Guiding Your Organization’s Decisions
Starting and sustaining a nonprofit can be a lengthy and involved process. Building an organization requires many steps, such as incorporating, writing bylaws, applying for tax-exempt status, and developing personnel procedures. As you begin to consider these issues and chart your organization’s course, you may find yourself asking questions to determine the right path, such as:
- Should my organization become an incorporated entity?
- Do I need to file for tax-exempt status?
- How do I write a Certificate of Incorporation and Bylaws in accordance with state regulations?
- Should I take a corporation to court, if they have not cleaned up their environmental damage?
When answering these questions, it is often best to obtain legal advice to ensure that your organization takes the right steps to comply with applicable corporate and tax laws and regulations. A lawyer can help in determining which tax-exempt status is appropriate and in confirming that your organization’s Bylaws are prepared properly.
Legal representation has been extremely helpful for many groups. An attorney can aid in preparing legal documents, assisting with open space purchases, obtaining permits, representing a group in court, and much more. Finding the right attorney to work with your nonprofit can help your group obtain these benefits and many others. Using your resources wisely (staff, board, members, etc.) and educating yourself on legal matters are the first steps to forming a long relationship with an attorney who can provide many vital services.
Get names of lawyers who have a good reputation and experience with nonprofits. Obtain referrals from respected nonprofits and also check with the American Bar Association, or your state bar association. Refer to the “Public Resources” section for a list of resources to assist with obtaining legal advice.
When seeking a lawyer, keep the following in mind:
- Area of expertise. Find a lawyer who is knowledgeable and experienced in nonprofit matters. Specifically, seek someone who has experience with the issue at hand.
- Fees. When contacting lawyers discuss their fees for services. In addition, ask if they offer free consultations or other discounted services for nonprofits.
- Rapport. After obtaining the names of potential lawyers, be sure to speak with each of them individually to determine how their personality blends with yours. Getting along with your lawyer is just as important as their skill and knowledge.
Lawyers can provide great legal advice and technical expertise. However, this often comes at a price. Ways to reduce fees include:
- Combine requests. Rather than presenting a lawyer with your Certificate of Incorporation, Bylaws, and application for tax-exempt status individually, work on all three at the same time. The applications are closely related, and you will save time and money in the long run.
- Fees. Do not rely on your lawyer for everything. For example, do research on the issue. Your lawyer will only have to review the document, instead of spending valuable time (and your money) drafting it him or herself.
- Rapport. Educate Yourself. Read as much as possible on the topic at hand. Ask your lawyer to share his experiences and knowledge. The more you can learn, the less time and money you will have to spend on a lawyer’s advice.
- Seek pro-bono services. Legal advice can be expensive. However, lawyers or law firms are often willing to provide free (pro-bono) legal services to nonprofit organizations.
In addition to providing guidance on starting your organization, lawyers can contribute legal advice as your group becomes more established. This may be the case with interpreting environmental laws, taking a position on a policy or issue, purchasing open space, forming a lease agreement, obtaining a permit, or developing risk management policies. By forming a relationship with a lawyer early in the life of your nonprofit, it will be easier to seek their advice when encountering legal and tax questions later.
Use caution when consulting directories or referral services. These sometimes refer inquiries to the next lawyer on the list, rather than one with the necessary nonprofit experience.
Following your initial search, you can use the Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory to obtain more information about a particular lawyer. The directory contains the names of most practicing lawyers and provides information on their education, area of expertise, and work experience.
Before contacting firms, ask your colleagues, Board, and members if they can recommend any attorneys that are known to work with nonprofits, environmental issues, and/or watershed associations.
- Nolo, Law for All An organization dedicated to explaining legal matters in common terms through publications, forms and their website. Provides a legal encyclopedia, law dictionary, legal research center, and more.
- The Pro Bono Partnership Offers a complete legal resource center for nonprofits and attorneys, including free legal services to community-based nonprofit organizations, workshops, and materials.