Profiles: NC policy groups shaping political conversation
A universe of think tanks, grass roots organizers and other nonprofits aim to change public opinion and shape the political conversation. @NCCapitol introduces you to some of the key players wielding influence with lawmakers and the media. We'll add profiles over time. If you know want to know more about a group we haven't listed, email email@example.com.
There are many different types of nonprofit groups authorized under section 501(c) of the tax code. The most common types operating as nonprofit policy groups in North Carolina are:
501(c)(3) Groups: Religious, educational, charitable, scientific and other organizations that operate as true charities. They are are not subject to taxes and contributions to them may be tax deductible. In general, they are not allowed to engage in political activity and are limited in the amount of lobbying that they may do.
501(c)(4) Groups: Civic leagues, social welfare organizations and local associations of employees. These groups are not subject to taxes, but contributions to them are not tax deductible. They can participate in some political activity.
North Carolina's nonprofit networks
Generally, nonprofit groups that try to influence the policy debate in Raleigh break down in one of three ways:
Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation funded: Although the foundation is nonpartisan, its staff and board members have ties to Democratic causes and it rarely funds groups on the conservative end of the political spectrum. Most public policy groups with funding from Z. Smith Reynolds are either liberal or center-left in their viewpoint.
J.W. Pope Foundation funded: Although the foundation is nonpartisan, its mission statement and staff members make clear that policy groups funded by Pope are conservative in nature. Most public policy groups with funding from Pope describe themselves as either conservative or libertarian in their viewpoint.
Unaligned: There are some influential nonprofit groups that are funded by neither Reynolds nor Pope. These groups may have a political viewpoint or be viewed as leaning to one side of the political spectrum, but don't share connections through North Carolina's largest nonprofit funders.
Get to know the groups
Action for Children North Carolina focuses on issues affecting those under age 18. The nonpartisan group generally lobbies for more funding for childhood health care and similar causes, and has ties to more explicitly liberal organizations.
To many outside observers, Action NC looks like a revamped version of Acorn, the controversial advocacy group that went bankrupt in 2010. The two groups have the same mission and are lead by the same executive director. However, Kevin Rogers, a spokesman for Action NC, says that's not the case. The group is firmly on the liberal end of the political spectrum.
Americans for Prosperity concentrates on fiscal and tax issues. Structurally it is two different groups, one a charitable foundation and the other an advocacy arm. Its North Carolina chapter is a branch of a larger organization and has played a role in both political campaigns and legislative advocacy. It is a conservative group.
Until relatively recently, Blueprint NC has had a nearly non-existent media profile. It's main interaction with reporters has been the distribution of a source book, which is a directory of its members. However, a recent controversy involving a memo authored by one of its partners put the group squarely in the spotlight. Although the group insists its work is nonpartisan in nature, its affiliates clearly are left-of-center groups pushing against current GOP policies.
The Christian Action League is best known for urging lawmakers to tightly control the sale of alcohol. It has been involved in other legislative issues such as sex trafficking legislation and gambling issues. The league is decidedly conservative in its approach to issues.
Common cause most often shows up in news coverage of election-related stories and in stories talking about stories related to how elections are administered. Phillips and other Common Cause staffers are also sought out as panelists for public affairs shows. The group is generally seen as center-left. While by and large nonpartisan, they have advocated for causes - such as public funding of elections - that have cut against the grain of Republican legislative policy. They group also shares ties to Democratic causes and is seen by many on the political right as explicitly liberal.
Hall has insisted that Democracy NC is a nonpartisan organization, deflecting suggestions that the group has a liberal bent by pointing to elections complaints it filed against Democrats such as former House Speaker Jim Black. However, the group has vigorously argued against Voter ID laws, lining up with Democratic allies on the issue, and many of its staff members have a background with liberal leaning groups. The organizations reports on fundraising by elected officials are frequently cited by media sources and Hall is often quoted as an expert source on elections and election law.
Grass Roots North Carolina is focused on gun rights. Although it is not directly aligned with a political party or with the Pope Foundation, its views on gun ownership are decidedly conservative in the modern political context. The group is most often quoted on stories about gun rights and lobbies for laws that expand the ability of North Carolina citizens to carry firearms.
The Institute for Southern Studies is primarily a media and research organization. It gets notice for its own work and institute experts are quoted in news stories by other outlets. The group hails from the civil rights movement and is often described as a liberal think tank. Its work has been critical of the Republican-lead legislature and the work of groups associated with Art Pope, a prominent funder of conservative causes.
The foundation describes itself as "non-partisan." But it goes on to say the foundation promotes "free markets, limited constitutional government, and personal responsibility. In the modern American political context, those principles are labeled conservative." When cited in media sources such as newspapers and television, the foundation is most often described as conservative or libertarian.
The group calls itself "North Carolina's conservative voice," often issuing reports on topics before the General Assembly and identifying a "bad bill of the week." A 501(c)4 arm is involved in the political process.
The North Carolina Chamber is the state lobby for big business. It is politically neutral to a large degree, taking a stand on issues with regard to what's good for their members rather than along a particular ideological line. The group has worked with Democrats and Republicans alike. The chamber was instrumental in passing a bill that limits the amount of unemployment insurance a worker can collect when they are laid off.
The foundation is the successor to N.C. Free, a now defunct group founded to give business leaders political intelligence. Although the foundation shares funding with conservative groups, it is known for its research analyzing campaign spending, voting trends and other political information from a dispassionate perspective. Its research director, Jonathan Kappler, is frequently quoted in news stories about elections and fundraising. Its director of lawmakers and other elected officials is a frequently-used tool for reporters and lobbyists working in and around the General Assembly.
The center is most active during election cycles. Its lobbyists advocate for public funding of elections and reform of the redistricting process, ideas that are generally nonpartisan in nature although recently have run counter to Republican-authored bills on elections. Laurenz and other center staff are frequently cited as experts on election process and legislative election issues.
The N.C. Family Policy Council is a research and education organization "dedicated to the preservation of family and traditional values." It most often shows up in news coverage of social issues such as gay marriage, gambling and drug use. It has an affiliated "social welfare" group that actively lobbies for public policy.
Although it has ties through its funding to liberal groups, the center generally has a reputation as a nonpartisan broker of information. It's effectiveness rankings for lawmakers and lobbyists are widely cited by media of all kinds. Center Director Ran Coble is frequently sought out as an expert source, particularly on matters relating to the arcana of legislative process.
The NCICL is best known for its opposition to economic development incentives. Although roughly seen as politically conservative, the group has brought suit on behalf of individuals and Democratic office holders.
The North Carolina Justice Center and its affiliated brands make up the best known network of liberal-leaning groups in the state. The group insists that it is nonpartisan, but its policy prescriptions are regularly at odds with policies pursued by Republican leaders in the General Assembly.
Progress NC is a liberal group that provides a steady flow of criticism targeting Republican leaders, particularly Pat McCrory. It operates both a charitable nonprofit as well as a (c)4 group that can be involved directly in politics.