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Foundation revamps proposed grants to build COVID-19 reserve

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Hala SandridgeThe Florida Bar Foundation has cut back on more than $600,000 in grants it had planned to award in coming months to create a reserve fund to help legal aid offices deal with an expected surge of services associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Foundation’s executive committee on April 9 considered more than $3 million of delayed grants that the board of directors had been set to approve at its March meeting that went to programs promoting the administration of justice, children’s legal services, pro bono transformation and innovation, and law student summer fellowships.

“We think the prudent and right thing to do is for the Foundation to make sure that when we are dealing with something that has statewide impact that our grantees and clients … are receiving the aid they need based on the needs they are facing in the community right now,” said Foundation President Hala Sandridge. “It’s not easy making change but one of the things we proud of at the Foundation is we’re very nimble.

Noting the Foundation is expecting its IOTA funding to drop by nearly half next year because of the economic downturn, she added, “There’s a lot going on, it’s coming at us from different angles. It is really important for the Foundation to absorb all that’s around us and react appropriately.”

Foundation Executive Director Donny MacKenzie said the executive committee reevaluated the pending grants according to what would be the best use of the funds in a COVID-19 environment; whether the project provided critical value and current service to the low-income population; and if there were other sources of income for the project.

The savings will be redistributed to help Foundation grantees deal with pandemic related cases.

“By all accounts, it looks like it’s going to landlord-tenant and affordable housing issues, debtor rights, and domestic violence. Some jurisdictions are reporting a 21% uptick in domestic violence cases,” MacKenzie said. “Another is government benefits — there will be a lot more government benefits cases [after passage of federal legislation aimed to offset the pandemic’s economic impacts].”

On administrative of justice grants, MacKenzie said four projects were initially recommended for approval, but one of those was dropped under the new criteria. The affected program was a low-income housing advice program for mobile home communities in Miami-Dade County.

The Innocence Project of Florida will receive $298,913, Florida’s Children First, $250,000, and the Legal Aid Service of Broward County will get $233,415 under that program.

Twenty organizations had applied for Children’s Legal Services Grants, and 16 had initially been recommended for approval. Of those, 11 retained the funding after the latest review, MacKenzie said. That saved about $367,000.

On pro bono innovation grants, intended to expand particularly effective pro bono programs, the Foundation retained funding for five of the originally six recommended programs, for a total grant amount (the maximum individual grant under the program is $25,000) of $119,000, MacKenzie said. Receiving the grants were Legal Services of Miami at $19,000 and Jacksonville Area Legal Aid, Catholic Legal Services, and Lee County Legal Aid Society at $25,000 each.

With pro bono transformation grants, he said there were two new proposals and three requests for grants to continue funding from last year that had been recommended. The new grants, for $100,000 each, were not funded and two of the three continuing programs were slightly reduced. Funded were the Cuban American Bar Association Pro Bono Project at $100,000, Community Legal Services of Mid Florida at $83,500, and Southern Legal Counsel at $85,000.

For the moment, the Foundation is keeping its 11 Summer fellowships for this summer, but the focus of the fellowships has changed, MacKenzie said. Those grants are awarded to second and third-year law students who individually work with a specific legal aid agency on a particular project.

“If the grantees are capable of hosting the students remotely and they are amenable, we will approach the fellows and say, ‘We’re not going to offer you a summer fellowship for the project you wanted to work on, but we will offer you a fellowship with this agency if you want to work on emergency COVID projects,’” MacKenzie said. “If you’re willing to modify, you’re going to help these grantees with their immediate [pandemic-related] needs and our pro bono needs.”

If the agencies or the fellows can’t make the adjustment, then the grant amount will remain with the Foundation and be used for other COVID relief efforts, he said.

Because the Federal Reserve has slashed interest rates to near zero, Foundation IOTA income, which is its predominant source or revenue, is projected to go from $13.7 million this year to $7.1 million next year. That will affect the Foundation’s grants for the 2021-22 fiscal years since Foundation policy is to use one year’s IOTA receipts to fund the following years grants.

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