Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts

  • Collaboration Type: Shared Services/Joint Programs
  • Region: Forbes
  • Social Issue: Legal services
  • Size of Organizations: $500K - $1 mil
  • BIPOC Leaders: Yes
  • Successful: No

Pennsylvania for Modern Courts had a successful legal hotline in Philadelphia that they hoped to replicate in Pittsburgh. However, the hotline didn’t become the collaborative project that was intended. This case highlights that goodwill among partners is not enough to achieve sustainable collaboration; network designs must meet the needs of all the partners to work.

Best Practices for Social Impact Organizations:

  1. Ensure all organizations understand the commitment requested before embarking on exploratory conversations.
  2. Carefully consider if collaboration is the most effective way to achieve the project’s goals.


  1. A single organization manages the hotline. The collaboration didn’t take shape.

Best Practices for Funders:

  1. Ensure that joint projects have the resources to support all collaborators’ inputs.
  2. Provide support before exploratory collaboration to understand collaborative options.
  3. Meet with all organizations in collaboration to ensure they are on the same page.

Creating a sustained collaboration is a design process. Conveners must assemble the funding, recruit partners, and structure the work. There are many right ways to structure collaborations, but some designs are more likely to fail. Pennsylvania for Modern Courts (PMC) experience trying to replicate their PMC Listens hotline in Pittsburgh demonstrates a common pitfall in network design: expecting contributions from participating organizations based on goodwill alone.

The PMC Listens program is a hotline where individuals can get information about the court system. The first hotline was in Philadelphia. Michelle Jordan, Director of External Affairs at PMC, noted that the program worked “well in Philly. We had a Philly number, and we would go into universities and train first- and second-year law students to volunteer their time to answer questions.”

With Philadelphia’s success, PMC began considering expanding the hotline to other parts of the state. Deborah Gross, President and CEO of PMC, explained, “Our goal at that point was to increase our presence in Pittsburgh. We are a statewide organization with board members from Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, and Lancaster County.” PMC decided to apply and was awarded a management grant to create the collaborations needed in Pittsburgh to launch the project successfully from the Forbes Fund, a member of the Sustained Collaboration Network. PMC had already identified law school and community partner collaborators. The grant would create a community needs assessment, strategic plan, and evaluation plan.

Originally, PMC planned to work with five community partner organizations: Omicelo Cares, Hill District Consensus Group, North Hills Community Outreach, South Hills Interfaith Movement, and Christian Immigration Advocacy Center. These community organizations would support the community needs assessment and ultimately were tasked with outreach for the new hotline.

Designing the Network

The group hired HPW Associates to complete the work, but then COVID hit. The community organizations rightly refocused on the immediate food and health needs of the members of their community. Only three of the initial five organizations participated in the community needs assessment work, and none continued doing outreach. The community partners did not receive direct compensation for their work. They were offered gift cards to distribute to community members, but the organizations receive no support directly. According to Jordan, this lack of compensation wasn’t apparent at the outset. “They thought they would receive funding by being part of this collaboration.”

There were significant turnover issues, too. The Americorp Vista who wrote the grant for PMC left, and the consultants within the firm moved around. The Forbes Fund also experienced turnover. In short, everyone who had initially committed to the work moved, and there were no incentives to prioritize the collaboration.

Was it worth it?

Ultimately, PMC launched the 800 number in Pittsburgh. But the collaboration itself fell apart. PMC handled all the calls internally, and there weren’t many calls. Certainly, COVID-19 played a significant role, but it wasn’t the only factor upon evaluation. Instead, upon reflection, PMC recognized that small organizations need more than just goodwill to maintain collaborations.

Gross reflected, “I have told my staff I won’t do a grant like this again — simply a pass-through to a consultant. It was a huge time commitment on behalf of PMC. We are a small nonprofit that lives day-to-day on donations. I don’t have an endowment, and we got nothing for us.  It went straight through to the consultant, and I don’t think that’s right.”

Benson confirmed that Forbes Funds Management Grants are structured to pay for a consultant. She noted, “All of our management assistance grants essentially pay a consultant or a consulting group to execute on shared strategic plans considering mergers and acquisitions and potentially back-office support.” The grant that PMC wrote clearly indicated the consultant costs in the budget.

But ultimately, the network design wasn’t right for PMC or their community partners. Collaborative projects require significant investments to launch — and in this case, none of the partners had the reserves to support the project on their own. They needed funding for the project itself, not just its planning. Goodwill wasn’t enough to sustain the collaboration.


  • Shared Services/Joint Programs