Service oriented: Nonprofit organizations receive pro bono advice

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Nine Michigan nonprofits are now better prepared to deliver their services after receiving pro bono financial and legal review services through a legal clinic presented by Michigan Community Resources (MCR).

On January 24, MCR joined with providers in seven other cities across the nation, from San Francisco to New York and Washington, D.C., to present the free legal consultations to nonprofit organizations serving children, families, and other vulnerable populations as part of a National Day of Service for pro bono legal service providers.

“This clinic is all about the power of pro bono service,” said Shamyle Dobbs, chief executive officer for MCR. “Staying on top of all processes including reporting, governance, and legal compliance can be difficult for many nonprofits due to limited resources. Having the ability to sit down with attorneys further demonstrates to donors and funders that these organizations have the financial systems in place to be in compliance and exhibit fiscal responsibility. And not all nonprofits can afford to pay the going rate for an attorney.”

Regulatory and other legal burdens make it challenging for nonprofit managers to assess their financial transparency and fiscal oversight procedures, according to Dobbs. The clinic was developed collaboratively by Exponentum, a national network of business law pro bono providers including MCR, to help nonprofits improve their financial transparency and related compliance practices.

Nonprofit clinic participants each received counsel from highly skilled attorneys providing their services pro bono. A total of 20 attorneys from firms including Miller Canfield, Paddock, and Stone PLC, Butzel Long, Dykema, General Motors Co., and Ford Motor Co. provided assistance to the nine participating nonprofits. Attorneys from some of the oldest and most well-established firms in Michigan worked collaboratively with General Motors and Ford Motor lawyers to provide trusted guidance and support to a dynamic group of participants using the Nonprofit Financial Reporting and Tax-exempt Compliance Assessment Tool, developed by Exponentum.

Lack of knowledge and lack of resources can be the two greatest barriers to nonprofits being legally compliant, according to Kirsten Pederson, corporate counsel at General Motors. Pederson and Ryan Warsh, attorney at Miller Canfield, provided pro bono counsel to Latisha Johnson of MECCA Development CDC and worked with Johnson to complete the compliance assessment tool on behalf of MECCA Development.

Working with the pro bono attorneys “helped me get through some of the concerns that I had to know that moving forward, I’m doing everything right,” said Daniel Washington of the nonprofit Original Creativity. “Everything from filing my taxes, to making sure that I have my bylaws really tight and right, so that there’s no question or concern moving forward.”

In addition to pro bono legal counsel, representatives from Apparatus Solutions and UHY, presented a lunchtime workshop for 11 nonprofits that dove deeper into financial practices that can be critical for nonprofits. Representatives from Apparatus and UHY also volunteered their time.

The clinic was hosted by Co.act Detroit and was made possible by funding from the Access to Justice Fund of the Michigan State Bar Foundation. An additional grant from the Association of Corporate Counsel provided food and other support. The clinic could not have been accomplished without the generous commitment to pro bono service of the attorneys and other professionals involved. The clinic demonstrates the many ways MCR leverages the support of volunteer attorneys to provide transactional legal services to qualified nonprofits.

There was a great deal of interest in the clinic and more organizations applied than were able to be scheduled, according to MCR officials. Future programs for nonprofits scheduled by MCR include workshops on real property issues faced by nonprofits in partnership with the Real Property Section of the State Bar of Michigan; other legal and organizational guidance workshops (topics and dates TBA); and a series of workshops providing legal and journalistic guidance on the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in partnership with the Detroit Free Press in the summer. There will be other legal compliance clinics announced through the year. These are in addition to MCR 's regular Legal Pro Bono Referral Program, direct legal services, and Office Hours programs. Details are available at www.mi-community.org.

Michigan Community Resources provides a comprehensive array of consulting and organizational capacity building services for nonprofit and community organizations in Southeast Michigan, with distinct services available statewide. MCR is the only organization of this kind in the state that supports and empowers community organizations through pro bono legal and organizational capacity building services. Since its founding in 1998, MCR has provided more than $16 million in free legal assistance to more than 1,200 nonprofits throughout Michigan. Each year, MCR serves 400 nonprofit organizations across all MCR programs. In turn, each organization serves countless others as they deliver on their missions.

MCR participates in the Access to Justice Campaign and encourages support through the ATJ Fund. The ATJ Campaign is a collaborative centralized campaign, administered by the Michigan State Bar Foundation in partnership with the State Bar of Michigan, to increase resources for seven regional and eight statewide civil legal aid programs in Michigan. For additional information, visit www.mi-community.org.

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