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June 21, 2013

Providing critical support to nonprofits

Beatrice Dohrn directs Oregon Law's Nonprofit Clinic

Beatrice Dohrn knows nonprofits. She has spent nearly her entire professional career engaged in public interest work — from Legal Aid in Harlem and the Bronx to nearly a decade at the groundbreaking Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund. Now, she's bringing her expertise, knowledge, and commitment to the University of Oregon School of Law as the director of the Nonprofit Clinic

The clinic engages students from the School of Law, the Department of Planning, Public Policy & Management, and the Master's Degree Program in Conflict and Dispute Resolution to work in cross-disciplinary teams to provide critical support to nonprofit organizations.

The focus of the student groups is to help nonprofits – particularly board members – "professionalize" themselves.

Working under the supervision of faculty and experienced, professional nonprofit consultants, students evaluate the governance practices and structures of several nonprofits. These "organizational health assessments" (provided free of charge) are presented to the board and staff at a meeting where the students facilitate the organization in prioritizing from among their recommendations. "We aim to help the Boards take action,” says Dohrn. "We don’t want these reports to end up on the shelf."

"Many organizations are operating on fumes," says Dohrn. "Especially in these tough times when they are being asked to do more with less. Dedicated staff, board members and volunteers generally prioritize accomplishing their next task over taking a little time to step back and evaluate what they need to keep their organizations healthy and viable. Our project provides the chance for nonprofits to invest in their future. The need for the Nonprofit Clinic’s work has never been greater."

In addition to satisfying her hunger for helping nonprofit organizations, her role as clinic director allows her to work with students — something she relishes. Dohrn enjoys passing on what she has learned as a manager at nonprofits.

"I love teaching, supporting, mentoring and supervising future nonprofit leaders," she remarks. "It's tremendously rewarding to be at this law school and to work with this clinic’s students as well as its clients."

Eyeing the future, Dohrn hopes to grow the clinic, to offer additional services to clients and to serve the clients for a longer duration. She is presently adding a training component to the next clinic intended to give past and current nonprofits free access to a series of group trainings for their boards and staff. Her hope is that, someday, advanced students might organize and facilitate such programs.

"Organizations have found our work very valuable, so I would like to be able to serve them longer. Perhaps we will even expand to help folks looking to establish nonprofits," Dohrn notes.

She gives a great deal of credit to Oregon Law Professor Susan Gary and Professor Renee Irvin, who directs the Graduate Program in Nonprofit Management in the Department of Planning, Public Policy, and Management. Together, the two professors identified a need for the clinic and worked together to establish the nation's first interdisciplinary nonprofit clinic housed within a law school. Dohrn also gives credit to Carrie Heltzel, director for the Oregon Office for Community Dispute Resolution.

"The tireless work of Susan, Renee and Carrie has laid a foundation for success for the Nonprofit Clinic," said Dohrn. "I am extremely grateful for their vision and perseverance."

Dohrn, who lived in New York City for 29 years, was in search of a different kind of life when she arrived in Eugene. She said Eugene's landscape, plus being a university town, fit a lot of what she was looking for. As she learned more about Oregon, she saw how important the Nonprofit Clinic is to the fabric of the community.

"The work of nonprofits is an essential thread in the fabric of the Oregon community," Dohrn observes. "It is a key part of how communities in the state are built. I am thankful to the individuals who identified the need for the Nonprofit Clinic and began its work, and for those with whom I work to forward its mission."

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