Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Morgen Cheshire Of Cheshire Law Group Is Helping To Change Our World
An Interview With Maria Angelova
Meet people where they are — The sooner you can understand and accept people’s capacity and intentions, the happier you will coexist. If you buy a plant for someone that you care about, understand that they might not have the energy and time to keep it alive.
As a part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Morgen Cheshire.
Morgen Cheshire, the founder and managing attorney of Cheshire Law Group, a law firm exclusively serving the needs of nonprofits, is the founder and managing editor of PAnonprofitlaw.com, an equity- and capacity-building legal resource for Pennsylvania’s nonprofits. The site provides expert-made, Pennsylvania-specific legal documents and tools designed to elevate and accelerate the legal work of nonprofits. Sign up and stay tuned for the site’s launch of how-to guides on advocacy and lobbying.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path and point in your life?
When I was an editorial assistant at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, my lunchtime reading about law and the arts (stories of Serrano’s Piss Christ, the Barnes Foundation, and Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc, and others) led me to law school. I was fascinated about law as a social construct, and about the role of art as a disruptor — as a medium for reflection and a driver of social change. Having worked in cultural institutions prior to law school, it was a natural progression for me to become a lawyer for nonprofits. As a new mother, on a partnership track at a big firm, I was running for trains and pumping in closets, and after years of this, it just got to be too much, trying to be everywhere and everyone I needed to be all at once. My clients were nonprofits, and the big firm model was just not designed for them, nor for my role as a mother. I knew I needed a change, and a business model that was tailor-made for my client base and my capacity.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
There are so many interesting stories I love from being a nonprofit lawyer. It’s the disruptor stories, many of which make headlines, that really draw me in. These stories emerge as nonprofits push for new solutions and find themselves on the frontier of social impact and change. Their leaders are simply driven by what seems like common sense based on their research and experiences in the field, but it scares a lot of people who don’t have firsthand experiences with the real-world problems that these organizations are trying to address.
One of the most recent compelling experiences was representing Safehouse, a nonprofit in Philadelphia that wanted to open the first safe-injection site in the country. The U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania was not having it, and a public policy debate ensued in federal court about my client’s controversial solution for saving lives ravaged by the opioid crisis. Overdoses kill more than 100,000 Americans a year, and as a result we are seeing that other, once-radical harm reduction strategies are finally getting traction. For example, needle exchanges are no longer subject to the federal congressional funding ban that was lifted in 2015; and Texas is now making moves to decriminalize fentanyl test strips, joining the 36 other states that have already legalized these lifesaving strips; whereas just three years ago, 33 jurisdictions had outlawed them). Still, many lawmakers and regulators, including the bipartisan senate in Pennsylvania that just voted to stop supervised injection sites from opening in the state, still aren’t ready to recognize safe-injection sites as legal initiatives.
It’s a process. A complicated process, and it’s wonderful to be working with the social impact heroes who are pushing for more effective systemic solutions.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When I arrived at work early one morning during an especially busy time, when I was not getting much rest, I found a red backpack hanging on the doorknob of my office. My office is in a historic building in a very urban neighborhood in Philadelphia, right along the main commercial corridor. I’ve seen all of kinds of things in front of my office in Germantown, so it really didn’t surprise me much to find a stray cat inside of that red backpack. It was an orange tabby cat that turned out to be a total horror, the kind of cat that stalks its caregivers like prey. My mistake was buying into this cat’s first narrative — and bringing it home, where it drew blood with its claws on the backs of our calves. Inside that backpack, with the cat, was a piece of notebook paper that had handwritten words on it. I think they were answers to some sort of nursing student vocabulary quiz. I named the cat Triage, after one of the words on the piece of notebook paper. And therein lies the lesson: Take in (and on) only what you have capacity for — it may be more effective to just triage the situation rather than going all in.
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
Cheshire Law Group is serving as outside general counsel for nonprofit organizations and packaging up tools and templates for mass distribution to organizational leaders and other legal counsel — to help elevate and accelerate the work of other social impact heroes. PAnonprofitlaw.com is our new initiative to share those resources and make nonprofit workers’ lives easier. We are helping the helpers, many of whom are social workers and who by their good nature are very vulnerable to burn out.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
Nonprofits need to do more advocacy (and self-advocacy) — they need better legal tools and resources, and they need to work together more to participate in forums for educating policymakers about their successes, their solutions, and the barriers they face when trying to do their work. By their nature, social workers are helpers, not self-promoters.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? How do you think this might help people?
Our law firm just launched an equity project PAnonprofitlaw.com, the first website of its kind to provide high quality state-specific legal tools and templates exclusively for nonprofits. In the short-term, we believe that this site will help elevate and accelerate the legal work of Pennsylvania’s nonprofits so that they have more capacity to make a difference with their program work. We’re excited about the potential the site has for educating and informing nonprofit leaders who may not have easy access to legal counsel — and for pushing for more laws that lift up nonprofits.
What you are doing is not easy. What inspires you to keep moving forward?
I am inspired by the work of the 400+ nonprofits we serve — about maintaining long-term relationships — and about developing lasting solutions that pay forward.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
- Routinize a realistic exercise regime. For me, just walking regularly in nature has been a big help. I used to swim a lot, but it was not a sustainable routine with all I balance. I hope to get back in the water one day, but for now, walking is realistic.
- Listen to thought leaders when you’re on the move. I feel like it took me forever to figure out that I could take in new ideas and perspectives when I was in the car, and it was a great way to make the most of my time.
- Incorporate creativity — I did a presentation once on mergers for nonprofits to a group of lawyers and incorporated napkin drawings and haikus into my PowerPoint. It was really satisfying to do, and it was more engaging for me (and the audience) to approach the material this way. I try to continue to work visual elements (whether they are metaphors or visual representations of legal concepts) into my work. It helps me connect with people and to get my points across more impactfully. So much of my work is about making a social connection and an impact.
- Have a sounding board — “You feel all of the emotions,” a small business owner shared with me once. Having a network of trusted colleagues and advisors (and a therapist and friends!) who can hear me think out loud, and help me process plans and thoughts in confidence, has been a critical component of my self-preservation and self-care strategy.
- Meet people where they are — The sooner you can understand and accept people’s capacity and intentions, the happier you will coexist. If you buy a plant for someone that you care about, understand that they might not have the energy and time to keep it alive.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would start with something very essential and simple, like using a kind gesture to convey affirmation and courtesy to people on a daily basis. Giving people a thumbs up to let them know they have the right of way at an intersection, for example. It’s a simple way to spread kindness to complete strangers in Philadelphia. People in Philly (and everywhere) can be very rough with one another, and no one needs that in their lives every day. It’s just unkind and degrading and wears a person down, and it just isn’t helping to build stronger communities when we gesture at each other impatiently. People never forget kindness, and it’s true. It’s contagious.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I am pretty ambitious and can easily overextend myself. This was captured in a fortune cookie I had once: “As long as you don’t take on anything new, you’ll do just fine.” It’s been a good reminder for me.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Sign up for PAnonprofitlaw.com.
Thank you so much for your time and for everything that you and your team do. It’s greatly appreciated.
About The Interviewer: Maria Angelova, MBA is a disruptor, author, motivational speaker, body-mind expert, Pilates teacher and founder and CEO of Rebellious Intl. As a disruptor, Maria is on a mission to change the face of the wellness industry by shifting the self-care mindset for consumers and providers alike. As a mind-body coach, Maria’s superpower is alignment which helps clients create a strong body and a calm mind so they can live a life of freedom, happiness and fulfillment. Prior to founding Rebellious Intl, Maria was a Finance Director and a professional with 17+ years of progressive corporate experience in the Telecommunications, Finance, and Insurance industries. Born in Bulgaria, Maria moved to the United States in 1992. She graduated summa cum laude from both Georgia State University (MBA, Finance) and the University of Georgia (BBA, Finance). Maria’s favorite job is being a mom. Maria enjoys learning, coaching, creating authentic connections, working out, Latin dancing, traveling, and spending time with her tribe. To contact Maria, email her at [email protected]. To schedule a free consultation, click here.
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