Thursday, January 8, 2015

I was asked to respond to a series of questions about philanthropic and investment needs in my area. Here are the questions, followed by my answers:

1.       What are the top Lending, Investing and Giving opportunities?
2.       What are the pressing issues in the community? What has changed from last year and how can we be more responsive?
3.       What are the emerging needs/trends within the broad issue areas: such as Affordable Housing, Workforce Development, Education, Neighborhood Preservation, Health/Human Services – Critical Needs?
4.       Are there certain issues [survey sponsor] is or can be addressing through volunteerism? Please give examples. 
5.       Are  Nonprofit Board memberships, VITA, Financial Literacy in Schools (youth) and for Adults important needs in your community. Please specify which ones.
6.       Do the Bank of America Nonprofit Impact Series webinars and Connect to Own webinars (which provides nonprofit capacity building training to assist nonprofits) address community needs? If you are unaware of these webinars, do you see a need/added benefit for them in your community? How can [survey sponsor] complement these efforts?

My answers:

1.       Downtowns are making a comeback, and that trend presents some investing and lending opportunities. The city of Wilson, with some private investment partners, has recently rehabbed two downtown commercial buildings into residential lofts. These projects are rentals, but similar projects could be created with owner-occupied condominiums. Similarly, older residences in the downtown perimeter could be a good investment for lenders willing to be flexible with buyers interested in renovating older homes. By doing this, neighborhoods could be stabilized and residential decay could be stanched. Giving opportunities abound in this same downtown area. Historic preservation organizations and low-income housing nonprofits, such as Habitat for Humanity, can encourage redevelopment of older neighborhoods. Donations to these nonprofits can create a symbiotic relationship with investment strategies in the same area.
2.       The largest impediment to economic growth and success, in my opinion, is the low level of education in too many eastern North Carolina counties. Lack of education and social skills present an insurmountable barrier to good jobs. Too many eastern North Carolina families suffer from multi-generational aversion to education. Parents who did not have a good public school experience will not encourage their children to study and work hard. They will not push their children to learn; the parents may even harbor hostility toward teachers and other authority figures, and this hostility is passed down to the children. Single-parent families tend to exacerbate these problems because of the lack of a loving authority figure and the inconsistencies and uncertainties related to coming and going of adult males in the home. Bringing stability to children can be a first step in breaking this cycle, but greater efforts are needed to improve parenting skills and raise the priority for education. Since last year, home construction and renovations have picked up. If this activity can be routed to help low-income families through lower-cost home ownership, the impact can be long-lasting.
3.        The trendiest concern in the community seems to be hunger in children, but I question the validity or at least the urgency of this issue. Advocates cite statistics about “food insecurity,” a term too vague to track with any certainty. Federal SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, previously known as food stamps) provides food assistance to millions. Some surely slip through the cracks, but I do not think the need is as great as the publicity this issue receives would imply. Education and affordable housing, it seems to me, are more urgent and carry the possibility of long-term solutions rather than just supplying the next meal. Historic preservation can work in conjunction with affordable housing efforts if underused or abandoned structures are renovated as affordable housing. I don’t question the need for crisis assistance of various types, but I think the best philanthropic investment will be in long-term solutions to deeply rooted problems.
4.       Every nonprofit needs volunteers. [Survey sponsor] can create a culture of volunteerism and encourage employees to volunteer in a variety of different ways, getting employees (who may already volunteer) to work outside their comfort zone. Any volunteering is valuable. Volunteering that alters the lives of the volunteers and the clients is the best of all.
5.       Our community is fortunate to have many committed nonprofit board members, but it can always use others with different skills and ideas. Financial literacy education is needed in schools and among adults as well. In my career, I hired many young college graduates who had a degree and good skills but had little concept of what it meant to live on a budget, pay taxes and save for the future. Financial literacy is a needed course of study in both elementary and secondary education. Financial literacy is also a crying need in the adult population, especially the lower-income population. An example: an applicant for low-cost housing explained that her biweekly paycheck is electronically deposited into her bank account. The day the money hits the bank, she goes to the bank, takes out all the money in cash and carries it around in her purse, paying bills in cash until the next paycheck. She saw nothing wrong with her system, which is not uncommon. Many adults do not understand interest rates, savings accounts, or how to keep track of their money. Smarter financial decision-making could boost the entire economy.
6.       Frankly, I have not found the [survey sponsor] webinars particularly valuable. Because they are aimed at such a broad audience, and my situation is somewhat unusual because our nonprofit is so small.

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