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Pro Bono Center Helps Thousands of Nonprofits, Small Businesses Adapt

May 21, 2021

By Matt Stephen

Outdoor dining area

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the District of Columbia in early 2020, the impact was immediate and severe. The widespread fear and uncertainty and devastating loss of lives was accompanied by a wave of economic despair. According to a 2020 Small Business Profile from the U.S. Small Business Administration, 68,236 small businesses in D.C. employ 233,821 people, which is 47.6% of the private-sector workforce. Businesses, livelihoods, and neighborhoods were at risk because of unprecedented changes to day-to-day life. Restaurants pivoted to offering take-out and delivery, other businesses adapted for social distancing and other COVID-19 safety protocols, and, where possible, services went remote.

The D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center’s Nonprofit & Small Business Legal Assistance Programs (NPSB), which have supported District-area organizations since 1999, rushed into action. “We wanted to anticipate our community’s needs and provide answers through webinars, weekly brief advice clinics, and legal alerts,” said NPSB Director Darryl Maxwell. “Nonprofits provide essential services to city residents and small businesses keep neighborhoods strong and vibrant. Our staff and volunteers did everything in our power to support the organizations that are inextricable from the District itself.”

NPSB’s legal services had been delivered largely in-person for decades, but the programs quickly transitioned online to meet clients when and where they needed help. Operating remotely, the monthly Small Business Brief Advice Legal Clinic became a weekly fixture and NPSB launched new rolling brief advice services to address specific COVID-19 related legal issues. In the first three months of the pandemic alone, with help from the cadre of dedicated volunteers and partner law firms, the programs served 1,248 nonprofits and small businesses.

“We immediately went into overdrive and made a deliberate effort to get information and advice to organizations as rapidly as possible,” said Staff Attorney Christine Kulumani. “Waiting was often not a luxury our clients had, and we took that very seriously when making decisions about how best to help.”

With the launch of local and federal assistance programs, the Pro Bono Center offered brief legal advice and webinars to organizations seeking to apply for relief. Both nonprofits and small businesses received advice on commercial lease negotiation, an issue on which the Pro Bono Center is leading the community. Although eviction moratoriums protect commercial tenants against eviction, many are accumulating large sums of unpaid rent, struggling to negotiate reasonable payment plans, and being threatened with illegal self-help evictions. In response, the Center launched the Commercial Tenant Task Force to help negotiate with landlords and prevent illegal eviction.

The Center instructed small businesses and nonprofits on what employers could do to keep their employees safe while COVID safety measures were implemented. From the beginning of the public health emergency through May 20, 2021, NPSB served more than 5,000 nonprofits and small businesses.

Now, NPSB is focusing on educating organizations about vaccine mandates, the American Rescue Plan Act, and reopening safely. This comes as vaccinated D.C. residents are gathering outdoors and returning to the restaurants, shops, and services that power our economy. As the District steadily continues vaccinating eligible residents and begins the process of reopening, D.C. can begin its economic recovery in earnest. Thanks to NPSB, more than 5,000 organizations may have the chance to do just that.

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