Attorney Donations and Guidelines


Virtually every attorney or firm makes contributions of some kind. Establishing guidelines for donations, however small they may be, can increase the benefit of the donation to both the recipient and the attorney. Methods are direct donations of cash to the organization's general fund or sponsorship of an advertisement or activity that in turn supports the group.

This article discusses effective disbursement of attorney resources (time and money), value of donating cash versus the value of donating resources, and guidelines for a strong contribution policy.

For years, larger corporations have assigned professional managers to handle their charitable contribution programs. The requests are so many and the monies paid out so great that the task requires considerable attention. Some of the larger law firms are now beginning to do the same.

Attorneys and law firms are frequently sought out for charitable contributions. In larger firms, the requests are channeled through various individuals, sometimes reaching the executive committee level and sometimes paid out of department or sections budgets. In general, the activity is not well managed. Therein lies a missed opportunity for attorneys to help their overall business development efforts through a preplanned, effective charitable contribution program.

Requests for money come from many directions and there are obviously many forms that charity can take. But not all methods of community support are "cost effective" in the sense that they have a "return on investment" to the attorney in terms of goodwill and increased visibility.

It is understood that there does not have to be a "return" on every contribution. But it is possible for attorneys to manage their contributions, no matter how small, both to meet their personal needs and to support their business development effort.

Establishing policy guidelines

Before any contribution of money can be made, it is very helpful to have a contribution policy in place. A good attorney policy defines the type of organizations suitable for assistance. It places a dollar "lid" on total contributions of the budget period. A policy helps screen out numerous miscellaneous requests. It saves attorney and staff time by immediately identifying a request for funding as appropriate or not.

Policy guidelines are relatively easy to establish and difficult to maintain. By definition they are guidelines, not budgets. As requests come in, contributions are each evaluated on an individual basis to see how they fit within the guidelines. Specific line-item donations are addressed in the firm's overall marketing budget.

Even though an executive committee may embrace the concept and adopt a strict policy, in reality there will always be exceptions. Each senior partner has his or her own "pet" charity, and donations will be made to the charity whether it makes good marketing sense or not.

A large law firm hired a consultant to evaluate the firm's charitable contributions over a period of ten years and to make recommendations for future activity. The consultant understood the firm to be oriented toward new business development. At the same time, the consultant knew that senior partners had a strong personal interest in education.

Based on his research, the consultant met with the five senior partners, recommending the deletion of more than 15 organizations, each one receiving a contribution from the firm totaling $56,000 during the past year alone. From the consultant's point of view, there was no legitimate reason for continued support of the various groups. However, in a review meeting with the partners, the contribution to each group was defended by an attorney who had a special interest in the group. Ultimately, all but two of the consultant's recommendations were rejected.

The point is that even the best policies and guidelines need room for individual interests. However, they force decisions to be made regarding donation policies, decisions which are of tremendous assistance to others within larger organizations when unsolicited requests come in for funding. Good policy guidelines save considerable time by allowing administrative personnel or a managing partner confidently to reject a request before any significant time is consumed reviewing it, A contribution policy for an attorney or firm should adhere to the same general principles established for pro bono work. In other words, the contributions should be evaluated in terms of their ability to capture the attention and goodwill of clients and potential clients in the attorney's recognized areas of practice.

Strength and consistency

There are two attributes of contribution programs, whether the donations are to the operating fund or to sponsor a specific activity, that should be present for overall success. They are strength, meaning that when a group is selected for support that the attorney's contributions be significant, and consistency meaning that reliable, predictable funding of selected charities by an attorney leads to a greater impact for the program,

Some of the more successful attorney contribution programs are those that do not try to cover all the bases. They are relatively limited in their scope but deep in their penetration. This means that contributions are given to a relatively few programs and organizations but each of those is strongly supported. The decision of where to put the resources is difficult. But once the commitment is made, the resources concentrated on that one spot should be significant.

Consistency is the other major characteristic of successful contribution programs. Thoughtful, meaningful contribution programs are the offshoot of well-planned business development programs. Since both programs have long-term objectives, the best contribution programs are not flash-in-the-pan ideas. Too many law firms, having decided to contribute to a worthwhile cause, look for a charity that is "hot" this year and join hundreds of others making a donation. Long range, a more effective program is to adopt one or more charities and support them as strongly and as long as possible.


Publicity to make others aware of the attorney's donations to organizations can be worthwhile. Announcements or news releases drawing attention to the attorney's or firm's efforts, assuming they are significant, can reflect favorably on the donor and add to overall awareness and goodwill.

To achieve maximum benefit from the donation to build client good will, it is appropriate to send a letter to clients informing them of the contribution. Perhaps they can receive copies of the transmittal letter when the check is sent to the receiving group.

Publicity will also draw more requests for contributions. But those can easily be handled by establishing a standard response, either by phone or in letter form, that simply states the attorney or firm has budgeted only a certain amount for contributions in this year and that other requests that fit within the attorney's policy guidelines will be considered for next year. The person or agency requesting a donation will therefore indicate its seriousness by resubmitting a proposal for funding at a later date.

The strong, consistent approach to contributions results in a partnership being developed between attorney and recipient. This can provide significant benefits in terms of personal satisfaction and business development for years to come.

Cash donations

Contributions of cash to groups is a strong – it simple statement that the attorney or firm believes in the organization and its goals. But why not try to focus these resources on organizations that are also in keeping with the attorney's own goals? As with pro bono, a great benefit for the client-focused attorney can be attained if this effort is carried out in concert with the attorney's business development objectives.

Certainly, some money will be donated without a connection to anything-simply because it represents the personal interests of the attorney. But a good contribution program is proactive. It seeks out opportunities where the donation would not only be of value and appreciated by the recipients but also provide increased visibility and goodwill among a previously identified target audience.


Sponsorships are contributions to a group or organization which will use the money to carry out a specific activity. This differs from contributions to a "general operating fund" that the receiving organization can use for any variety of purpose it chooses. The opportunity for attorneys to build goodwill and publicity is great through sponsorships, providing they are carefully chosen. Particularly in the case of larger contributions, the benefit can be particularly effective if some sort of follow-through by the attorney occurs during the lifetime of the event. Sponsorships can range from "buying" a park bench in a downtown redevelopment project to sponsoring an entire jazz concert.

The attorney's or firm's name appears at the beginning and end of the program broadcast, with a statement acknowledging their sponsorship is not strictly called advertising, it essentially is. Only in rare cases is any substantive information provided about the firm and its areas of practice.

The value of this kind of sponsorship is remote for its potential marketing value. Like advertising, a great degree of money must be provided over a long haul to establish any significant name recognition for the firm. Also, this type of programming has a tremendous "me-too" element attached, since other professional firms do this quite frequently.

Another area of sponsorship is the purchase of advertising space in newspapers and magazines to encourage participation or recognition of a nonprofit organization. An example is a "salute to our local farmers" structured as a special section of a local newspaper or the running of an advertisement in some sort of special-event program the group is sponsoring. In general, the costs are high for this kind of "support." The dollars spent often do more to support the newspaper or the printer than they do the organization and very little is received by the needy group.

Sponsorships in both broadcast and print media must be continual to have any significant impact. In addition, there are costs for design and production of the messages related to the sponsorship, although sometimes the media will produce the advertisement at no additional charge. But as with all media-produced advertisements, there are quality issues that must be addressed.

Matching gifts program

One kind of contribution program that is being increasingly adopted by law firms is a matching gift program. This is modeled after those adopted by large corporations where the company simply matches the personal contributions of its employees, usually on a one-to-one basis.

Attorneys can include this in their own client-focused business development program by informing firm members that it matches all personal gifts to certain charities which of course are the charities the firm had already identified as appropriate for its own contribution purposes. This can have the impact of significantly increasing donations to a particular group. One law firm wished to support a nonprofit music festival. The firm had contributed $5,000 annually to the festival for many years but was considering increasing its level of support. To draw attention to its past commitments, the law firm announced, through a series of print advertisements, that it would match, on a one-to-one basis, the contributions of any individuals. The firm also announced that its own historic level of support would continue unabated.

The result ? Individual contributions increased to $3,500 that year, after averaging around $2,000 for the past few years. The law firm matched the $3,500, making its own total gift $8,500. The music festival was thrilled to have received a total of $12,000 in contributions, having averaged around $7,000 in previous years. The music group was so pleased with the law firm's matching gifts program that it took out advertisements subsequent to the festival thanking the firm for its past support.

Matching gifts also work effectively for donations to law schools. Through publicity at the law schools, it is useful as a recruiting device. Another innovative twist is to offer a matching program exclusively to clients, that is, the law firm says that it will match a client's contribution to any charity up to a certain limit.

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