“I wanted to look back and see results that had a long term impact on helping people.”

The words are from Connie Collingsworth, general counsel of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, who is pictured on InsideCounsel’s cover this month. But they could just as well have come from any one of the other four non-profit GCs profiled on the following pages.

These accomplished attorneys either left or bypassed more comfortable positions at law firms or in the corporate world to take on the challenges of leading typically understaffed and underfunded non-profit legal departments. Some–including Collingsworth and Liz Blake, general counsel of Habitat for Humanity–work for organizations with a global agenda, with the ensuing complications of any multinational corporation. Joe Levin, co-founder of the civil rights-focused Southern Poverty Law Center, and Mary Elcano, general counsel of the American Red Cross, find plenty of legal challenges closer to home. And for Wikimedia GC Mike Godwin, who cut his teeth as an attorney on the earliest battles over cyberlaw, the venue is an infinite as the Internet.

These five men and women represent organizations with vastly different missions. But they all share a common goal of using their legal talents to make the world a better place for all.

Solid Foundation: Liz Blake, GC of Habitat for Humanity

Habitat for Humanity International is a $1.3 billion enterprise that builds homes for low income families in nearly 90 countries. And just like a multinational corporation, it confronts a full spectrum of global legal issues.

Lucky for Habitat that its general counsel, Liz Blake, came to the job in 2006 with a long resum? of law firm and in-house corporate experience.

“It’s the dream job of my life, but Habitat is an immensely complex organization,” Blake says. “Our legal issues span the globe, and each [professional] experience I had before enables me to do this job.”

She cites her role as vice president and chief of staff at Cinergy Corp., a Cincinnati-based utility. Working on air quality issues, “I learned about the passion of going after an issue and how you shouldn’t automatically accept the status quo, because things can change.” She also honed her fundraising and lobbying skills in Cincinnati, co-chairing a committee that built a $92 million performing arts center and heading the state Board of Regents, which oversees higher education.

Later, as general counsel at GE Power Systems, she managed a global legal team of 75 lawyers and “a full range of international issues relating to brand and identity, compliance and regulatory” that she says are still an important part of the work she does.

A short stint as GC of Trizec Properties, a real estate investment trust, exposed her to real estate matters. Then at US Airways as GC and EVP for government affairs, Blake dealt with complex financial and regulatory issues, including post-Sept. 11 security.

She and the father of her three sons divorced in 2000. Shortly after leaving US Airways in 2005 she married Home Depot CEO Frank Blake and moved to Atlanta. A friend who had been contacted about the GC position at Habitat nagged her to apply. “She said, ‘This job would be perfect for you,’” Blake says. “Habitat is a Christian ministry, and she knew I was a committed Christian. So I interviewed and was really blessed to get the job.”

One of Blake’s first moves stirred controversy within the organization, whose local affiliates are separate non-profit organizations. “When I first got here, there was no formal standardized written agreement between Habitat for Humanity International, which owns the brand, and the affiliates, so we worked to create one,” she says. “Someone described it as like trying to create a prenuptial agreement 20 years into a marriage. You can imagine how well it was received.”

The dust-up resulted in a “small number” of affiliates leaving the organization and one lawsuit that was settled out of court. Now, Blake says, “Our relationship with the affiliates is great. We want to do everything we can to help them,” including offering loans that allow them to build new houses faster.

Habitat gets a lot of help from corporate partners, including Home Depot. The announcement of that sponsorship raised some eyebrows, but Blake says she and her husband stayed out of the negotiations. She points out that affordable housing was part of Home Depot’s mission long before Frank Blake became CEO. “If it hadn’t made sense for both organizations, there would not be a relationship,” she says.

Blake heads a legal department of nine attorneys, including three overseas, as well as the government affairs and advocacy teams. Her advocacy agenda ranges from working to secure land rights for widows in Latin America, who often lose homes under laws that give property to the deceased’s brother, to lobbying Congress for non-profit access to stimulus funds designated for affordable housing. That effort resulted in $138 million for Habitat at a time when donations were dropping.

Blake takes obvious pride both in Habitat’s mission of breaking the cycle of poverty by providing affordable housing, and in the senior leadership team’s moves to impose stricter compliance and financial controls.

“We’ve done a very good job of making sure we have an organization that is prudently and efficiently run,” she says.

Civil Liberty: Joe Levin, GC of the Southern Poverty Law Center

It took a burning cross on his frat house’s lawn in college to drive home to Joe Levin the intensity of the civil rights debate. It was 1962, and Levin’s fraternity brother, editor of the school newspaper at the all-white University of Alabama, had begun editorializing in favor of integration.

Until then, Levin had lived a life insulated from racial tension. “I grew up in a very assimilated Jewish community in Montgomery,” he says. “People were racist, that’s what they were. I went through the experience of knowing things were going on like Brown v. Board of Education, and particular things happening in Montgomery like the bus boycott, but I didn’t begin to develop different views or alter the view I’d grown up with until I got into college and had some experiences there, in law school and in the Army.”

The cross was one of those defining experiences. Years later, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which Levin co-founded with trial lawyer Morris Dees in 1971, would sue the same United Klans of America branch that they were pretty certain had burned the cross. This time the Klan had incited some of its members to lynch a man. The lawsuit produced a $7 million verdict, which bankrupted the Klan. The SPLC seized the Klan’s headquarters and gave the money to the victim’s mother. (Since then, the SPLC has bankrupted numerous hate groups through litigation.)

The SPLC started after Dees’ brother introduced him to Levin and the two young lawyers started trying cases together. The firm quickly became almost entirely civil rights-oriented, and needing money to do the work, Levin and Dees established the Southern Poverty Law Center as a non-profit to raise funds.

Levin speaks of SPLC cases such as a sex discrimination case he argued before the Supreme Court seeking equal spousal benefits for women in the military. He also worked on a case that would desegregate the Alabama state trooper force. “That was a big deal; it was so symbolic,” he says. “They were basically George Wallace’s storm troopers, the same all-white officers that beat up the marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma.”

Today the state trooper force is at least 25 percent black, Levin proudly reports.

In the mid-’70s Levin left the SPLC to work on Jimmy Carter’s campaign, and then in his administration. Following his government stint, he went into private practice–but he remained chair of SPLC’s board of directors, on which he sat until recently. He returned to the SPLC from 1996 to 2003 as CEO, at which point he took on the GC role. Over the years he’s seen the center evolve from a tiny civil rights law firm run by him, Dees and a secretary, to the internationally recognized organization it is today. It hasn’t aimed low in its fight for civil liberties.

“We all know these issues are going to be with us for most or the rest of my lifetime,” Levin says. “The center will spend time addressing those.”

Over nearly 40 years, the center has fought hate groups and discrimination based on sex, race and immigration status. It has tried to improve how juveniles are treated in the corrections system and has taken on the death penalty. It has tracked Klansmen, neo-Nazi groups and, more recently, overzealous Tea Party-ers, while disseminating a tolerance education program in schools.

“If Morris was sitting here with me, he’d tell you the same thing: It’s really grown far beyond anything we could have possibly imagined,” Levin says. “Sometimes it’s overwhelming to think where we are now compared to what our ambitions were that many years ago.”

New Frontiers: Mike Godwin, GC of Wikimedia Foundation

Full disclosure: The interview for this story was done over e-mail. It seemed to be the best way to get in touch with Mike Godwin, GC of Wikimedia Foundation, the non-profit foundation that runs Wikipedia, the 21st Century’s answer to a dust-bound set of Encyclopedia Britannica. Beyond its flagship project, Wikimedia runs a number of other online wikis, with its overall goal being to disseminate information globally.

Godwin starts his day reading e-mail in bed–by the time his alarm goes off he’s already playing catch-up to happenings in the global community of Wikimedia’s projects. And once in the office, the screen time continues.

“Like many GCs of Internet companies,” he says, “much of what I do is mediated by e-mail or other Internet communications–I have to make a point of stepping away from the computer now and then to walk around and talk to people face-to-face, or to take a walk on the street.”

Godwin’s path to his current post has been, well, pretty clear-cut in hindsight. It wasn’t long ago that Godwin was a law student with a strong interest in technology. In the late 1980s, his online writings got the attention of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which hired Godwin as a staff lawyer and its first employee. He started out reviewing problematic computer hacker prosecutions in a budding and poorly developed area of legal rights. Quickly his role expanded, and in his first five years at EFF, Godwin dealt with issues ranging from encryption regulation to wiretapping to copyright to online porn. His experiences there would drive home the satisfaction of non-profit work.

“Once you have had the opportunity to do work with this kind of social impact, it’s more difficult to consider either working at a traditional law firm or working as in-house counsel for a commercial enterprise,” Godwin says.

Eventually he worked on cases that, he says, “established in very strong terms that online forums and communications media enjoyed and deserved legal and constitutional protections.” One of them, Reno v. ACLU, went to the Supreme Court, where the justices ruled unanimously in EFF’s favor.

“There was an explosion of new issues created by cheap computers and the Internet,” Godwin says. “In those days, EFF aimed to be a kind of ACLU for the Internet, because it was clear to us all back then, 20 years ago now, that computers and the Internet were going to have a vast impact on ordinary citizens.”

The Internet has, of course, made possible the global spread of information–best evidenced by the success of Wikipedia, Godwin’s latest post. He loves the job in part because it allows him to remain entrenched in the cyberlaw issues he’s built a career on while affording him the diversity of issues presented by a GC position.

Even outside of work, Godwin frequently finds himself facing a computer. His interests include rebuilding vintage laptops for gifting and interviewing science fiction authors–often over e-mail. That’s not to say he doesn’t ever step away from the keyboard–this summer will find Godwin in Texas performing Shakespeare as part of a reunion of a theater group he took part in 30 years ago.

“I like to think that the Shakespeare who created Portia didn’t really want to kill all the lawyers,” he says, “even though one of his characters may have wanted to.”

Global Good: Connie Collingsworth, GC of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

Each life has equal value. Promoting that idea is the mission of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and a message that spoke deeply to Connie Collingsworth long before she joined the non-profit in 2002. During the roughly 15 previous years Collingsworth spent as a partner at Preston Gates & Ellis, she focused on securities, mergers and acquisitions, and financing. But something was missing.

“It was always exchanges of dollars from someone who was rich to someone who wanted to be rich,” she says. “I wanted to look back and see results that had a long term impact on helping people.”

To achieve its mission of improving lives around the world, the Gates Foundation has harnessed the energies of some of the world’s most brilliant scientists and educators–but they’re not necessarily business people. As the foundation’s general counsel and secretary, Collingsworth enables the smooth execution of transactions and partnerships with both governments and private organizations.

As she’s developed and expanded the Gates Foundation’s legal department–initially, she was its first and only in-house lawyer–Collingsworth has cultivated a model that pushes her team of 13 attorneys to reach innovative solutions.

“I help them to come to the answer by encouraging them to be really creative,” she says. “I tell them, ‘There are ways to help achieve the objective within the law.’”

The foundation functions worldwide by funding grants for projects as varied as fighting for the eradication of malaria in Africa, developing sanitation facilities in Asia and slashing drop-out rates at U.S. high schools.

“We’re willing to take on issues that are risky and that other people haven’t paid as much attention to,” she says. “We’re not afraid to be the catalyst to make sure people in the developing world receive the types of support for a healthy and long life that we have in the U.S.”

Prioritizing her family amid an incredibly demanding work schedule has always been crucial to Collingsworth. Whether its nature or nurture that activated the gene, Collingsworth’s oldest daughter is continuing her quest to improve the lives of others. She wants to run a non-profit, and is traveling to India this summer to work at a non-profit and visit some sites the Gates Foundation has funded.

Collingsworth herself will travel in India this summer. Because so many of the sites the Gates Foundation funds are in developing or unstable nations, Collingsworth says understanding the different cultures is critical to implementing the grants.

“Technology is part of the solution,” she says, “but understanding the culture is just as important as money or science.”

Collingsworth’s commitment to non-profits–and promoting culture–extends to her personal life as well. She’s on the board of advisers to the New York University School of Law National Center on Philanthropy and the Law. She also co-founded the French American School of Puget Sound, which launched in 1995 with 12 students and today offers a multicultural education to more than 300 children, age pre-kindergarten through 7th grade.

It’s a full plate, but Collingsworth keeps things in perspective by having confidence in the team she’s built at the foundation. “I give a lot of support to the team,” she says. “I back them up but give them a lot of independence. I’ve hired good people.”

In the Trenches: Mary Elcano, GC of the American Red Cross

“Get a strong breadth of experiences. Work more than one or two jobs in law.” That’s Mary Elcano’s advice to young lawyers wanting to someday stand at the helm of a non-profit’s legal department. Elcano, general counsel and corporate secretary of the American Red Cross, certainly took her own advice.

A French history major in college, Elcano didn’t immediately see herself pursuing a law degree. During college, she took a position with the American Friends Services Committee and had the opportunity to work with a lot of people within the organization. But what stood out to her was that the lawyers seemed to have the most interesting jobs.

“I was an intellectual in a pursuit of improving society,” Elcano explains. “I liked the intellectual side of activities as well as public interest and reform, so to combine those, law was perfect.” So, she decided to go to law school.

After graduating with her J.D., her career took her in several different directions. First, she worked in labor-management relations and internal union affairs for the Department of Labor in D.C., then moved to the U.S. Postal Service as an employment lawyer. Although she was with the Postal Service for 18 years, she wore many hats during that time–working as an employment lawyer, then moving to a nonlegal position as executive director of equal employment opportunity, then heading up the human resources department for the Postal Service in New York and New England, and finally moving back to D.C. to become general counsel of the Postal Service. She eventually added vice president of human resources to that title.

In 2000, Elcano left her government in-house position to join law firm Sidley Austin as a partner, working on employment law and alternative dispute resolutions as well as in the firm’s postal service international practice area. “I advised clients on international postal matters both in the U.S. and internationally,” she says. “It is a big industry.”

Although she found her law firm work fulfilling, she still had her eye on public interest and service. So when a headhunter called her in late 2002 to gauge her interest in the top legal spot at the American Red Cross, Elcano just couldn’t let the opportunity slip away.

“I’m drawn to an organizational mission,” she explains. “The American Red Cross affects people in life-saving ways every day.”

And so does its legal department. During the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Elcano and several members of her team were in New Orleans–not only managing legal affairs on behalf of their client, but also working with other volunteers, handing out blankets, bottled water and warm meals. In 2008, Elcano and some of her team traveled to Iowa to help out after the floods, and come fall they will be going down to Haiti to assist with earthquake relief efforts.

“This is an extraordinary benefit,” Elcano says. “And it helps me attract attorneys who have great careers. I can tell them, ‘You can be in the trenches, helping others who need us.’”

As would be expected, leading the legal department of the American Red Cross has its challenges. The organization has approximately 700 chapters nationwide, so providing legal advice for such a widespread enterprise can be daunting. And the organization is federally chartered under the Geneva Convention, which is a relationship normally reserved for government entities–not charities. For the legal team, that means constitutional questions regularly arise and humanitarian law is an important piece of the department’s practice.

But Elcano says the advantages of the position far outweigh the challenges. “We have a very strong leadership at the American Red Cross,” Elcano says. “It’s a very positive life-affirming place to work. I’ve been lucky in my career.”