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Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on June 21, 2000. All rights reserved.

Pro Bono Law for Nonprofits

E-mail: MelindaSherwood@princetoninfo.com

Nonprofit organizations in New Jersey have a new, free

legal resource at their fingertips. The Pro Bono Partnership, an organization

based in White Plains, New York, that provides free legal assistance

to groups that serve the community, has just expanded its operations

into New Jersey.

Utilizing a squadron of volunteer attorneys from local corporations,

Pro Bono (www.probonopartnership.org) provides legal advice to nonprofits

on insurance matters, fundraising and revenue generating, IRS-dealings,

political activities and legislation, and employment law through workshops

and private consultations.

Pro Bono is offering a workshop on "Hiring, Firing, and Risk Management

for New Jersey Nonprofits," on Friday, June 23, at 8:15 a.m. at

the Center for Nonprofits at 1501 Livingston Avenue, North Brunswick.

Call 732-227-0800. Cost: $15

Founded in 1997 by Robert Healing, corporate counsel for General

Electric, the Pro Bono Partnership has over 300 volunteer attorneys,

primarily inside counsel of corporations in Westchester County (New

York) and Fairfield County (Connecticut), consulting to nonprofits

in the area. The organization currently has more than 200 clients

that it counsels on more than 400 separate legal matters. "As

we expand into New Jersey, where there are 17,000 nonprofits, that

number is really going to jump," says Jennifer Chandler Hauge,

an attorney who works for the New Jersey section of Pro Bono (973-984-1612),

soon to be based in Newark.

Since May 1, the organization has had requests from more than 25 New

Jersey nonprofits. The expansion into New Jersey was initiated by

several Fortune 1000 corporations in the state — Prudential, Schering-Plough

and Honeywell, to name a few — as well as prominent law firms

supporting the Partnership’s role in the state. Among them: Drinker,

Biddle & Shanley, Morgan Lewis and Bockius, both in Princeton, and

Hauge’s former employer, Pitney, Hardin, Kipp & Szuch in Morristown.

A native of Princeton, Hauge attended Dartmouth College, where she

earned a BA in English and French, Class of 1982, before getting her

JD from Boston College Law School in 1985. "I probably should

have been a social worker because I wanted to sit across a table and

help someone," she says, "but I found by combining law with

human services, it satisfies my need to make a difference." Hauge

left Pitney, Hardin et al in 1992 to start her own practice, which

focused exclusively on nonprofits.

Over 75 percent of the insurance claims filed by nonprofits are employment

law-related, says Hauge. "One of the greatest risks a nonprofit

has is being sued by an employee or former employee," she says.

A nonprofit’s liability risks are often heightened by the gray area

that exists between the term "volunteer" and "employee,"

and as a result, nonprofits are susceptible to liability in cases

of wrongful termination or other employment related issues.

Take the case of Dale vs. Boy Scouts of America, in which a volunteer

sued the organization for terminating him on the basis of sexual orientation.

"Heretofore it wasn’t clear that the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination

(the state equivalent of Title VII) covered volunteers because it

only speaks about employees," explains Hauge. Although the New

Jersey Supreme Court upheld Dale’s right to bring a discrimination

suit against the Boy Scouts despite the fact that he was a volunteer,

the case has been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which will make

a ruling this July.

One of the main goals of the Pro Bono Partnership is to narrow liability

risk through policy planning, says Hauge, who uses something called

the "Fundamental Fairness Formula" to advise nonprofits on

their practical, strategic, and philosophical strategies. "It

can be used anytime a nonprofit has to take a negative employment

action — demotion, or run-of-the-mill discipline," she says.

The Fundamental Fairness Formula emphasizes the importance of the

following procedures:

Notice of expectations. "The nonprofit has to communicate

to the employee what the expectations, and what the consequences will

be if they don’t meet those expectations," says Hauge. "A

lot of employees don’t know that if they don’t show up to work on

time regularly, they might lose their job."

Performance counseling. Conference with employees to point

out where performance is not meeting expectations.

Documentation. Write it all down.

Follow all internal procedures. Many nonprofits have personnel

policies or a manual that spells out disciplinary steps, and since

the state of New Jersey sometimes views manuals as an employment contract,

nonprofits should stick to it rigorously. "If internal procedure

is not followed," says Hauge, "it opens the door for the employee

to claim breach of contract."

The Final Filter. Ask for advice from an expert, an attorney

at Pro Bono, for example, or the executive director of another agency,

to make sure your decision has been made with objectivity. "This

should provide you with the perspective required to make you feel

comfortable with the decision you’re making," says Hauge.

Since, philosophically, nonprofits exist to do good, says Hauge,

many bend over backward to be caring, nurturing, and take care of

employees,. But sometimes they overlook the benefit of having a consistent

personnel policy, she says. Likewise, employees of nonprofits hold

do-gooder organizations to a higher standard than private sector companies.

"The employee has the impression that the nonprofit that exists

to do good will always be fair," says Hauge. "An employee

of a nonprofit who is treated unfairly is therefore outraged. If I

worked for a big bad for-profit, I might say, OK it’s the bottom line."

The bottom line for nonprofits: don’t let your do-gooder money get

squandered indisputes that could easily have been avoided.

— Melinda Sherwood


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