Armstrong Teasdale Provides Critical Legal Support to The Blessing Basket Project, Lex Mundi's Pro Bono Foundation Shares in Email Newsletter

October 1, 2014 Firm News

The below article was sent via email to Lex Mundi member firms as their Pro Bono Foundation continues to collect and share human interest stories that highlight how member​ firms are supporting leading social entrepreneurs globally with critical pro bono legal support. 

Armstrong Teasdale Provides Critical Legal Support to The Blessing Basket Project: Firm is Key Partner for Organization Dedicated to Alleviating Poverty

The Blessing Basket Project is a nonprofit organization based in the U.S. that works with about 2,000 weavers in seven developing countries, helping them rise out of poverty through empowered entrepreneurship. The organization aims to reduce poverty in developing countries through a Prosperity Wages® model, a unique poverty reduction method that pays artisans for their products. This innovative financial system creates a cycle of entrepreneur-driven growth that supports lasting financial independence for artisans.

The earnings artisans receive through the Prosperity Wage model are substantially higher than fair trade wages, sometimes reaching six times as much. Artisans are free to utilize profits however they see fit and most use the new income to create various small businesses which further their sustainable independence. The results of Blessing Basket’s Prosperity Wages have been so effective that the University of Wisconsin Madison and Washington University St. Louis have studied this work as part of their poverty alleviation research.

Even large corporations have taken note of Blessing Basket’s model and success. Blessing Basket has partnered with Whole Foods Market stores nationally, which are now the largest retailers of its artisan crafts. In addition, Whole Foods assisted the organization in opening the Doone Girl’s School in the Upper East of Ghana, the first and only girls’ primary and junior high school in the region. Blessing Basket has also collaborated with AT&T to help supply women in developing countries with communication technology. The work of the Blessing Basket alongside these powerful partners has impacted thousands of lives globally.

However, Theresa Carrington, Founder and Executive Director of Blessing Basket, asserts that the most important partnership for Blessing Basket has been with Armstrong Teasdale LLP , Lex Mundi’s member firm for Missouri. Armstrong Teasdale created the legal structure which facilitated Blessing Basket’s creation and expansion. The firm also assisted them through many other legal challenges that would have otherwise prevented the organization from fostering global change.

The ongoing legal support relationship began in 2008 when newly-founded Blessing Basket discovered that a contractor had stolen $3,000. The organization needed to take legal action but could not afford an attorney. Armstrong Teasdale stepped in and filed a civil lawsuit against the contractor and company responsible for the misallocation of funds. Blessing Basket Project won the judgment and, more importantly, Carrington states, “This ruling set the precedent that Blessing Basket has a zero tolerance policy for the misappropriation of funds and marked the establishment of a powerful alliance between Armstrong Teasdale and Blessing Basket.”

Since 2008, Armstrong Teasdale has provided ongoing pro bono support to Blessing Basket on a breadth of legal issues. The firm has filed dozens of trademarks on the nonprofit’s behalf as well as counseled them on a number of employment issues. Armstrong Teasdale frequently examines the organization’s corporate records and documents to make certain that they are in order. Throughout this work, Carrington emphasizes that not only does the firm thoroughly and expediently work through these legal issues, but they also make an effort to advise and educate Carrington and her staff to ensure they have an informed understanding of the legal matters in question, a testament to “the real partnership element of our relationship,” said Carrington.

Several years ago, the Blessing Basket Project faced a serious obstacle when a shipment from Bangladesh came in and was completely destroyed with water and mold. The shipment was estimated to contain about $25,000 worth of artisan crafts and placed Blessing Basket volunteers at risk of mold related illnesses. The delivery could not be salvaged so the organization began the process of an insurance claim. The impact of the destroyed shipment was felt across the entire organization as the $25,000 in losses meant that they could no longer order as many products as intended from other parts of the world. When it seemed that the nonprofit was on the verge of losing the insurance claim, they contacted Armstrong Teasdale for assistance. Within weeks, the firm was able get the previously unresponsive insurance company in motion and shortly thereafter the entire $25,000 in damages was restored. Carrington attributes this turn around entirely to Armstrong Teasdale’s diligence and reputation.

When Blessing Basket moved its headquarters to another jurisdiction, Armstrong Teasdale supported Blessing Basket with lease negotiations, contract reviews, and business counseling on the value of a more visible location in St. Louis that resulted in significantly more volunteers for the organization, enabling them to generate greater impact. What the organization did not realize, however, was that moving across state lines as a nonprofit created problems related to their federal tax-exempt status. To maintain that 501(c)(3) status, Armstrong Teasdale assisted them with incorporation as a Missouri nonprofit. The organization had an extremely small window of time to fill out a new IRS 1023 Form. Panicked, Carrington contacted Armstrong Teasdale and the firm’s attorneys calmly and quickly took care of the problem and Blessing Basket maintained its tax-exempt status.

Armstrong Teasdale also played a critical role in reviewing and negotiating contracts between Blessing Basket and Whole Foods. The firm walked Carrington and her colleagues through every aspect of the contract, located potential vulnerabilities, and refined the agreement so that the nonprofit felt comfortable signing. Since this initial contract, the organization’s partnership has grown tremendously. Blessing Baskets are now sold in over 170 Whole Foods stores nationwide.

Most recently, the Blessing Basket team has been collaborating with Armstrong Teasdale on patenting their groundbreaking poverty reduction technology called the Artisan Selector Model. This artisan selection portal allows the organization to make informed decisions on which artisans they select to participate in their program. The organization is extremely selective when choosing artisans because they want to be certain that they choose individuals who will become micro-entrepreneurs, capable of independence from their participation. Blessing Basket has been developing this criterion for almost a decade, learning exactly what makes perfect Blessing Basket entrepreneurs. As Carrington describes, the normal standard for international aid has typically been a “come one, come all” model, but at Blessing Basket, they firmly believe that “in order to be the most effective, you have to be the most selective” because artisans themselves are the true change-makers and precipitators of widespread impact in their communities. In addition to fueling the technology that creates the basis for artisan selection, the patent on the Blessing Basket’s selection model also addresses the issue of sustainably exiting from development work, which has consistently been one of the greatest underlying challenges in the area of poverty alleviation. Carrington explains that the patent has been a critical component to Blessing Basket’s work because it allows the organization to share its innovations with the world for free while ensuring that the core concepts will be utilized exactly as intended through the backing of the patent.

Armstrong Teasdale has donated the equivalent of over a quarter of a million dollars in services to Blessing Basket. “All of the firm’s work has taken an enormous burden off my shoulders and allowed the Blessing Basket Project to focus on its mission, affecting thousands of people across the globe,” said Carrington. Armstrong Teasdale has truly helped the Blessing Basket Project to combat poverty and generate impact worldwide.