Grants to non-profits part of a ‘larger mission’

By Melissa Birks
At a time when the recession bites the legal industry like every other, Bryan Schwartz recognizes the tendency to question how law firms can cut staff on one hand and give to charities on another.

In fact, Levenfeld Pearlstein, where Schwartz is chairman, has suffered layoffs in recent years. But through its Corporate Contributions Program, the firm last month awarded $50,000 in grants to two Chicago community organizations.

The firm’s commitment to charitable giving, Schwartz said, is not in opposition to operating a firm in difficult times but in synch with it. That commitment is also a “personal passion” for Schwartz and part of a larger firm mission.

“That’s the difference between a strategy and a fad. One might ask how you can let people go on one hand and give to charity on the other. The answer is that’s who we are,” Schwartz said.

And Levenfeld is not alone, Schwartz said, explaining that the companies large and small have embraced the drive toward what’s called “corporate social responsibility,” or CSR, at least since the new millennium. He points to corporations like Wal-Mart, Starbucks, and Coca-Cola among those that incorporate the model into their culture.

The corporate social responsibility model requires that corporations embed their efforts into their brand.

“One, we want to identify the good things we do with who we are as a firm and, two, we want to put pressure on other law firms and businesses to do what we’re doing, and have employees ask, ‘Why aren’t we doing that?’” Schwartz said.

Levenfeld has espoused corporate social responsibility since 2006, when it launched sustainability efforts to create a clean and safe environment and reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. Today, the firm follows a detailed “green initiative checklist,” which includes, among other things, eliminating disposable cups in favor of reusable glasses and mugs.

“It’s simple stuff. Is that in itself going to make a dent? No, but by telling one person, who tells another person, who tells another person … that little step forward is enormous. So we look at ourselves as small but mighty,” Schwartz said of the 50-lawyer firm.

Since 2007, the firm has been awarding grants annually to qualified Chicago agencies that “incubate ideas, revitalize communities and reform the systems that affect the lives, well-being and economic opportunity of our community,” according to the firm Web site.

The two grants announced recently include $30,000 to the Erie Family Health Center and $20,000 to the Greater Chicago Food Depository.

This is the third year that Levenfeld has supported Erie’s school-based clinic at Ryerson Elementary School, which serves some of Chicago’s lowest-income communities.  The grant will fully fund the continuation of integrated mental health services, community, and education programs, providing students with direct access to mental health services.

This is the first year that the firm’s grant-making program has supported the food depository,  a non-profit food distribution and training center providing food for hungry people. Grant applications are reviewed regularly, Schwartz said.

“If you don’t make it a part of your strategy, it becomes a fad. And so I know that what we’ve done here has impacted plenty of people,” he said.

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