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Partnering for a Brighter Future: How Sidley Works With Pro Bono Client Helena to Tackle Global Issues


Mission-driven organization Helena is busy disrupting the way society has approached its most complex problems. Harnessing the backgrounds of its accomplished members — among them Nobel laureates, four-star generals, and social activists — the five-year-old nonprofit has already successfully engineered global projects addressing climate change, democratic reform, and infrastructure security.

So when COVID-19 began wreaking havoc around the country, Helena’s team didn’t hesitate to enter the fight to save lives, partnering with a team of Sidley’s lawyers, led by David Grinberg, to help them navigate uncharted legal territory. Executive Director and COO Sam Feinburg reached out to Helena’s network, and within two days tracked down several hundred million units of personal protective equipment (PPE), such as masks, gloves, and gowns.

As was tragically the case with others in similar pursuit around the country, various types of profiteers intercepted some of the PPE orders Helena had placed. In other instances, the orders became mired in bureaucracy, preventing them from reaching hospitals and first responders. True to form, Helena designed a way to entirely bypass those obstructions by raising $19 million to purchase medical supplies directly, beating nefarious actors seeking to sell it at the highest price. The organization then re-sells the equipment at cost and efficiently routes it to medical providers.

To make sure the PPE made it into the right hands, Helena also created a brand new digital platform, the COVID Network. The Network tracks thousands of hospitals and nursing homes across the country and maps their demand for supplies against local factors like the poverty rate and prevalence of co-morbidities. Helena — and users of their platform like the U.S. Army and Air Force — then use this data to help decide where to send supplies.

We recently caught a few minutes with Feinburg to find out more about Helena’s history of tackling pressing social issues and how, together with Sidley, they are effecting meaningful change with the COVID-19 Response Project.

What inspired the creation of Helena?

My friend and classmate at Yale, Henry Elkus, came up with this incredible idea to build an institution that has the ability to move the needle on the world and help solve important problems. There are gaping holes in society’s response to major events, and there is a need for new types of institutions to be able to meet them. We are very proud of the progress we’ve made.

Through our COVID-19 Response Project, we have distributed almost 20 million units of PPE to frontline workers, including an order that I’m told was the first batch of surgical masks that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs was able to receive.

When your team began developing the project, what legal concerns were top of mind?

Here we are in an emergency situation, buying and shipping medical supplies and signing up government entities onto a platform that matches medical needs in real time. We have no idea what type of liability this opens us up to, what kind of data privacy and protection provisions we should have in place. Sidley helped us understand the regulatory limits, the types of supplies we should avoid purchasing and how to structure the purchasing, as well as the types of agreements we should sign with hospitals and suppliers.

What made Sidley the right choice to work with Helena?

We had worked with other pro bono law firms in the past, and there is a marked difference in terms of the seriousness with which Sidley takes the work, the quality and rigor of response, and the caliber of people who are our points of contact. That means an enormous amount.

Within hours of our first email to David Grinberg about the COVID project, we were on the phone with a dozen Sidley partners from a variety of subject-matter areas across the country who were incredibly responsive and gave high-quality answers to every single one of our questions.

Can you talk a bit about Helena’s other projects and how they have made an impact?

Absolutely; our first project supported the launch of the world’s first-ever carbon capture factory to suck CO2 out of the atmosphere and trap it underground in a way that’s economically viable.

Our next project, “Shield,” addressed the fragility of the electrical grid and its vulnerability to failure due to cyber attack and solar weather. We helped pass legislation in California and an executive order federally to improve the protection of the grid.

In 2019, Helena’s “America in One Room” project brought together 526 people from across the country with wildly opposing political beliefs that ended up being an unprecedented moment in American political science. We held three days of dialogue to demonstrate that even people from the most diametrically opposed backgrounds can change their opinions when given the opportunity to have deliberate discussion, and released the resulting data to the world, including in a special section of The New York Times.

How do you anticipate the COVID project will evolve in the months ahead?

It seems that we are far from out of the woods yet. There are likely to be continued PPE shortages and a second wave of infections, especially as we see variances in how states choose to reopen and in how people practice social distancing and other behaviors that slow the spread of disease. Our goal is to expand adoption of the COVID Network to get more hospitals, suppliers, and spotters onto the platform, so that when the second wave comes and shortages persist, we can respond as effectively as possible.

While we’ve been working our butts off to try and get supplies to hospitals as quickly as we could, having the support from a firm with not only expertise in multiple legal areas, but also the speed and responsiveness to spring into action across every single one of those areas has been a complete godsend. We are deeply grateful for Sidley’s support.