Guided by its Attorneys, a Corporate Law Firm Supports Local Communities

The Minneapolis Institute of Art has been among the grant recipients of the Dorsey & Whitney Foundation. photo: EQRoy/shutterstock

The Minneapolis Institute of Art has been among the grant recipients of the Dorsey & Whitney Foundation. photo: EQRoy/shutterstock

Corporate funders with multiple company branches are in a unique position to provide both widespread and locally-relevant funding. A great example of this model is the Dorsey & Whitney Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the corporate law firm Dorsey & Whitney, which has offices across America as well as in Canada, Europe, and the Asia-Pacific region. It supports its partners and attorneys in various types of community engagement and uses those connections to drive its grantmaking, funding “a wide variety of organizations, programs, and projects that contribute to the cultural, civic, educational, and social welfare of our communities.” Below are a few key factors that shape this funder’s giving and a look at some of recent projects.

Local connections are fertile and key.

This Minnesota-based nonprofit supports about 200 501(c)(3) organizations annually, in and around Anchorage, Denver, Des Moines, Fargo, Minneapolis, Missoula, New York City, Palo Alto, Salt Lake City, Seattle, Southern California, Washington, D.C., and Wilmington, not counting its matching gifts program, though which it matches the charitable contributions of its employees.

Dorsey & Whitney attorneys integrate into and support the communities where they work in a variety of ways, including community volunteering, monetary donations, serving on boards, and providing pro bono legal services. Nonprofits already known to Dorsey & Whitney attorneys are more likely to receive priority: as Inside Philanthropy has reported, this is one organization where networking could provide an advantage.

Since 2010, lawyers from Dorsey & Whitney have served on boards or in other leadership roles in more than 350 charitable, civic, cultural, and professional organizations.

General operating support is available.

Along with matching gifts, the Dorsey & Whitney Foundation primarily provides general operating support. This sort of funding, which grantees can use as they see fit, is coveted in the nonprofit world. While it has typically been harder to come by from funders who prefer to back specific programs, there has been growing enthusiasm in the philanthrosphere for this important type of support.

This foundation has an open application process and its board meets twice a year, usually in May and November, to consider grant requests. It does not publicize its giving much online, but tax forms show that in a recent year the foundation gave gifts across the U.S. ranging from $178 to $1 million and more than $2.4 million in total. The Minneapolis Institute of Art, which Dorsey & Whitney has previously supported with funding and attorney board service, received a $1 million award; other major recipients included the Minnesota Historical Society and National History Day in Maryland.

Along with general operating support, the foundation reviews, but doesn’t encourage, requests for capital and endowment support on a selective basis.

The Dorsey & Whitney Foundation does make more specific grants at times—it recently made a gift to the University of Minnesota Foundation earmarked for the Warren Spannaus Public Service Summer Fellowship Fund. This fellowship provides paid internships for law students, particularly those interested in summer work in public defender, legal aid, county or city attorney, or other government offices. The fellowship was founded in honor of Warren Spannaus, who Minnesota Attorney General for 12 years and then a partner at Dorsey & Whitney. He died in November 2017.  

Dorsey & Whitney excels in pro bono work.

This law firm is a charter signatory of the American Bar Association's Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge, through which firms pledge to provide pro bono legal assistance equaling at least 3 percent of their billable hours. Dorsey & Whitney has exceeded the 3 percent challenge every year since it signed on in 1993 and since 2007 has exceeded at least 4 percent, sometimes reaching 5 percent. In 2017, its team provided more than 31,765 hours of pro bono services to low-income individuals and nonprofits.

Eric Ruzicka, the firm’s pro bono partner, told Inside Philanthropy that one of the most rewarding pro bono projects he works on is election protection work for the Legal Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. This usually entails staffing a phone bank on election day and answering people’s questions on topics like polling locations and local voting requirements.

“At the end of each call, it is rewarding to know that I have helped an individual fulfill the most basic and important right was have as U.S. citizens,” Ruzicka said.

In the fall of 2018, Dorsey & Whitney supported the Volunteer Lawyers Network in hosting a “Growing for the Future Riverfront Celebration.” This network provides free legal help and works to protect the rights of low-income people in Minnesota facing challenges including housing shortages, shifting immigration laws, and health care costs.

What the Dorsey & Whitney Foundation doesn’t support.

The Dorsey & Whitney Foundation gives to 501(c)(3) organizations, but there are several types of groups that it doesn’t fund. These include private foundations, religious organizations except secondary schools, colleges, and “well established religious organizations or programs that primarily provide social services.” Sports-centric organizations are also not invited unless they “primarily provide services to those who are indigent or have other special needs.”

They also shy away from charitable organizations governed by “a disinterested board” and those that lack financial stability. Other caveats, preferences, and rules can be found in the funder’s guidelines.

Firm partner and foundation chair Kim Severson told Inside Philanthropy the foundation is “not making any big changes” at present and is open to considering new grantees: “The Dorsey & Whitney Foundation continues its mission of providing support to established charitable organizations in the communities in which the attorneys of the law firm Dorsey & Whitney live and practice.”