Justice Center gears up

By Ret Boney

As the N.C. Justice Center continues its search for a new leader, a push for a higher profile and a broader base of support is on the horizon, its leaders say.

While leaders and funders in the progressive policy community say the direction of the liberal advocacy organization is on track, they agree the appointment of a new executive director is an opportunity to strengthen the work the center does on behalf of North Carolina’s poorest citizens.

“We’ve got to do a better job communicating what the progressive agenda is to the everyday person in this state,” says Reuben Blackwell, co-chair of the center’s board and president and CEO of Rocky Mount-based nonprofit OIC Inc.  “We want to ensure that our policy is clearly communicated to the folks that elect our representatives.”

The center, founded a decade ago to fight poverty across North Carolina through research and advocacy, is in the process of hiring an executive director after its former head, Rhonda Raney, resigned in July.

Getting the word out about the center’s progressive agenda is particularly important now, says Blackwell, given what he characterizes as the well-crafted but misguided messages coming from conservatives.

“We have a new tradition of an increasingly-growing conservative voice that makes complex issues simple and makes people think that what’s really bad for them is good for them,” he says.  “The Justice Center brings the facts and makes them easy to understand for anyone.”

The Justice Center hopes to have its new executive director on board early next year to lead the charge, says Blackwell.

Debra Tyler-Horton, interim executive director, says the center in a solid position, with an annual budget of about $2.4 million and 27 staffers.

While its financial footing is strong, she says, the center could benefit from supplementing foundation grants, which make up the bulk of its funding, with support from individuals both inside and outside the Triangle.

Over the past several months, the center has built its communications and fundraising capacity through the hire of an editor and development director.

Barbara Goodmon, president of the A.J. Fletcher Foundation, which has funded the Justice Center for the past three years and publishes the Philanthropy Journal, says the group needs a leader with vision and leadership ability.

“It must be someone who is out there across the state, telling the story, making new contacts, developing more partnerships and getting more donors,” she says.  “They do unbelievable work, but they neither have the time nor inclination to talk about what they do.”

The center also must work to create a board of directors with fundraising heft, says Goodmon, as opposed one that serves primarily in an advisory role.

Rob Schofield, director of research and policy for NC Policy Watch, a progressive state government watchdog group that also is a program of the A.J. Fletcher Foundation, urges the group to stick close to its roots.

“It has been successful because it is an anti-poverty advocacy organization first and foremost,” says Schofield, the group’s former policy director. “There’s a danger in expanding its mission too much beyond that.  More of the same would be pretty darn good.”

Goodmon agrees.

“I think they are right on it,” she says.  “They have their finger on the pulse of the issues that are the most pressing in the state.”

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