New prescription for social ills

By Barbara Goodmon

North Carolina, and millions of its most vulnerable citizens, are suffering. Urgent and growing social problems have gone begging too long because our leaders refuse to address ineffective public policies.

To fix what is wrong in our state, we have to change those policies, and we have to work together to do it.

In his January 6 column in The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., Rick Martinez bungled state budget numbers in an effort to say we’re paying too much to help our poorest, neediest citizens. Yet the numbers he quoted paint the wrong picture because many of those dollars fund programs for all our citizens, not just the poor. (See the NC Policy Watch column by Chris Fitzsimon in the Philanthropy Journal.)

But regardless of how much is spent, I believe programs and services for our struggling brothers and sisters, and sons and daughters, are a critical investment, one that pays off economically by lifting the tide for all us, and morally by caring for those in need.

Clearly more money is needed for a broad range of causes, but there will never be enough.  Only changes in public policy, the laws and rules governing our state, will bring about the substantial and lasting change our state needs.

To get that done, we have to call into action our philanthropic sector, a resource with money, voice and influence, to lend its considerable weight to the fight.  Foundations need to fund the nonprofits on the front lines and, perhaps more importantly, they need to put aside timidity, band together and push for real and lasting change.

Philanthropy traditionally has contributed private dollars to help the poor and needy and to enrich communities through education and cultural activities.

But it must do more than that. While foundations can and should put their dollars to work by supporting critical programs including health and human services, education, economic development and the arts, they must do more.

They need to use their substantial influence to address the causes of suffering, the underlying public policies that allow that suffering to continue and worsen, and they must build up the nonprofits that daily work to alleviate that suffering.

The A.J. Fletcher Foundation, long a generous supporter of the arts, is expanding its focus to bring people and groups together to fight for public policy change.

We still make grants supporting a broad range of vital programs, but we’re also strengthening the entire nonprofit sector.  Through the Philanthropy Journal, which provides online news and information to nonprofits, and the new Institute for Nonprofits at N.C. State University that is preparing a new generation of nonprofit leaders, we’re helping nonprofits think and act for themselves, raise their voices to call attention to what is wrong, and team up to push for change.

We’re also working for large-scale policy change and encouraging our peers in philanthropy to join us.  Together, we will convince state government to lift its head above the gridlock and support innovative initiatives that do more than slap band-aids on deeply rooted, interconnected problems.

The state Legislature, for example, gives $3 million a year to the North Carolina Housing Trust Fund, which invests in affordable housing not only for our neediest citizens, but for people like nurses, public school teachers, firefighters and police, who keep our communities safe and healthy, but still can’t afford their own home.

That’s mere pennies compared to what some states invest.  And it falls far short of the actual need, about 2 million people who can’t afford a decent, safe place to live.  So we’re asking lawmakers to increase that to $50 million a year.  Not only will that investment help 6,000 families each year, it will create 3,000 new jobs annually and pump more than $30 million in tax revenue into our economy every year.

Increasing funding for isolated programs like homelessness, hunger, disease, family abuse and drug addiction, while needed, must be part of a larger solution.

Politicians, afraid of being voted out of office by tax-phobic constituents, can’t do it by themselves.  Foundations and nonprofits have to buck up and help.

It’s time to try something new – a call to action to unleash the power, influence and innovation of philanthropy to bring about the policy change we desperately need.

Barbara Goodmon is president of the A.J. Fletcher Foundation, which publishes the Philanthropy Journal.

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