Duke Energy’s worrisome move to silence nonprofits

One of the most important roles that nonprofit organizations play in our society is that of values guardian. They are the places that individuals come together not only to care for one another, but also to also share, raise and amplify their voices in the public arena. They are a fundamental part of our First Amendment rights to freedom of association, freedom of speech and the ability to petition government for the redress of grievances.

That Duke Energy wants two nonprofits to have to raise $240 million to challenge it in court shows how barriers can be erected to make it difficult for nonprofits to play this vital role. NC WARN in Durham and The Climate Times in Boone want to appeal a power plant construction permit issued in March to Duke Energy Progress. But the company is invoking a 1965 North Carolina law that could require the nonprofits to post a financial bond first.

Regardless of where we as individual residents of North Carolina stand on the environmental and business interests at stake in this matter, we ought to be collectively concerned about nonprofits needing to “pay to play” when they raise their voices about public policies.

Peter Berger and Richard Neuhaus in their book, “To Empower People,” make the argument that nonprofit organizations are an important place for individuals to make sense of and interact with the large institutions and organizations of society. In addition to our families, neighborhoods and churches, nonprofits are the places where our values are formed and reinforced. They are the institutions where we join with others to express our values. They allow us to advocate for the type of community we want to be a part of. They allow us to make a difference in a world of big unwieldy governments and large profit-driven corporations that is not possible if we try to accomplish these things on our own.

The 46,837 North Carolina nonprofits (excluding hospitals and private colleges and universities, which tend to be very large and operate very differently from most nonprofits) registered with the IRS are an extremely diverse set of organizations. They include museums, youth sports leagues, soup kitchens, chambers of commerce, environmental organizations and cemeteries, among many other mission areas. Even within mission areas, you will find organizations that are pro-life and pro-choice, pro-gun control and pro-Second Amendment, pro-development and pro-conservation, plus many organizations seeking common ground on these potentially divisive issues. They truly are our laboratories of democracy.

While the nonprofit sector is diverse, most of these organizations are relatively small, especially in comparison to the size of governments and big business. Only 12,242 generate enough revenue (more than $50,000) to be required to file tax forms with the IRS. While the average revenue of this group is about $2.5 million, this number is driven by the 5 percent of these nonprofits with more than $600,000 in annual revenue. Half of these nonprofits report annual revenue of less than $226,700. These are minimal resources to engage in either service delivery or public education/advocacy, much less try to do both.

Engaging in the public policy arena is no small task for many nonprofit organizations. It requires the capacity to develop and share their expertise, the commitment to engage in the years and sometimes decadeslong processes involved in developing and implementing public policies, and the courage to educate the public and legislators about their values, knowing that this may upset some potential supporters when values clash.

In a society that professes a belief in the competition of ideas as the best way to generate better public policy, we ought to be building and nurturing our diverse nonprofit sector, not putting up barriers to their participation. These organizations that represent our diverse civil society ought to be leading the way in promoting a values-driven and evidence-based civil discourse focused on the common good.

Nonprofit organizations are a fundamental expression of our First Amendment rights. They play a critical role in enabling citizens to hold government and businesses accountable for focusing on the common good. We should not invoke archaic laws from the middle of the previous century to silence them. As a society, we should ensure that nonprofit organizations have the capacity, commitment and courage to advocate for their values, for our full array of values.

Richard M. Clerkin, Ph.D., is executive director of the Institute for Nonprofits at N.C. State University.