His colleagues often said they wanted to get involved but were still trying to figure out where the best place was for them and what type of volunteer work they wanted to do.
Based on personal experience and these conversations, Johnson developed the program “Intro to Indy” through the Indianapolis Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Division to introduce attorneys to nonprofit agencies and give them leads on becoming more engaged in the community.
The goal is to create a network that the attorneys can use to bring new business to their firms and to connect with service and volunteer organizations.
“This is a nice, enjoyable way to help people with the process” of finding a nonprofit to join, said Johnson, chair of the IndyBar’s Young Lawyers Division.
For the inaugural Intro to Indy event Sept. 23, the Young Lawyers Division is partnering with the Indianapolis Zoo Associate Council. Three other events with different nonprofit partners will follow in the months of October, November and January.
Making a match
Leadership Indianapolis got involved after Johnson contacted its CEO and president, Linda Kirby. The organization, which teaches individuals how to be community leaders, was “absolutely interested” in making a presentation to the young attorneys as part of Intro to Indy, she said.
Nonprofits in general like to have lawyers serving on their boards and committees, Kirby explained. The attorneys bring a capacity for strategic thinking, so they can anticipate roadblocks or other issues that might confront a particular initiative.
But the key to being a good volunteer is to find a nonprofit or a cause which sparks a personal passion. Getting paired with an organization in which an individual is really interested will give that person a deeper commitment and bring more engagement to the work and mission of the nonprofit, Kirby said.
To really get involved in an organization takes a lot of effort, Johnson said. People have to put themselves out there and can feel very awkward just showing up to volunteer at an event where they do not know anybody.
Andrew McCoy felt overwhelmed when he started looking for volunteer opportunities. Even though the Faegre Baker Daniels LLP associate was busy establishing his practice and starting a family, he still wanted to be involved in the community.
He began by finding a mentor who was already involved with several local organizations, and he used the lessons he learned from that relationship to find local organizations with which he enjoyed working.
“To truly love where you live, I think it is important to engage in the community,” McCoy said. “It just makes you happier. If what you see around, you feel like you contributed to, it gives you a better sense of purpose outside of your day-to-day job.”
McCoy found his way to The Penrod Society and Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Indiana, where he sits on the committee that organizes the latter agency’s primary fundraiser, The Main Event. He wants to be an active volunteer, in part, to show his two young children the importance of giving back to the community.
Seeing the results
The desire to be involved with a nonprofit beyond just doing perfunctory duties is a common trait among millennials. Kirby has witnessed this trend at Leadership Indianapolis among young professionals who want to be very engaged and get their hands dirty.
Rather than just making a donation, Johnson and his colleagues want to do something and see the outcomes of their actions.
That is the idea behind the Associate Council at the Indianapolis Zoo. Aaron Reddington, president and founder of the council, said the group was created to raise awareness and support the mission of the zoo. It has been successful at providing young professionals with a way to take ownership of how they will be involved.
The IndyBar Young Lawyers Division will have the opportunity to learn more about the council and meet some of its members at the first Intro to Indy event. More than just mixing and mingling, Johnson said the council will make a presentation detailing what it does and how any interested young lawyer can join.
Johnson would like to see the program grow by adding more events and organizations. To facilitate the expansion, he plans to form a standing committee within the Young Lawyers Division to coordinate next year’s Intro to Indy series.
The program might even grow beyond the borders of Indianapolis.
J. Spencer Feighner, chair of the New Lawyers Section of the Allen County Bar Association, said a similar program in Fort Wayne might be very successful. In the last four or five years, he has seen an influx of attorneys who have no connection to Allen County settling into the area.
The Haller & Colvin P.C. attorney said providing a resource for new lawyers to learn about the local nonprofits would be fantastic. Leaders in other county bar associations expressed similar views.
From his own experience, Johnson knows that settling into the first law job and finding a volunteer opportunity can be overwhelming. Young attorneys are looking for something to anchor them but are not always sure where to go.
He wants Intro to Indy to be a low-stress way for these lawyers to find that connection.