The entities in question are tax-exempt, nonprofit organizations, and their influence extends into practically every nook and cranny of the social fabric. They also play a significant role in forming the region's economic backbone.
"It's such a big part of our community, and it's so varied," says Bissette, a local attorney who counsels nonprofits and also serves on the boards of a lot of them. "I sit on just about every nonprofit [board] in town, it seems," he says with a chuckle.
"It's difficult to wrap your arms around just how significant nonprofits are," adds Bissette, "but they're one big reason Asheville is such a great place to live."
Pat Smith, president of the nonprofit Community Foundation of Western North Carolina, agrees. "We have a very strong nonprofit sector here in Western North Carolina, and we are able to accomplish so much," she says. The foundation, which has about $170 million in assets, paid out more than $9.4 million in grants in 2007. "Our region really is very fortunate to have the number and caliber of nonprofits we have."
To many WNC residents, however, these groups remain largely a terra incognita. Here's a look at who some of them are, what they do -- and what it means for the region's life and well-being.
Some local groups have a surprisingly long reach.
Helimission, for instance, is a European group whose North American headquarters is in Montreat. Founded in Switzerland in 1971 by Ernie Tanner, the nonprofit maintains a number of permanent bases in Africa and Asia, using its fleet of helicopters to bring social, medical and spiritual help to people in remote and inaccessible areas on those continents as well as in South America and elsewhere. Though primarily a religious operation, Helimission is nondenominational. And in times of trouble, the group will go anywhere it's needed.
Originally focused on transporting missionaries, Helimission soon expanded into disaster relief. In 2004, for example, its volunteer pilots transported medical personnel and supplies to victims of the massive Boxing Day tsunami that devastated parts of Indonesia, one of many such efforts the group has assisted with since 1974. Other nonprofits -- such as Doctors Without Borders, Oxfam, Save the Children, and United Nations relief organizations -- often call on Helimission for help.
Such calls came in 2002, when Helimission joined forces with Asrames (the Regional Organization for Medical Supply), Doctors Without Borders, U.N. seismologists and various film teams in the wake of a volcanic eruption in Goma in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. About 10,000 people had been left without housing, and Helimission dispatched two helicopters to the scene from a base in Kenya -- the only ones available to support relief efforts. The lava flow had cut the city in two, making it hard to deliver humanitarian aid. Thanks to the helicopters, seismologists were able to allay fears of a further eruption, Doctors Without Borders gained an overview of the refugee situation, and much-needed medicine was delivered to various aid centers in partnership with Asrames.
The nonprofit's work has not gone unnoticed, as evidenced by this note from former German President Richard von Weizsäcker following a 1985 hunger crisis in the Sudan:
"Our flights with your helicopter to the hunger camps and distribution centers for food supplies in West Sudan are now several months past. They will never be forgotten.
"For your engagement and your willingness to help in this -- a trip unlikely to ever be repeated -- I want to thank you with all my heart. Thanks to your motivation and your know-how in aviation it was possible, in the short time available, to see and to experience much.
"These people, their faces expressing the suffering but also reflecting hope, have impacted all of us who took part in this trip. I wish you and your blessed mission much success for the benefit of the many that will be helped by you."
Lisa D'Innocenzi runs Helimission's U.S. office along with her husband, John; they've been involved with the group for 27 years. "It's been interesting," says D'Innocenzi, who also works in a doctor's office. "We've met some really interesting people; and we've dealt with a lot of government agencies, such as the ones in Rwanda and Zaire during all the Hutu-refugee issues."
Charity begins at home
Most local nonprofits, however, have their biggest impact right here in the mountains.
In WNC, you can hardly swing a cat without hitting a local nonprofit (and chances are that cat was either bought from or spayed/neutered by a locally based group such as the Asheville Humane Society).
Many such organizations are just what you'd expect: churches, charities and the like. But the nonprofit umbrella shelters a surprising range of undertakings, including hospitals; arts groups; educational institutions; trade, business and economic-development organizations; social societies and country clubs; recreational organizations; volunteer fire departments; burial associations; fraternities and sororities; assorted advocacy groups and federal credit unions.
Even some alleged hate groups are registered nonprofits. New Beginnings Inc. of Waynesville, for instance, is listed as a Christian Identity hate group by the Montgomery, Ala.-based Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks such groups. In addition, the Law Center has frequently criticized both Black Mountain's Southern Legal Resource Center and its high-profile chief trial counsel, Kirk Lyons, for their alleged racist leanings, though that organization isn't specifically listed as a hate group.
Bottom line: WNC's nonprofit sector is substantial in size, scope and impact on both the local economy and residents' daily lives.
"It's fairly significant," agrees Tom Tveidt, director of the Asheville Metro Business Research Center, an arm of the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce (which, of course, is itself a nonprofit).
Tveidt's comment would seem to be something of an understatement. In the Asheville metro area alone -- which includes Buncombe, Haywood, Henderson and Madison counties -- there are more than 1,800 nonprofit organizations, according to an Xpress analysis of data from GuideStar, which compiles and lists financial and other information on the nation's nonprofit sector. Nearly 1,200 of those are 501(c)(3) charitable groups -- the most common form of tax-exempt nonprofit, and one of 36 designations used by the Internal Revenue Service to classify them. The next largest category is 501(c)(7) social and recreational clubs, which account for 346 local groups. The remainder are spread out over various other classifications.
And those who tend to think of such groups as shoebox operations might be surprised to learn that the area's largest employer is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. Mission Hospitals provides nearly 6,000 local jobs and has an income well in excess of $1 billion annually. Although the bulk of nonprofit jobs in North Carolina are concentrated in the state's highly populous Piedmont area, WNC's nonprofit sector accounts for the largest share of nongovernmental jobs per capita, averaging 9 percent, according to a 2005 study conducted by the N.C. Center for Nonprofits and the Johns Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies. The study also points out that in the southwestern subregion of WNC, which includes Buncombe County, nonprofit jobs account for 10.5 percent of total nongovernmental employment.
A similar study conducted by the Community Foundation and Warren Wilson College (yet another nonprofit) in 2004 found that in 18 Western North Carolina counties, the nonprofit sector provided more jobs than professional and business services, construction, finance or information services. NPOs, the study showed, pumped nearly $2 billion into the local economy via payroll and purchased goods and services.
Buncombe County seems to be the region's clear leader when it comes to nonprofit employment. Of the 89,858 private-sector jobs in Buncombe that year, 11,694 -- about 13 percent -- were with not-for-profit groups, the study found.
"Our nonprofit sector is probably as robust here as anywhere in the state," says Bissette.
Filling in the gaps
While the economic impact is undeniably great, Smith argues that NPOs also serve as a crucial social safety net that government and business alone do not, or cannot, provide.
"I truly believe the best system is one where government, business and nonprofits work together for a healthy community," says Smith, adding, "The nonprofit sector provides so many services that government would have to provide if we weren't here." When it comes to helping people in need, for example, "Look at the number of services that are provided by the Department of Social Services versus all the nonprofits that are working in that regard -- the food banks, Habitat for Humanity, Mountain Housing Opportunities and so on. I mean, right now [Asheville Mayor Terry Bellamy] has a task force on affordable housing. But we've got a number of nonprofits that have been working on affordable housing for years." Without their contributions, Smith maintains, "We wouldn't begin to have the level of affordable housing" we have now.
But that's only one of the many areas where local groups are having an impact, says Smith. "We've got nonprofits that are ... working with people with disabilities. All of our arts organizations that make this community such a viable and exciting and dynamic place to be -- all of them, every single one of them, is nonprofit. ... Look at mentoring programs for at-risk youth after school. ... Look at programs that help to prevent teenage pregnancy, programs that serve people with HIV and AIDS," she continues, adding that local not-for-profit groups are also leaders in environmental protection and in taking direct action to tackle challenges such as growth management and land-use planning.
"I mean, the nonprofit sector does so much, and the list just goes on and on and on. Who would pick up the price tag if the nonprofits weren't here?" wonders Smith. "Fortunately the Internal Revenue Service provides incentives by giving a charitable deduction for nonprofit contributions."
Storm clouds on the horizon
Most NPOs live or die by a combination of contributions and grants. Many also have investment income. But the specter of a severe recession precipitated by crises in the housing and financial markets has many nonprofits sweating their future, Bissette, Smith and others note.
Something similar happened in 2001 when, after the the Internet bubble burst, a recession hit -- followed by the 9/11 terrorist attacks and a subsequent decrease in federal funding to the states.
Smith, whose foundation deals with many NPOs across the region, agrees that these are unsettling times. "In 2001 when the market was tanking, we did see a decline in charitable contributions ... and I mean nonprofits in general," says Smith. "Many of them had to tighten their belts, but the message that we try to get out to our donors is that this is when we really have got to step up to the plate to make sure these services survive in our community. Some people cannot make contributions now, and we understand that. Their budgets are being tightened just like nonprofits' are being tightened. But there are some gift vehicles -- gift annuities and those types of planned gifts -- that help people make a significant contribution."
Contributions aren't limited to cash or stocks, either. "We receive a lot of real estate," Smith reports. "While the value of that real estate is not what it was a few months ago, it is still a very marketable asset to give." And despite continuing concerns about the stock market, she notes, "Last week we received some stock, and the donor said it was at an all-time high. So not every security is down right now."
But some nonprofits, such as local public-radio stations, depend largely on individual cash donations. Asheville public-radio station WCQS, for example, derives 43 percent of its income from individual listeners, 31 percent from businesses and 15 percent from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The balance comes from interest and endowment income, entrepreneurial activities and grant funds, according to the station's Web site. So does that mean we can expect more of those annoying, guilt-inducing pledge drives that always seem to interrupt the best parts of our favorite programs?
Yes, says General Manager Ed Subkis. "However, we like to think [our pledge drives] are entertaining and affirming," he laughs.
"I can say that WCQS has not yet experienced any kind of downturn in fund raising," he says. "We've been lucky so far. I guess we'll know more next week, because we begin our fund-raiser for the spring on [April 5]."
And whatever the state of the economy, there's at least one other bright spot for folks who decide to bite the bullet and open up their wallets to support a favorite nonprofit: a charitable deduction that could mean a lower tax bill or bigger refund next year.