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In 1998, billionaire philanthropist George Soros approached the National Association for Public Interest Law about setting up a matching fund for NAPIL’s then-fledgling fellowship program. Soros offered to grant the D.C.-based public interest group $3 million to go toward fellowships for law school graduates who work in the public interest sector. The plan was simple: Find a corporate donor to pick up half the cost of placing a fellow in the field for two years, and Soros’ fund would match the pledge dollar-for-dollar. The plan was approved. NAPIL’s fellowship program has since grown from about two dozen fellows in 1997 to a virtual army of 138 public interest fellows today. By all accounts, the program has been an overwhelming success — now, it seems, too much of a success. This year, NAPIL received so many pledges from law firms and other corporate donors from around the country that it exhausted the $3 million in the Soros matching fund. Not only that, but NAPIL had already accepted additional pledges of more than $800,000 dollars that it could not match. Many of the donors have since rescinded their pledges rather than join a waiting list for matching money. But NAPIL, partly by pairing up some of the extra pledges, has been able to find matching grants for approximately half of the extra $800,000 that was pledged. NAPIL has set a June 30 deadline to round up donors to match the $400,000, and fears it will lose a golden opportunity to sponsor deserving programs. “We have law firms and corporations that are willing to fund these programs,” says Lori Grange, who directs the fellowships for NAPIL. “They’re on board and they’re eager, and we don’t have the last element to make it happen.” “What this means,” she adds, “is that organizations that put together good proposals won’t be able to carry out these projects.” NAPIL fellowships are founded in two ways. Law school graduates who design a proposal can team up with a nonprofit or public interest group and submit the idea to NAPIL. If it is approved, NAPIL will find a corporate sponsor, generally a law firm or corporation, to split the cost. The Soros fund then matches the contribution for the two-year duration of the fellowship. In other instances, public interest organizations themselves put forth a proposal to NAPIL outlining a specific program. Once NAPIL approves the measure and a corporate sponsor is found, NAPIL goes about finding a qualified fellow. The overall cost of sponsoring a fellow for a two-year program is $88,000. But with the matching contribution, donors pay just half of that amount. The money goes toward paying the fellow’s salary, usually $28,000 to $32,500, depending on the location of the project. Other money goes toward defraying law school loans. David Stern, NAPIL’s executive director, hopes that any fellowship sponsors denied funding this year will apply again next year, when the Soros match will drop to $2.5 million. Stern says he is looking for new sources of funding. “We’re looking to see how to make this sustainable beyond Soros,” he says.

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