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The Tax Man Cometh? A New Conversation on Communicating Value

With a skeptical eye towards higher education’s funding, oversight and standards it is no surprise that an age-old question has resurfaced and looms ominously over many of our institutions: should nonprofit institutions of higher education pay local taxes?
Earlier this year Brown University agreed to voluntary payments of $31.5 million over 11 years to Providence, Rhode Island, instead of taxes.  I’m not sure if you heard it, but there was a “hmmm” that reverberated across the country as municipalities pondered the possibility of taxing colleges or negotiating voluntary payments to assist with bone-dry coffers.
As communicators, we may be called into action to help our private institutions defend themselves publicly as local municipalities and counties ask for us to pay our fair share for public amenities.  What can and should we say to defend ourselves from the taxing of the perceived (and rarely) rich?
First, contact your local public institution colleagues—they’ve been talking about their roles as economic engines for decades and have insight on how best to present the information for resonation with elected officials and the general public.  If you haven’t calculated it already, ask how they compute the economic impact their institution brings to the local and regional economy.
Next, update your list of accomplishments to include the usual suspects like selectivity, faculty to student ratio, retention rates, faculty/student accomplishments, graduation rates and fundraising successes but also include items such as volunteer hours in the community, economic impact, overall employment numbers—include information if you are one of the top employers by size or job satisfaction.
And, have available the amount of employment tax your institution pays, scholarship dollars awarded to local students and number of community art, entertainment and learning opportunities offered.
If you have any baggage with the community and/or elected officials you better get busy unpacking.  If you have hard feelings with those who may push for taxation you need to rebuild your image and reputation with them.  Now is not the time to rehash bad blood in town/gown relations.
Finally, contact local churches, nonprofits, independent K-12 schools and public peers.  Ask for their public support in opposing any push for your taxation.  It is a slippery slope once the definition of taxable entities is raised—one they may find themselves facing next.  You need third party support to help bolster your case and that support must come from more than just your traditional donor and alumni base.
We all understand the need to communicate our value to prospective students and donors in a world where competition for attention and dollars is at an all time high and tuition discounting is rising.  We must now expand this discussion to include new ways of discussing our worth to our communities, too.  Otherwise, our already tight budgets may get stretched even thinner.