Empowerment Award: Covid Relief Coalition
Empowering small businesses and nonprofits to withstand a pandemic
On February 1, 2020, the City of Boston announced its first confirmed case of COVID-19. Less than six weeks later, Governor Charlie Baker declared a state of emergency to support the Commonwealth’s response to coronavirus. Businesses, non-profits, schools and public agencies alike were scrambling to fulfill a new directive: how to work, serve and educate safely during a global health crisis. For many – including the owners and staff of restaurants, salons, fitness centers and more – there was no clear pathway to sustaining their business.
At Ropes & Gray, partner Christian Westra, partner Jennifer Rikoski, and Director & Pro Bono Counsel Rosalyn Garbose Nasdor began constructing a plan to help.
“As someone who lives and works in Boston, it was heartbreaking to see all the closed shops and how it impacted people in such a significant way. One of the things we knew we could do as lawyers was help marshal our colleagues to give free legal advice,” said Westra. “We began reaching out to organizations to see if there was interest in creating a group that could help small businesses and nonprofits obtain free legal services, and very quickly we had buy in from partners, including the City of Boston, the Commonwealth, and – significantly – Lawyers for Civil Rights and Lawyers Clearinghouse.”
From this initial contact, the COVID Relief Coalition – composed of law firms, nonprofits and government agencies – was launched. The Coalition’s aim was twofold. First, to synthesize the sources of relief that were available to small businesses and nonprofits in the Greater Boston area into a single online resource. Second, to offer small businesses and nonprofits pro bono legal services that would be as seamless and easy to use as possible.
“In particular, Coalition members wanted to offer this support to minority and women owned businesses and nonprofits,” added Westra. “These organizations not only fuel the economy, they also make the community at-large more diverse, equitable and inclusive, which benefits everybody.”
Said the Beacon Award Selection Committee, on its decision to recognize the Coalition, “It is incumbent upon us in the legal community to support small businesses and nonprofits in this unprecedented time. Through the Coalition’s immeasurable support, these vital organizations are able to overcome challenges, remain open, and contribute to a better tomorrow. It is a great privilege to honor Coalition members with the Empowerment Award.”
Led by Ropes & Gray, Lawyers for Civil Rights (LCR), and Lawyers Clearinghouse, the Coalition set to work on a comprehensive website that enabled small businesses and nonprofits to learn about and apply for emergency loans, grants, and other sources of relief. It proved to be a valuable and welcome resource; to date, the site has had more than 14,000 unique visitors and 32,000 pageviews.
The Coalition understood, however, that summarizing the information was only part of the solution.
“Small businesses and nonprofits are navigating a challenging new climate,” said Rikoski. “While there are a number of emergency relief sources available to them, the actual process of obtaining funding is complex and cumbersome to understand without sound legal advice. We needed to connect people with lawyers who can help them get aid as quickly as possible.”
To accomplish this, the Coalition established an intake system that channeled requests for legal advice through LCR and Lawyers Clearinghouse. Small businesses were directed to LCR BizGrow Director Priya Lane, while nonprofits were supported by Lawyers Clearinghouse Nonprofit Assistance manager Russell Paul.
“We were the bridge between the clients and the firms,” said Paul. “Someone would reach out to one of us and we’d have an initial consultation with them to get to the heart of what they needed. Then we’d connect them with a Coalition member with expertise – all within 48 to 72 hours. It was like we were the primary care physicians fielding the general questions, and then turning them over to the ‘specialists’ in the law firms.”
At first, understanding the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) eligibility and application process was top of mind for both business owners and nonprofit leaders. In one instance, Westra received a request for help from the owner of a small fish shop outside Boston. This small business owner had heard about PPP, but didn’t know if he was eligible and didn’t know where to go for help.
“He had just opened a new location when the Commonwealth went into lockdown and demand plummeted,” said Westra. “He didn’t know what he was going to do, and was afraid he might have to close entirely. The next day, we had him on the phone with a member of the Coalition, walking him through how to secure funding. It helped him keep his business alive. The most satisfying cases are the ones with really small businesses that often don’t have the money to retain counsel. These are good people in a terrible situation who are just trying to figure out how to stay afloat.”
Paul recalled speaking with the staff of a social impact fund that provides equity and support to startup companies.
“They had barely begun their mission when the pandemic hit,” said Paul. “They felt lost on how to weather this initial storm, while also achieving 501(c)(3) status and focusing on their mission. The Coalition was able to simultaneously guide them through PPP funding and available grants, as well as help them complete the 1023 application to achieve 501(c)(3) status from the IRS.”
Karen Mauney-Brodek, President of The Emerald Necklace Conservancy, is one of many pro bono clients for whom the Coalition’s support has made a real difference:
“It was wonderful to have Ropes & Gray’s amazing assistance as we were navigating the ins-and-outs of the Paycheck Protection Program – a program that was confusing, evolving and extremely important to us, all at the same time. The work we do to support the Emerald Necklace Parks – half of Boston’s parkland – is essential to Boston during COVID. It was such a gift to know that the lawyers at Ropes & Gray were willing to take some time out of their busy schedules at this challenging time.”
As the pandemic continued, the need for assistance evolved. Businesses and nonprofits began to face other legal questions related to real estate, contractual issues, and taxes.
“I began to receive urgent legal inquiries, sometimes in the middle of the night, on a wide-range of small business matters, particularly landlord/tenant issues,” said Priya Lane. “There was a moratorium on commercial evictions, but small commercial tenants were still being sent eviction notices. It was especially hard on restaurant owners, who were trying to keep staff paid as line cooks or takeout drivers. Many of them were people of color or immigrants who either didn’t have the resources to negotiate, or felt a power imbalance. Their stories were heartbreaking. We would provide them with legal and technical assistance, including coaching on rent abatement strategies, to make sure that they knew their rights — and that they could assert their rights. In this manner, we helped to close the resource gap amidst COVID-19, particularly in communities of color, immigrant communities, and low-income communities. Even just one conversation with a pro bono attorney can be so empowering.”
Together, the COVID Relief Coalition has reached over 330 small businesses and nonprofits since inception. Approximately half of those businesses are owned by people of color and 70% are women-owned.
“We were one of the first organizations in the country to pilot this kind of program,” added Westra. “We’ve had people from around the country reach out to us to understand and replicate our approach. We are really proud to be at the forefront of this coordinated relief and support.”
The Covid Relief Coalition – made up of numerous law firms, nonprofits and governmental agencies in Massachusetts – is a striking example of how galvanizing the legal community can have a powerful and uplifting impact on the community at large. See the full list of Coalition members at: https://www.covidreliefcoalition.com/en/the-coalition