Marty Ellin (left) and Jamie Theriot, (Courtesy photos) Marty Ellin of Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation (left) and Jaime Theriot of Troutman Sanders(Courtesy photos)

An anonymous donor has offered Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation a major $500,000 grant to start a $1 million reserve fund—if the group raises another $500,000 to match.

Troutman Sanders is the first law firm to step up, pledging $50,000 to kick-start the matching campaign.

“Troutman Sanders recognizes the importance of providing financial support to enable AVLF to do its amazing work,” said Troutman partner Jaime Theriot, a member of AVLF’s board. “We wanted to step up our level of support—and there is no better time than now.”

Another Troutman lawyer, Katie Balthrop, is on the group’s junior board, while Troutman lawyers volunteer their services through AVLF’s flagship Saturday Lawyer program that uses lawyers from the private bar to help clients with landlord-tenant matters, unpaid wage claims and other legal problems.

The legal nonprofit has been a training ground for generations of young Atlanta lawyers since it launched 40 years ago to provide legal representation and wraparound services to low-income Atlantans who can’t afford a lawyer but don’t qualify for assistance from Atlanta Legal Aid.

“We have a one-time shot to have a reserve that we’ve never had before,” said AVLF’s executive director, Marty Ellin.

The donor, an Atlanta legal community member who told the Daily Report he didn’t want to be identified, said in an interview that he will match dollar for dollar, up to $500,000. He has given AVLF until the end of September to match. “I hope they raise a lot more,” he said.

AVLF should have a $1 million “rainy day” reserve fund to backstop the grants for programs and operating funds that it must raise each year, the donor said.

“Every year they start over [with fundraising]—but whether it’s a good year or a bad year, they have these programs in place to support,” he added. “They need a rainy day fund that allows them, whatever the cycle is, to have a long-range plan.”

For AVLF, which has a $3.75 million annual budget, $1 million is a significant sum.

The bulk of its budget comes from grants made by foundations, government agencies and individuals to fund specific programs, such as the Safe Families Office for domestic violence victims.

AVLF’s grant-funding—and the programs they support—have “exploded” over the last few years, Ellin said, going from $300,000 in 2015 to more than $2 million because of innovative, effective programs like Standing With Our Neighbors, which has attracted national media attention.

That initiative started in 2016 to address housing problems for low-income students that affect their school performance. It embeds AVLF staff lawyers and social workers in public schools to help students’ families obtain repairs from negligent landlords and stave off eviction. Lawyers from Troutman and eight other large firms have pitched in. The program, which has significantly reduced school dropout rates, has attracted funding from more than 15 foundations.

But success comes with its own problems. The grants are restricted to funding program personnel only, Ellin said, and they don’t cover support staff and overhead, like rent and computers. “We need operating revenue to make the programs work,” he said.

The legal nonprofit started an annual campaign last year to raise operating funds instead of relying on its top fundraiser, the AVLF Winetasting. That event, held every November, has been its primary source of operating funds for more than two decades.

The annual campaign that launched last year exceeded its $850,000 goal, Ellin said, raising $975,000, and he aims to raise $1 million this year. (The popular Winetasting is now an event to reward annual campaign donors.)

But the donor, who met Ellin through the annual campaign, told him the organization needed a “rainy day” reserve fund—and made the $500,000 challenge grant. With Troutman’s contribution in hand, AVLF has now launched the matching campaign.

“He likened AVLF to a treadmill,” Ellin said. “He said: Right now you are strong and picking up speed—but at some point, it’s going to break, like every machine does. When it does, you need to have some money in reserve to fix it.”

The donor, in an interview, said there are two reasons he and his wife are offering such a large sum: “AVLF is where young lawyers can go and hone their skills and do good for the community,” he said. “And we’ve made a lot of money in this community, and we want to give back.”

“When I leave this earth and meet my maker, he is not going to ask me how much better I could have done for me,” he added.