David Heinen, Vice President for Public Policy and Advocacy, North Carolina Center for Nonprofits
Earlier this year, the Center organized a series of Nonprofit Town Hall meetings around the state. These meetings – in Fayetteville, Charlotte, Winston-Salem, Greensboro, Jacksonville, Research Triangle Park, and Asheville – gave nonprofits an opportunity to connect with elected officials, learn about nonprofit sector trends and policy issues, and share their concerns about how the current political climate may affect their organizations.
Insights From Elected Officials
We began the town halls by reminding the staff and board members in attendance that, as nonpartisan entities, nonprofits can be an important model for civility in discussing contentious policy issues. We promptly violated our own advice by talking about politics! After giving an overview of the political landscape in Washington and Raleigh – and discussing how nonprofit issues fit into the policy priorities of our national and state elected officials – we opened the floor to local elected officials. Some of their insights included:
- NC Senator Jeff Tarte (R-Mecklenburg) explained the importance of nonprofits making their voices heard with policymakers. He described good legislation as policies that: (1) have no surprises; and (2) minimize unintended consequences. Noting that nonprofits operate on tight margins and do important work, he encouraged nonprofits to provide input to policymakers about legislation that could affect their organizations and the people they serve.
- NC Senator Jeff Jackson (D-Mecklenburg) said that “Nonprofit advocates are the most bipartisan part of policy discussions,” noting that legislators across the political spectrum appreciate the work of nonprofits. He reminded nonprofits of the importance of both: (1) telling their stories effectively; and (2) showing policymakers evidence about the impact of their programs and services.
- NC Representative Evelyn Terry (D-Forsyth) and NC Representative Amos Quick (D-Guilford) both described how their experiences working with nonprofits has shaped their policy priorities.
- NC Representative John Faircloth (R-Guilford), one of the chairs of the House Appropriations Committee, explained (and then demonstrated) the importance of legislators listening carefully to insights from nonprofits as they make important funding and policy decisions.
- Julie Emmons, district director for Congressman Mark Walker (R-NC), explained that two of Congressman Walker’s top priorities this year are preserving incentives for charitable giving in tax reform and ensuring that Congress looks to cut nonprofits’ red tape as part of its regulatory reform efforts. She noted that, as chair of the Republican Study Committee, Congressman Walker has weekly meetings with House Speaker Paul Ryan.
- Senator Terry Van Duyn (D-Buncombe) described how her background in public service started with her engagement with many nonprofits in Western North Carolina. She credited Center Board member Jennie Eblen and Asheville nonprofit advocacy expert Greg Borom with teaching her how to be a strong advocate. She noted that many of her legislative goals, such as raising the minimum wage and ensuring equal pay for all workers, enhancing state nondiscrimination protections, and expanding Medicaid, are rooted in nonprofit values.
After last year’s election, the Center heard from many nonprofits that they had fears about the public policy environment. We invited participants in the town halls to articulate these fears. Some common themes were:
- As Congress looks at tax reform, many nonprofits are worried that incentives for charitable giving will be reduced.
- Nonprofits have a variety of concerns about potential changes to health care policy. Some participants expressed apprehension that the potential repeal of the Affordable Care Act, reductions in preventative health programs, and block granting of Medicaid will mean more members of their communities will be uninsured, increasing burdens on nonprofits. Many who attended the town halls said that maintaining affordable and quality health coverage for nonprofit employees has become increasingly challenging.
- Participants expressed concerns about a wide range of potential federal funding cuts, including potential reductions to affordable housing programs, domestic violence grants, food assistance and other welfare programs, national service programs, and the National Endowment for the Arts.
- There was widespread concern that proposals to politicize charitable nonprofits by repealing the so-called Johnson Amendment would have a devastating effect on nonprofits’ credibility and financial resources.
- Two overriding concerns were: (1) fear of the unknown with a new President without experience governing; and (2) fear of policy changes being made suddenly, without transparency, and without careful thought about potential unintended consequences.
Opportunities For Nonprofits
With a new President and a new Governor, there are tremendous opportunities for elected officials to take seriously policy considerations that have been largely ignored in the recent past. With this in mind, town hall participants share some potential public policy opportunities for their organizations and the nonprofit sector in 2017 and beyond. These included:
- Several participants noted that a renewed discussion of health care policy could lead to changes that could allow nonprofits to provide more affordable coverage for their employees.
- Others pointed out that the increasingly divisive political environment could lead to new efforts to move toward independent redistricting after the 2020 Census. More competitive legislative and congressional districts would make elected officials more receptive to input from nonprofits and other constituents.
- Some remarked that a bipartisan interest in improving infrastructure could help improve public resources that are important to many nonprofits – such as transportation options for seniors and individuals with disabilities – and that the recent natural disasters in North Carolina have shown more public officials the importance of the statewide 211 system that connects people in need to nonprofits.
- Several participants noted that national discussions about student debt could lead to improvements to make higher education more affordable, allowing more young people to consider careers in the nonprofit sector.
- At many of the town halls, participants described how increased demands on nonprofits have led organizations in many parts of North Carolina to work together to connect potential volunteers – including retirees, military veterans and families, and high school and college students – with nonprofits to increase organizations’ capacity to provide services.
Key Numbers From the Town Halls
Policymakers and funders often tell us that data is important. With that in mind, here are some key numbers from the town halls:
- A total of 481 people attended the seven town halls.
- 74.3% of participants were employees of nonprofits. 47.8% were board members.
- At every town hall, participants included multiple registered Democrats, Republicans, and Unaffiliated voters.
- 37.4% of participants were executive directors. Of these executive directors, 0.0% reported that they were overpaid last year!
- 83.2% of participants were able to articulate their nonprofit’s mission in 10 seconds or less. Impressively, participants from food banks could eloquently describe their organizations’ missions in an average of 6.2 seconds!
- At 85.7% of the town halls, a participant quoted Han Solo in a reasonably good Harrison Ford voice (notably, 83.3% of these were women).
- 94.7% of participants correctly identified former President Lyndon Johnson when his picture was shown. However, only 8.3% were able to identify by name current President Donald Trump when his picture was shown. Apparently leaders of North Carolina nonprofits are better versed in history than in current events!
- 34.5% of participants sat next to someone they already knew at the town hall.
- 31.7% of participants described a fear or opportunity in the current policy environment. However, despite many opportunities to do so, 0.0% chose to express their fears in the form of an interpretive dance.
- 21.4% of the statistics in this list are accurate (really!).
Check out the Nonprofit Calendar for current public policy and advocacy training.