Money talks: For nonprofits, doing good makes clear economic sense

As state lawmakers craft sweeping legislative changes, we urge our elected officials to consider the crucial economic and social impacts of Western North Carolina’s wide web of nonprofit services.

WNC’s 1,309 nonprofits contribute more than $2.9 billion to the state’s economy — much of it spent locally — according to the N.C. Center for Nonprofits. Statewide, nonprofits account for about one in nine jobs, the center reports. These groups help meet urgent community needs while addressing key long-term goals, and they deserve our elected representatives’ respect and investment.

The challenges facing our state and region are too big and complex for any one sector to address alone. Instead, strategic public policy, business leadership and cost-effective, independent nonprofit organizations need to work together.

Consider these key ways that local nonprofits deliver both a human-services safety net and significant economic benefits:

Supporting working families.
More than 40 percent of American women are now their family’s primary breadwinner. Hundreds of child care centers stand ready to serve the growing number of North Carolina children under age 5 while their parents access an expanding job market. But state funding for child development has dropped dramatically, and more cuts are being considered. In Buncombe County, 786 children under 5 are already on the waitlist for child care subsidies, and that list will only grow longer. Will working parents have affordable child care so they can be productive and support their families?

Improving health and reducing long-term health care costs.
Nonprofit community health centers provide thousands of low-income and disabled people with consistent preventive care — at a fraction of the cost of emergency room visits. Will North Carolina grow its health care offerings and cut ballooning medical costs by expanding federally funded Medicaid?

Building the arts economy.
Arts and culture is a $140 million industry in our region, supporting 4,655 full-time jobs, according to the 2012 Arts and Economic Prosperity study. Spending by audiences accounts for $60 million of that total, pumping vital revenue into local restaurants, hotels, stores, parking and other businesses. The result is a thriving creative economy that has significantly boosted tourism, attracted new business and provided enriching educational experiences for youth. On average, governments collect more than $7 in taxes for every $1 spent supporting the arts, a study by the National Governors Association found. Will our state invest in the arts to keep our economic engine running here in the cultural capital of Western North Carolina?

Conserving land and water.
Conservation provides long-term economic benefits while ensuring that we have places to hunt, fish and enjoy our beautiful mountains. Local nonprofits are preserving farmland, boosting the homegrown economy and helping meet the growing demand for fresh, local food. Protecting scenic views and critical wildlife habitat strengthens our tourism and outdoor recreation industries while enhancing the quality of life that brings new businesses here. Will we protect our mountain landscape and expand the local farming economy?

Reducing incarceration costs.
Putting people in prison is expensive — about $28,000 per inmate, per year. And over the next decade, the state’s prison population is predicted to increase by 50,000. Community-based, alternative sentencing lowers criminal recidivism, keeps families together and enables participants to work and contribute to the economy. State funding cuts now threaten those programs, which previously enjoyed bipartisan support due to their strong reputation for cost-effectiveness and tangible results. Will we invest in low-cost, proven rehabilitation programs or send nonviolent offenders to high-price-tag prisons?

To continue their mission of community building, local nonprofits need these commitments from our state leaders now:

• When crafting the next budget, reverse the three-year decline in state support for nonprofits. (Two-thirds of N.C. nonprofits reported cuts in state funding during this period, while 93 percent saw increased demand for services.)

• When reforming the state’s tax structure, don’t put the burden on low-income people and damage our still-fragile economy. Maintain the sales-tax exemption for nonprofits; retain incentives for charitable giving to encourage private donations.

Today’s message from Raleigh stresses efficiency and effectiveness — and when it comes to return on investment, community-based nonprofits make smart partners. Typically, these groups do a lot with a little, leverage volunteers, match public support with generous private donations, and report clear results.

Feb. 26 is N.C. Nonprofits Day in the General Assembly, when groups from across the state will visit their legislators in Raleigh. Let’s hope those lawmakers remember that it’s government’s job to determine which nonprofit programs provide the best social and economic return — and then invest in them.

— Asheville resident Kim McGuire is director of Western North Carolina Nonprofit Pathways, which provides training and support for the region’s nonprofits.

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