When Peter Martin and Tom Bruce decided to publish legal information for the handful of people on “the Net” back in 1992, neither could have predicted the magnanimity of that decision. Their small research group at Cornell Law School would eventually give millions of people access to the federal law, which their government still fails to provide today.
Over the years, as our programs and impact have grown enormously, our staff remains small. Only a handful of full-time employees conduct research and run a five hundred thousand page-website. Last year, after a decade of dabbling in fundraising, the LII brought on Peter Kopp to explore more sustainable, diverse funding sources. We thought we’d ask him a few questions.
What did you do before coming to the LII?
A lot of things. Most recently, I raised operational support via direct response methods for public broadcasting in Arlington, VA. Before that, I worked in development in the arts and higher education, book-ending the few years I spent teaching kids how to sail small and large boats.
One of those careers is not like the other. What made you decide to return to the harbor?
A few reasons. Although a sailor’s life sounds awfully romantic–and it was, for the most part–I grew tired of feeling disconnected from the world. Also, my child supervision skills had reached their ultimate height after playing parent for three week stretches to a dozen boys and girls living aboard a 50’ sloop, so I had nothing left to prove–or give–in that realm. Plus, the girl I married probably wouldn’t have said yes to getting me 8 months out of the year.
Were you already familiar with the LII before you applied for your position?
No, but it took only minimal research to recognize the important role it plays in society, via its staggering usage statistics. I was very familiar with Cornell, having grown up just 20 minutes outside of Ithaca, and my experience in both online fundraising and higher education development prepared me well for the position. Those things combined — a mission that I could get behind, a familiarity with the parent organization and the chops to make a difference — have made up for my lack of program content-specific knowledge or training. Our success this year demonstrates that.
So you’re returning home. Had that always been the plan, and was this position the deciding factor?
Getting out of DC was the plan. My wife and I decided to move to Ithaca when she accepted an unrefusable offer to work at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. When the LII posted its fundraising position just days after she accepted hers, it felt like fate. There wasn’t another job in upstate New York — and probably the country — I would have found more appealing. The LII has formed its solid reputation and substantial impact by efficiently pursuing its mission. I was — and still am — excited to contribute to that effort by building and maintaining relationships with those who value the organization.
Do you have a legal or technical education?
Nope. All three of my siblings went to law school, so getting a legal education was the last thing I wanted after college. At Hamilton College I received a liberal arts education, where I spent most of my time either on or behind a stage. When I wasn’t performing, I was usually writing a history paper. Since graduation, my varied experiences have prepared me to listen and engage with the LII’s constituents to advance its mission, something a law degree or technical training may not have done as well.
What have you been up to in your first year?
I spent the first few months learning about legal information and the role the LII plays. Since then, with the help of several LII staff members and minor strategy and operational tweaks, we raised more net revenue this year from individual and corporate support than ever before. I’ve spent the balance of my time wading through constituent relationship management (CRM) systems and processes — both the LII’s and Cornell’s — to document, update and optimize them for more efficient operation. It’s not perfect yet, but it’s getting there.
What will be your biggest focus in the coming year?
This year the LII will celebrate twenty-five years of helping people access and understand law via the Internet. Broadly, my goal will be to celebrate this milestone in a way that enables our audience to better understand and appreciate the organization behind the mission. As part of that celebration, we hope to establish connections–in the form of sponsorships–with organizations that value our work. For years, we have benefited from advertising revenue to help fund our research and publishing efforts. If we could replace it all with direct, tax-deductible support from corporations looking to make a difference, we would. So, if anyone reading this knows an organization who might sponsor us, they can share that information by emailing email@example.com.
Why does the LII need donor support? Isn’t Cornell well-funded already?
The financial model in higher education has received a lot of press in recent years, for a good reason: college has become prohibitively expensive for many students and their families. Cornell and most other institutions have turned their focus to tuition and scholarship to improve access. Subsequently, ancillary research programs like the LII get bumped down the priority list. Plus, our operational costs only increase as our user audience grows.
So, the LII is more dependent now than ever before on individual donations. We’re fortunate to have so many people out there who care about our work. They’re making a difference. With their help, we’re decreasing our reliance on the law school more every year.
When someone asked a 5 year-old you what you wanted to be when you grew up, was “fundraiser” your answer?
Believe it or not, I had my heart set on being either a politician or a comedian. Unfortunately, I didn’t turn out to be sleazy or funny enough. As I learned how difficult performing could be, I discovered some of the harsh funding realities nonprofit organizations face. I benefited directly from a college scholarship, and I’ve been fascinated with the philanthropic support model and connecting people to causes they care about ever since.
We hear you’re raising chickens. Are you setting a deurbanization trend for your Millennial generation, and should we be worried about hipsters taking to the fields?
No, and no.