After three years of using reserve funds to make up for declining revenue, the D.C. Bar Foundation announced yesterday that the funds available for this year's grants to civil legal services organizations dropped by about 30 percent.
The foundation awarded $685,000 in grants to 20 local organizations this year, down from the $865,000 awarded last year. The grants are funded through the Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts Program, but low interest rates in recent years have depressed the program's revenues, according to foundation Executive Director Katia Garrett.
Garrett said that the foundation planned on spending down its reserves for no more than three years to compensate for losses, but couldn't go beyond that. The news wasn't all bad, though – Garrett said that absent reserve funds, last year's grants would have totaled $670,000, so this year's grants actually represented a small increase in the baseline funding available.
The cuts were mostly spread out among grantees. The Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia, for instance, received $98,500 in grants this year, down from the $122,500 they received last year. Executive Director Eric Angel said he understood why the foundation had to make the cuts, but that "it presents significant challenges to us."
Angel said his organization is projecting a budget deficit of several hundred thousand dollars. They're ramping up fundraising efforts and hoping the private bar will make up for budget shortfalls, he said, but noted that deficit spending could also be on the table.
Columbus Community Legal Services, a clinic run through the Catholic University of America Columbus School of Law and a previous grantee, won't receive grant funding this year. Garrett said the clinic, which received a $5,000 grant last year, was the only private law school program to still receive foundation funding, so a decision was made to make cuts there. A clinic representative couldn't immediately be reached this morning.
"I have the highest respect for…the lawyers at that clinic, but frankly we're at a point where we have to make very challenging choices. There was a time when the bar foundation knew it could fund every good, high-functioning grantee. We're now at a point where we have to cut," Garrett said.
One program is new to this year's list. The Neighborhood Legal Services Program, which wasn't a grantee last year but received grants in the past, received a $10,000 grant. Garrett said the decision to fund that program was a reflection of its efforts to expand services. The program’s new executive director, Hannah Lieberman, said the funds would go to “important capacity building,” including technology upgrades, staff training and community outreach efforts. “We're very pleased at the bar foundation's renewed confidence in us,” she said.
Garrett said that private law firms have increasingly donated funds directly to organizations that they partner with on pro bono work, which has helped as the foundation and other traditional funding sources for civil legal services groups struggle to keep funding levels up. However, she said that there are some organizations that law firms have a tougher time working with, such as groups that need bilingual attorneys, which need help.
"Those organizations end up out in the cold, but that's where the bar foundation comes in. We try to bridge that gap," she said.
The foundation's announcement and full list of grantees is available here (PDF).