Pro Bono Feature

New York's Charity Corps Initiative Matches Pro Bono Counsel with Nonprofits in Need

Charity Corps: Lawyers Helping Nonprofits is a joint initiative of the New York State Bar Association (NYSBA) and the New York State Attorney General's Office, matching volunteer attorneys with nonprofits unable to afford legal counsel. The program, which matched more than 50 organizations with volunteer attorneys in its initial round in 2012, has proven effective in strengthening a culture of governance and compliance at charities, helping them better achieve their missions, while providing unique opportunities for service to attorneys with a transactional law background. In 2013, the program is maturing from a pilot to a second round of matching, scaling up in numbers and offering observations about how the program might be replicated elsewhere.

New York State is home to approximately 80,000 charities that enrich communities and provide crucial services to residents across the state, including health, economic development, arts and education. This robust sector also helps fuel the state economy, generating over $150 billion in revenue annually and employing hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers — more than the financial, real estate and insurance industries combined.

Good governance and compliance with the legal requirements of state nonprofit laws help ensure that charities are operating effectively and efficiently. Unfortunately, many organizations do not have access to even basic legal advice, leaving to chance such important matters as board duties and policies, fulfillment of filing requirements, and compliance with fundraising laws. The Charities Bureau of the State Attorney General's Office estimates that 60,000 of the state's 80,000 charities lack regular access to counsel.

While New York has a number of well–established legal services organizations that serve nonprofits, gaps remain throughout the state. To meet this need, the State Attorney General's Office and the State Bar Association joined forces to establish Charity Corps. In addition to matching organizations with legal volunteers, Charity Corps also provides trainings across the state and aggregates information on its website.

The Charity Corps concept was developed and refined by an all–volunteer Leadership Committee consisting of experienced nonprofit attorneys, law firms and pro bono provider organizations across the state. The Committee draws on members' expertise and includes pro bono activity already in place at NYSBA, including the President's Committee on Access to Justice, Pro Bono Coordinators Network, and others.

Over 180 organizations applied to participate in the initial pilot year. Of those, 56 qualified to be matched with outside counsel, meeting the income and geography requirements and stating a legal need within the program's scope. In accordance with State Bar directive, organizations serving indigent populations were matched first, followed by other types of charities including environmental, educational and cultural organizations. Those charities that qualified for placement under existing programs represented on the Leadership Committee were referred out to those organizations for matching. The remaining charities were matched with volunteer attorneys who had submitted forms to Charity Corps directly. Ultimately all 56 qualifying charities were matched.

The missions of the organizations served included:

  • generating resources to fund veterans' initiatives such as educational opportunities for retirees and their families;
  • bringing high quality financial development services and increasing economic opportunity and sustainable financial independence;
  • initiating community enhancement projects;
  • promoting a sustainable agriculture social enterprise;
  • providing financial assistance to families in financial crisis;
  • inspiring environmental awareness and action to preserve, protect and enhance local environmental resources;
  • providing basic math skills to under–performing middle school students to prepare them for high school and beyond;
  • promoting maternal–neonatal nutrition and bonding through breastfeeding;
  • teaching personal responsibility through a youth bike program.

Dozens of attorneys volunteered to assist the organizations. Members of the Leadership Committee sorted volunteers' applications into three categories: experienced, somewhat qualified, and inexperienced. Experienced attorneys were matched immediately with selected organizations, while other attorneys were offered training opportunities. In a few cases, where project scope, geography and interest level permitted, the Leadership Committee was able to match up a client with both a more seasoned attorney with a less experienced one, providing a mentorship opportunity between the counsel as well as a pro bono opportunity.

After making the proposed matches, a member of the Leadership Committee individually contacted each attorney who was selected to serve, giving the attorney a week to accept or reject the match after reviewing the organization's application materials and running a conflict–of–interest check with his or her firm's database. Upon acceptance by the attorney, NYSBA staff informed the client of the match and invited the organization to contact their pro bono counsel.

After making the initial matches, NYSBA and members of the Leadership Committee followed up with all participants in succeeding months to make sure the relationships had launched successfully and were proceeding. About three–quarters of the way through the pilot year, the Charity Corps Leadership Committee evaluated the overall success of the program by surveying the attorneys and organizations. Results of the survey were highly positive for both the charities and the volunteer counsel. Among the charities that responded:

  • 100% said their needs were timely met
  • 100% said they would recommend the program to others
  • 100% said their participation improved the culture of governance and compliance in their organization

Their narrative responses were enthusiastic:

  • "Our Charity Corps attorney was a great help" (veterans' association)
  • "Because of our attorney's advice about NYS fundraising laws, we were able to hold fundraisers that allowed us to pay for new science learning resources"
  • "This is such a useful and very generous endeavor!"
  • "We thank Charity Corps and the NYSBA members for their participation and assistance."
  • "My board and I want to thank Charity Corps for connecting us with our attorney, who was responsive, thorough and knowledgeable."
  • "We cannot think of any better legal help and we thank our attorney for her time and Charity Corps for this opportunity."
  • "No nonprofit organization should pass on the opportunity to be part of this program."
  • "This is the State's gift to your organization to help you be compliant and effective. Remember you started your organization to help others. Let their pro bono service help you realize your mission statement by providing you with the tools and knowledge you need to reach your goals."

The responding attorneys, too, reported a rewarding experience:

  • 100% said they would like to participate in the program again in 2013
  • 92% said they would consider partnering with or mentoring junior attorneys or law students
  • 85% said the program increased their pro bono hours

The last statistic suggests that Charity Corps had found a sweet spot for corporate and transactional attorneys, who sometimes have difficulty finding suitable pro bono opportunities. Typically, pro bono representations draw on litigation skills, such as landlord/tenant, political asylum, death penalty, domestic violence and other matters. Charity Corps projects serve organizations meeting important societal needs, and the assignments — revising bylaws, assisting with disclosure filings, drafting policies — are a better fit for many business lawyers.

The participating attorneys' narrative responses were as enthusiastic as those of the charities they served:

  • "Fantastic initiative"
  • "Excellent service"
  • "Charity Corps connected us with a great nonprofit that needed corporate counsel, which gave us the chance to give back to the Central NY community"
  • "Charity Corps is yet another wonderful opportunity sponsored by NYSBA bringing together lawyers and charities to serve and improve our communities for all New Yorkers"

The Charity Corps chair reported these results to the Executive Committee of the New York State Bar Association during the November meeting.

Throughout the pilot year, the State Bar ran Charity Corps trainings in New York City, Buffalo, New Paltz and Rochester. The trainings used state specific materials as well as Good Counsel: Meeting the Legal Needs of Nonprofits (John Wiley & Sons 2012), authored by Charity Corps chair Lesley Rosenthal, the general counsel of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. The trainings have been well attended and well received.

The State Bar also established a website, www.nysba.org/charitycorps, which includes information about the program, with application forms and links to resources. The website aggregated information is pertinent to nonprofits and counsel in the state, including listings of resources and trainings hosted by other organizations.

At the end of the pilot year, the Leadership Committee sent out messages to the participating organizations and counsel, thanking them for their participation and input, and encouraging them to serve and spread the word for a second round of matching in 2013. Then, using feedback and information gleaned from the survey, the Leadership Committee updated the application forms. The Attorney General's Office challenged the Corps to set a goal to serve 75–100 new charities in the new year, and the Leadership Committee has embraced the challenge.

Although the Attorney General's Office developed and helped launch Charity Corps, it does not receive data about individual applicants or participants. Instead, the Leadership Committee shares only aggregated data with it.

Charity Corps' successful initial pilot year proved out the concept, and its second round of matching will bring additional opportunities for service and learning. It is doing a world of good for New York nonprofits, while also providing a unique opportunity for attorneys statewide to put their corporate legal skills to work for a local charity.

Lesley Rosenthal, Chair, and Irina Tarsis, Program Manager Charity Corps: Lawyers Helping Nonprofits