February 7, 2011 | last updated June 1, 2012 9:40 am
NONPROFIT NOTEBOOK

Pro Bono Partnership helps area nonprofits

Priya Morganstern, director, Pro Bono Partnership Inc.

Throughout much of her 23-year legal career, Priya Morganstern has focused her practice and legal expertise on pro bono initiatives and tax-exempt organizations. It's fitting, then, that today she directs the Hartford program of the Pro Bono Partnership Inc., which provides pro bono legal services to nonprofit organizations throughout Connecticut, as well as in New Jersey and Westchester (NY) and surrounding counties

Amid challenging economic times, it seems, there is no shortage of legal issues that confront nonprofit organizations these days. "Nonprofits are businesses with many of the same legal needs that for-profit businesses have," Morganstern explains. "We review contracts, assist with employment matters, and handle mergers and dissolutions, just to name a few." The organization also addresses legal issues unique to nonprofits – such as fundraising.

To meet that demand for service, Pro Bono Partnership collaborates with many of the Hartford region's law firms and corporations, allowing their business attorneys to volunteer their time to address nonprofit legal issues. "Many business and corporate lawyers have expertise that is very useful in the nonprofit world," Morganstern said.

With the proliferation of nonprofits in Connecticut over the past decade, there are more organizations in need of legal assistance. According to the National Center for Charitable Statistics, there were more than 12,500 non-profit charitable organizations in the state in 2009, representing a 22.6 percent increase compared to 1999

Last year, Pro Bono Partnership's Hartford office alone (which covers all of Connecticut, except Fairfield County and parts of Litchfield County) handled almost 250 legal matters for 110 different organizations. In some cases, Morganstern or other Partnership staff attorneys handle the projects themselves, providing direct legal services to clients.

Oftentimes, with tight budgets and increased demand for services, legal issues fall far down the list of priorities for many non-profits. "To a degree, there's a culture of poverty in the non-profit sector, particularly among small-to-mid-sized organizations that are used to not having access to legal resources," Morganstern said.

It's a cultural attitude that Pro Bono Partnership is trying to reverse. So in addition to the direct legal services, the Partnership also conducts multiple workshops throughout the year and offers a legal resource line for quick legal questions. For qualifying organizations – those with 501(c)3 tax-exempt status that operate secular programs and meet financial eligibility – most legal services are provided free of charge.

It is a service that many of the region's corporations and major players in the nonprofit community have also thrown support behind. One of those is the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, one of the largest community foundations in the United States. Annemarie Riemer, director of the nonprofit support program of the foundation, says that her organization often invites representatives from Pro Bono Partnership to attend its events to address legal issues that may be raised.

"What Pro Bono Partnership does every day is really a gift to the community," Riemer said. "If nonprofits cross their T's and dot their I's with their legal requirements, they can operate in a more business-like manner. That enables them to provide better service in the community."

• • •

McLean Foundation elects directors

Michael Paine is the newly elected chair of the McLean Foundation, a Simsbury nonprofit that raises funds for programs including hospice, rehab and the health center; and for the McLean Game Refuge.

He'll be joined by newly elected directors Barbara Christofer of Avon, who recently retired from The Hartford; Victor Rush of Windsor, vice president and branch manager of TD Bank in West Hartford; and Pamela Gates Wright of Granby, volunteer and philanthropist.

• • •

Ruiz will head campaign

New Britain's Campaign for Grade Level Reading has hired Ivette Ruiz to manage its efforts to improve the reading skills of New Britain's children.

The campaign is a partnership between the New Britain Early Childhood Collaborative and the New Britain school district to engage the broader community in the task of improving literacy. The Campaign receives funding from The William Casper Graustein Memorial Fund, The Children's Fund of CT, the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the State Department of Education.

Ruiz is an adjunct professor at Springfield College School of Human Services where she delivers curriculum covering human services, social services, Latin American Studies and social work. She is also founder and executive director of Education Works Consulting Services LLC providing national and statewide professional development, diversity and youth programming. Previously, Ruiz served as a consultant for the State Education Resource Center in Middletown and as the executive director for the Multicultural Leadership Institute Inc. in Hamden.

Ruiz explains, "In three of the last four years, the City of New Britain has had the lowest reading scores among its third graders in the state. Two-thirds of the children starting fourth grade in New Britain can't read at grade level. When our children fall so far behind in literacy skills all other areas of their education and social development suffer. Our primary goal for the campaign is to turn around these devastating statistics so this generation of young people has the chance to be successful in school and in life."

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