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UO Law Clinic Aids Nonprofit Agencies

For a third year, trios of graduate-level University of Oregon students — in law, public policy and conflict resolution — will spend four months studying how local nonprofit agencies operate and helping them up their game.

The one-of-a-kind free service assesses an organization’s health in management, governance, conflict resolution and legal functioning. Other law school clinics nationally typically address the law alone.

The UO Law School is seeking nonprofit applicants for the 2013-14 round.

Some of the 24 previous participants were Eugene Ballet, Kidsports and the Mapleton-based Siuslaw Watershed Council.

“When things are free, you’re wondering if it’s going to be helpful,” said Liz Vollmer-Buhl, executive director of the Siuslaw Watershed Council. “And it really was.”

A lawyer or management consultant supervises each student group.

In December 2012, Beatrice Dohrn — former legal director of the Manhattan-based Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, which advocates for the rights of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and others — applied to be director of the UO clinic, and she wondered if there would be enough nonprofit groups to keep the law students busy.

“I was saying: 12 nonprofits a year? How long are you going to exist?”

She later found there were 22,000 nonprofit groups in Oregon.

“Oregon likes to provide for itself what some other communities look to government to give,” Dohrn said. “So it’s no coincidence there is a high density.”

All Internal Revenue Service-designated 501(c) (3) nonprofit groups in Oregon are potential candidates for Dohrn’s nonprofit clinic. Other qualifications: be within a 1½-hour drive of Eugene or have video conferencing; and have an annual budget between about $50,000 and $2 million.

Dohrn wants to hear from nonprofit groups now. By mid-December, the groups will have to provide a lot of documents in advance of meetings in the early spring with their review teams.

Dohrn, an attorney, was a manager at Legal Aid in Harlem and the Bronx for 2½ years before her eight-year stint as legal director of Lambda, developing legal strategies and court cases to advance gay and lesbian rights.

“In my legal career, I mentored and hired and brought up to speed a lot of new lawyers. This is kind of a lot like that,” she said.

The trio of students each bring their distinctive skills to bear. The law student analyzes a nonprofit group’s documents and educate board members on their legal duties — things that can slip by at a busy nonprofit, much to their peril.

“These things are not intruding on their every-day functioning, and that’s why they don’t pay attention to them,” Dohrn said. “They’re just trying to get people fed, or whatever they’re doing.”

But making mistakes can cost an entity its tax-exempt status.

Vollmer-Buhl at the Siuslaw Watershed Council gave the students the agency’s articles of incorporation, bylaws, policy manuals, financial documents and audits. “It was a pretty big stack,” she said.

The students helped the board formalize a subcommittee structure, which lead to a greater volume of work getting done, Vollmer-Buhl said.

The nonprofit groups’ structure and functioning is the purview of the graduate students on the teams, from the UO’s Department of Planning, Public Policy and Management and the Conflict and Dispute Resolution program.

In surveys, the nonprofit board members rarely admit to disagreements. Conflict resolution students try to bring to the surface any disputes, Dohrn said.

“We tell them that getting through conflict is what really makes people productive and high-functioning as a team. Suppressing conflict does exactly the opposite,” Dohrn said. “That cracks the door open a little bit.”

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