A grant from the Community Foundation of Greater New Haven will increase legal support for nonprofits in the tri-state area.

Pro Bono Partnership — a nonprofit organization dedicated to connecting tri-state region nonprofits to free legal services from volunteer lawyers — received a $15,000 grant from the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven last month. In 2017, the partnership served 800 nonprofits, 29 of them based in New Haven county. With the award from the Community Foundation, the partnership is hoping to continue empowering nonprofits and communities through educational programming, outreach to clients and recruiting volunteer attorneys.

“Nonprofits have the same legal needs as for-profit organizations, but they don’t have the financial resources or personnel resources to access that legal expertise. That’s where Pro Bono Partnership comes in and really helps to level the playing field,” said Mindi Lund, the organization’s business director. “That is what we intend to do with this generous grant that we got from the Community Foundation … just work and enhance our outreach and efforts in New Haven area.”

The two-year grant was awarded in part due to the partnership’s instrumental role in joining Schooner and the New Haven Land Trust last year. In the face of financial and management hardship, Schooner — a nonprofit summer camp dedicated to introducing New Haven youth to coastal exploration and sailing — connected with lawyers from Morgan, Lewis & Bockius law firm through the partnership. The attorneys crafted agreements and transfers of assets, including sailboats and expertise, that preserved Schooner as a signature program of the land trust. Now, the New Haven Land Trust is looking to expand Schooner by adding after-school and educational programming to its original summer camp offerings. This summer, the signature program is anticipating over 600 children will attend camp, with over half of them on partial or full scholarship.

When the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven was considering potential recipients for the grant award, representatives from both Schooner and the New Haven Land Trust advocated for Pro Bono Partnership. Even before they joined forces, both nonprofits had a history of working with Pro Bono Partnership on individual projects, such as employee and personnel policies. Last year, the Land Trust purchased Chapel Street community garden — one of 50 community gardens operated by the trust — with legal assistance from the partnership, and the two nonprofits have five ongoing collaborations.

“The challenge with running a nonprofit is all of us are struggling to manage our programs on a pretty tight budget, and legal support can be incredibly costly, but it’s also very important for running any organization effectively, so Pro Bono has been key to helping the land trust,” said Justin Elicker, executive director of the New Haven Land Trust. “For several years, there was no camp run at all, and after we joined last January… the land trust organization basically recreated the summer camp. We hired new staff. We recreated the curriculum.”

Beyond its work with Schooner, the Pro Bono Partnership received the grant for its sustained work with other New Haven community organizations; the partnership has been providing free, transactional legal aid to nonprofits for 20 years. The services offered encompass all legal work besides litigation, including managing mergers, contracts and human resources. At present, the Partnership is working with IRIS —  Integrated Refugee and Immigration Services — on their seventh collaboration. The Partnership has also collaborated with the Friends Center for Children, a child-care center dedicated to accessible early childhood education based on Quaker principles, for several years.

To match nonprofits with volunteer lawyers, staff members at the Partnership maintain an updated list of organizations and their legal needs on the Pro Bono Partnership website, in addition to connecting attorneys and nonprofits on a case-by-case basis. They manage a database of 2,000 business attorneys, who receive pro bono opportunities via email newsletter every other week. Beyond serving as a conduit for legal aid, the Partnership organizes educational initiatives — workshops, webinars and a Legal Resource Hotline — to provide information about nonprofit law.

“We have a two-pronged mission. One prong is to serve nonprofits that need business or transactional legal help but which but could not otherwise afford it,” said Priya Morganstern, Connecticut program director at the Pro Bono Partnership. “The other prong of our mission is to provide meaningful pro bono service opportunities to business lawyers across the tri-state area. So in a way, we regard these business lawyers who want to be volunteers with us as our clients almost every bit as much as the nonprofits.”

For the Community Foundation of Greater New Haven, the mission of the partnership aligns with its own philanthropic goals: to make gifts and permanent funds in the name of “charitable endowment” to community organizations. The largest grantmaker across 22 towns in central Connecticut, the Community Foundation has also had a history of collaborating with the partnership. Over the past few years, the foundation has hosted roundtables and sought out advice about helping New Haven nonprofits from representatives at Pro Bono Partnership.

The grant comes at a time when nonprofit organizations are suffering from substantial budget cuts in Connecticut. According to Morganstern, the loss of state funding has generated more requests for dissolutions and mergers from community nonprofits, which can no longer sustain themselves financially. In response to this trend, she is crafting a “dissolution toolkit” to aid volunteer attorneys in tackling these projects.

“One of the things that I think is particularly important is that in today’s world, fundraising and running nonprofits is becoming more and more challenging, and that’s particularly so because there’s a lot of loss of state funding” Elicker said. “What is exciting about what’s happened with Schooner is that two nonprofits decided to join forces … It’s really exciting to see that Schooner, the Land Trust and Pro Bono create so much more by working together.”

The Pro Bono Partnership celebrated its 20th anniversary in October 2017.

Ruiyan Wang | ruiyan.wang@yale.edu