Volunteering runs in Britt Kwan’s family.
Coming from a Christian background, she was exposed early on to volunteering through her church, and she’s known since she was a teenager that she would pursue a career in the nonprofit world.
As executive director of The Justice Center, she pairs low- and moderate-income people with pro bono attorneys.
Kwan grew up in Des Moines, Iowa, and moved to Colorado Springs with a friend in 2012, after graduating magna cum laude from Central College in Pella, Iowa, with a B.A. in interdisciplinary studies.
“I pretty much just wanted to get out of Iowa,” she said, adding that she and her friend were acquainted with people in the area. “The mountains seemed nice and the weather seemed less humid and less cold.”
After relocating, Kwan worked as registrar for The Navigators’ Eagle Lake camps and then in 2014 joined Envision, the missions office of the Christian and Missionary Alliance. Kwan worked in Envision’s national office in Colorado Springs, coordinating short-term, international mission trips and handling communications.
She joined The Justice Center in June 2019.
Kwan spoke with the Business Journal about why she loves working with nonprofits, how young professionals can benefit from volunteering and the program she’s particularly proud to lead.
As a high school and college student, what appealed to you about volunteering?
I just wanted to make a difference and help people, and I think nonprofits are fun, too. Because typically, if you work in a small team, you get to wear a bunch of different hats and learn new things all the time, which is really appealing to me. I tend to get bored easily. So I like having a variety of things to do and being able to learn new things and teach myself new things.
So let’s talk a little bit about your pathway to your current job. You spent some time at The Navigators and at Envision?
I think probably, out of those two jobs, the one that was most beneficial and developmental was my time at Envision. That’s a job where I worked with a really small team of people. I had a boss who was very empowering and pretty much let me do anything that came to mind. Like if there was a new project that I thought would make things better, he would let me run with it. I helped people volunteer through different programs around the world, trying to make sure they did it in a healthy way — not importing American culture but connected to local things that were already happening. I also did marketing for them — social media, website development and design work and a lot of writing. We did an e-book, taught some workshops and seminars on how to volunteer internationally and not do it in a negative way that’s going to harm the culture.
How did this job come to your attention?
In a bit of a roundabout way. I was looking for new jobs and thought about trying stuff in the for-profit world instead of nonprofit, but I just really couldn’t get excited about anything when I was interviewing with them. So I started going back to nonprofits again. And I had a friend who was working for the Bar Association, and she told me about this position. I don’t have a legal background, so I wasn’t sure if I was qualified for it, but I got more excited about it the more I heard about it and connected well with all the other people in the office. And it sounded like fun. It didn’t sound like I was going to get bored.
What are your responsibilities, and what do you do on a typical day?
Every day is probably different, but in a typical day, I’m processing applications and dialoguing with clients, trying to make sure that they qualify financially for the programs, since we only serve low- to moderate-income families, and then asking them questions and gathering court documents and things like that. Then I have to recruit lawyer volunteers to take those cases.
We also run 12 free legal clinics a month. I’m present at about half of those. A standard one would be that we go to The Citadel mall, and people can walk in and meet with an attorney one on one to get free legal advice. And so I’m normally just there facilitating the clinic and pairing people up with attorneys.
We also have to do grant writing and reporting since we’re primarily funded by grants. There’s a lot of meetings and planning different community legal events. We’ve got some workshops focusing on helping tenants coming up this spring [in April and May], so I’m focusing on that right now. We’re partnering with a lot of other nonprofits on that.
We received some grant funding from the Colorado Health Foundation that allows us to focus on the eviction crisis, since there’s like 165 evictions filed per week in Colorado. So this is part of our efforts to kind of get ahead of that and speak with people before they’re in the eviction process, because the turnaround on that is so quick. It’s like 10 days.
What are you proudest of?
One thing that we do that no other legal aid organization in our area is doing is we provide reduced-cost criminal case help. So criminal cases, if you don’t qualify for a public defender, [even though] the income restrictions are pretty low, you’re kind of on your own. But we help people who are between 200 and 275 percent of the federal poverty line. So if they are over the qualification for the public defender’s office, sometimes they come to us, and we can consider them for our modest needs program. That’s enabled us to help veterans who are experiencing trauma, who are in a really difficult situation where they’ve gotten in trouble with the law. It can be a really rough situation, but I’ve found veteran attorneys who are able to help them. If you’re a veteran and you have a VA disability, you’re not going to qualify for a PD, but you also might not have the income to afford an attorney.
A family law attorney is like $300 an hour minimum. And so if you are on limited pay per month and you’re trying to just afford a mortgage because affordable housing is such an issue, you’re not going to have additional funds, and child care is hugely expensive.
So our attorneys take a reduced-cost rate. I’d say it’s about 30 percent of what they’re normally charging. So the rate is $125 an hour. And a lot of times they’re willing to work out payment plans with people too. We’ve also talked to our volunteers about not being super nitpicky with their time, like, ‘Oh, I sent you a text. I’m going to charge you for that.’
Where do you see your career taking you in the future?
I don’t really know. I know I want to stay in nonprofits for sure. I really like how much I have been able to learn in this role, and I feel like there’s a lot more for me to learn. I pretty much knew nothing about grants when I came in. I’ve never been the person in charge before. It’s been fun to work with interns — I have five interns right now, and they’re all awesome.
Let’s talk a little bit about what young professionals can gain from working for nonprofits.
I would think nonprofits could be a good career builder. You pretty much know you’re not going to make a lot of money, but you can learn a bunch of different things that you maybe wouldn’t get to experience at a larger organizations or for-profit companies. and then, of course, you’re meeting a bunch of needs, depending on what organization you found that you feel like you connect with.
How do you connect with your peers in the nonprofit world?
I’m working with lawyers most of the time. I think one of the weak areas for us is that we don’t work with other nonprofits as much as we could be. And so that’s something we’re trying to do more. I think it’s mostly encouraging when you work with other nonprofits, because then they’re telling me about programs where I can get free interns. We’re working with victims of domestic violence, and there’s a lot of room to work together and point out things that the other person should be mindful of, or collaborate. I think you kind of have to do that, because you might have a legal issue, but really it’s a lot more holistic than that — they also need something like housing resources. So knowing how to make the right referrals is important too. And you don’t know unless you’re chatting with other people and figuring out what they do.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Maybe just that you don’t have to have it figured out right away. There’s a lot of room to figure out what you actually like while you’re working, and you don’t have to have it all figured out before. I feel like I’ve gotten more spot on with each job that I’ve taken after college.