A note to readers: At Dodge, we know that nonprofit organizations often have legal questions and need support. For that reason, we have funded Pro Bono Partnership for 15 years. Over that time, we’ve witnessed the many ways their work supports New Jersey’s nonprofit sector. We asked Pro Bono Partnership to share insights each month on some of the most commonly requested legal services from the creative sector as part of our #TAtuesday blog series.
I know what you’re thinking: My nonprofit is doing great; why do we need a lawyer?
As the New Jersey director of Pro Bono Partnership, the leading organization providing free legal services to nonprofits throughout the tri-state area, I get asked that question quite often. In this post, I hope to introduce the preventive nature of good legal advice. It can help your nonprofit avoid problems, or even liabilities, down the road.
The fact is that nonprofits are businesses, even though they are not operated for the financial benefit of their owners or managers. Nonprofits face the same business and legal issues as any other company.
They need to make sure there is enough revenue to provide services, pay employees, and keep a roof over its head and the lights on. They are often faced with situations involving employee discipline, or are asked to sign a lease or contract, or want to protect a program name or logo. Nonprofit boards are not just figureheads; they have fiduciary obligations, and must adhere to legal and ethical requirements related to board structure, bylaws, various corporate governance policies, and state and federal corporate and tax requirements. There’s a lot to keep track of!
Pro Bono Partnership has been active in New Jersey since 2000, assisting more than 900 nonprofits with more than 4,000 different legal matters. We answer hundreds of phone calls every year, and recruit specialized and experienced attorneys from throughout the region to advise nonprofits on legal matters.
Here’s a recent example: The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey requested guidance on reporting obligations under the Affordable Care Act. With a variety of full- and part-time workers, temporary and permanent employees, union and non-union members and other various categories of employees that are necessary to run a world-class theater company — many of whom do receive health insurance through the Shakespeare Theatre, but some of whom also work for other theater companies — the regulations simply do not address all the issues relevant are lengthy and complex and how they apply to the Theatre is not a straight-forward matter. The law firm of Dechert LLP came to the Shakespeare Theatre’s aid, and is analyzing the rules so that the organization will be able to make the required reporting.
This is just one example of the many types of legal issues Pro Bono Partnership can help nonprofits overcome. Our staff attorneys and experienced volunteer attorneys routinely assist with explaining state and federal reporting obligations, advising on trademark and licensing issues, reviewing the “legalese” of contracts and leases, making sure an organization has an updated employee handbook, and assisting nonprofits with merging.
So even if your nonprofit doesn’t have any legal “problems,” chances are good that there are areas where legal issues can be better understood by your board and staff. Perhaps your bylaws or employee handbook hasn’t been reviewed by a lawyer for years, or provide less than clear guidance. Maybe 12270051.2.TAX you have negotiated a new contract, or office lease — but do you really understand what all those other pages require of your organization? Could your workforce benefit from harassment prevention training?
Over the coming months, we plan to address a number of the legal issues that our nonprofit clients encounter. We also provide various workshops and presentations on legal issues throughout the state.
Do you have a question you’d like to us to address? Leave it in the comments below.
Nancy Eberhardt is New Jersey director of Pro Bono Partnership and a regular contributor to the Dodge Blog. Pro Bono Partnership provides free business and transactional legal services to nonprofits serving the disadvantaged or enhancing the quality of life in neighborhoods in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Learn more here.