Philanthropy Sector Holds Surprising Opportunities for GCs

A conversation with Nishka Chandrasoma, Ford Foundation

As vice president, secretary, and general counsel for the Ford Foundation, Nishka Chandrasoma navigates evolving rules and compliance obligations facing the nonprofit arena. She shares insights on ways to stay relevant and opportunities that law professionals can find in that sector.

What would you characterize as the most challenging legal issues in dealing with grants and investments across a range of different overseas jurisdictions?

The Ford Foundation is a proudly global organization that values the international presence we have through our 10 regional offices, some of which have been operational since the 1950s.

We believe that local expertise is key to achieving the kind of social justice impact we seek. But it does add legal and operational complexity. Just keeping track of labor laws, banking regulations, and the like in several overseas jurisdictions is extremely challenging for a small legal department. We rely heavily on strong partnerships with our regional offices and specialized local counsel and other experts.

One of the most challenging aspects has been adapting to expanding regulation of our sector in many of the regions where we work. Several countries have adopted new laws in recent years regulating local nonprofits or foreign grantmaking institutions, which has increased compliance requirements for us and our grantees. It is an entirely new horizon and we are adjusting our operating model accordingly.

Many of our peers have shuttered their international offices in response and instead make grants from headquarters without an in-country office, or work through intermediaries. But our view is that what we gain from having that local knowledge is worth the additional complexity. And we embrace the need to make the case to regulators in each of these countries that we are respectful of local laws, and that we make positive contributions to that country and region.

This is a complex undertaking, but navigating these new rules in a changing landscape in close concert with my colleagues and local legal experts is one of the most intellectually challenging and rewarding aspects of my job.

What have you found to be the most satisfying aspects, from a legal perspective, of working in the nonprofit sector?

There are many satisfying aspects, but chief among them is the premium placed on integrity within the sector. All of our peer and grantee institutions recognize the importance of compliance, and the legal teams take seriously our responsibility in stewarding charitable assets and protecting against reputational risk.

There is also an enormous amount of trust and transparency within our community, and no sense of competition — if one of us has solved a difficult problem or learned of a new regulatory requirement that has implications for all of us, we let each other know immediately and come up with solutions together. It is very effective, and fulfilling, to work in that collaborative way with our peer foundations.

There is also so much innovation within philanthropy at the moment. I’m grateful to work for a president, Darren Walker, who is constantly reworking the playbook of what is possible.

There is greater emphasis on harnessing the power of collaboration with other funders in projects like the Detroit Grand Bargain, the Art for Justice Fund, and other groundbreaking efforts to pool funds to address major societal challenges. To be a part of those discussions when the idea is still in incubation and help them move to reality is quite satisfying.

What are some trends you are seeing in your sector that have an impact on the legal function?

One huge change is the proliferation of new types of grantmaking vehicles that are not structured as tax-exempt private foundations or charitable trusts and instead deploy a combination of entities (LLCs, 501(c)(3)s, 501(c)(4)s, and so forth).

Their donors have chosen to forego some of the benefits of tax exemption in exchange for the ability to use several tools and approaches, including legislative and political advocacy, which are generally off limits for a 501(c)(3) private foundation like Ford.

This is definitely the vanguard and it is really exciting to witness. But at the same time, I have to admit that I am grateful to work at a legacy institution with one entity and some fairly black-and-white rules about what we can and can’t do!

With this increase in philanthropy and new vehicles for giving comes a need for lawyers who understand this sector and are trained on the issues, and that is a challenge given that this is a niche practice. I fell into being a tax-exempt organizations lawyer because I wanted to be a public interest lawyer but had too much law school debt; this was a practice that allowed me to work at a firm but for clients who were doing good for the world.

I discovered the practice by chance and most law students have no idea this is something they could do with their life. I hope that in the years ahead I can do more outreach to law schools and firms to encourage more people to consider a career in nonprofit law and working in the philanthropic sector. It is an incredibly rewarding field with an increasing number of positions to fill.

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