When Hawaii’s Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement holds its annual Native Hawaiian Convention starting Tuesday, the event will mark a significant inflection point for the organization – a coming-of-age party for a 21-year-old nonprofit that started with the modest vision of bringing Hawaiian advocacy groups together.

Now, in one demonstration of its burgeoning power, the council is preparing to host one of the landmark political events of the election season: Thursday night’s televised debates among the major candidates for governor and lieutenant governor.

In another coup, the council is on the verge of taking over Hawaii’s tourism marketing contract for the mainland U.S., the state’s flagship travel promotion, worth $34 million over two years. The council built a team of marketing, research and media firms and snatched the contract from the venerable Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau, which has marketed Hawaii for more than a century.

Kuhio Lewis, President and CEO of the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement.
Kuhio Lewis, president and CEO of the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement, says he hopes to galvanize people before the primary elections by holding the group’s convention in July. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

“Collectively, it’s at a very critical point, not just for Native Hawaiians but as a nonprofit organization that is working for all of Oahu and Hawaii,” says Esther Kiaaina, a former council board member who now serves on the Honolulu City Council.

The council’s moves are hard to miss, says Colin Moore, a professor of political science at the University of Hawaii Manoa and director of UH’s Public Policy Center.

“Sponsoring the debate signals that they’re now trying to be visible instead of being a service provider behind the scenes,” Moore said. “My impression is that they have been really aggressive at being more flexible in helping Native Hawaiians, and that’s not a bad thing.”

Kuhio Lewis, the council’s chief executive, says that by moving its annual convention from its traditional date in October to the summer the council hopes to galvanize people before the primary elections.

“It’s no mistake that our convention is in July,” Lewis said in an interview. “It is important that we engage and that we get our people civically engaged where it matters.”

To that end, the four-day convention includes panel discussions covering not just issues specific to Native Hawaiians. For instance, one talk on the Red Hill water crisis will include panelists from the Sierra Club, Board of Water Supply and U.S. Navy. Another panel on tourism will convene all five island mayors.

Sponsors include Hawaii’s largest companies and nonprofits, including Hawaiian Airlines, First Hawaiian Bank, Bank of Hawaii, Hawaiian Electric, The Queen’s Health System and the Hawaii Community Foundation, as well as national companies like AT&T and Amazon.

With 1,500 registered attendees, this year’s convention will be the council’s largest, Lewis said.

A unifying theme, Lewis says, is “how Native Hawaiians take care of Hawaii.”

“This is not just about Hawaiians, it’s about uplifting Hawaii,” Lewis said.

Uplifting Hawaiians And Hawaii

Uplifting Hawaiians and the community in general has always been the council’s mission, said Robin Danner, the council’s founder, who now runs a start-up organization in Washington, D.C. When the council started in 2000, it was meant to be an umbrella for other Hawaiian organizations engaged in community development, Danner said.

The council soon took on a more concrete role in economic development by gaining certification as a federal Community Development Financial Institution. Administered by the U.S. Treasury, the Clinton-era program provides funding for specialized financial institutions that serve communities without access to traditional bank financing and capital.

In the council’s case, that includes borrowers such as people who want Department of Hawaiian Home Lands leases. Because DHHL land is held in trust for the Hawaiian people, and merely leased and not owned by the people who get the leases, traditional mortgage lenders are often reluctant to lend money to the lease holders to build homes. The council has served as a lender of last resort for DHHL beneficiaries, providing personal finance training along with loans.

When Lewis took over managing the CDFI program in 2018, it had a $3.5 million loan fund. It’s now grown to $10 million, he said. The organization has been awarded $15 million in loans since the CDFI’s inception.

Working closely with borrowers helps ensure they repay their loans, Lewis said. The loan program’s delinquency rate is just 2%, he said. Many of the borrowers have established their credit worthiness to a point that the council is in talks to turn over those CNHA loans to traditional banks, which will free up CNHA money to lend out to more fledgling borrowers.

The organization has also set up things like workforce development programs and loan programs for small businesses.

Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement entrance located in Kapolei.
The Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement went from landing grants and contributions worth just over $1 million in 2018 to $70 million in 2021. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

All of this put the council in a position for exponential growth as the Covid-19 pandemic hit.

In another example of the sort of quick action characteristic of CNHA, the organization stepped in to help local vendors who were left with unsold inventory after the Merrie Monarch hula festival was cancelled in 2020 because of the pandemic.

CNHA’s online “Pop-Up Makeke” offered a marketplace for vendors with no experience selling online. Now, since June 2020, the organization has sold more than 300,000 products on line, Lewis said.

The marketplace has been so successful, he said, that the council is now buying goods wholesale from Native Hawaiian vendors and reselling them at retail prices.

But the market is just one big thing that came from the pandemic.

A close look at CNHA’s financial records shows something extraordinary over the past several years: a growth in annual grants and contributions from just over $1 million annually in 2018 to $70 million in 2021.

Specifically, the council’s federal tax return for the year ended September 2019 shows the organization received contributions and grants of about $1.9 million that year, which was up from $1.1 million the year before.

The next year – as the coronavirus pandemic hit, and CNHA stepped up to play a role helping manage relief funds – grants and contributions rose to just under $10.9 million. By 2021, the council reported $70.4 million in government grants and contracts.

This wasn’t just CDFI money but also coronavirus funds for rent relief, which the council stepped up to help administer, in tandem with Catholic Charities Hawaii.

Lewis describes the work CNHA did during the pandemic as humbling. CNHA was one of numerous organizations in Hawaii and the U.S. tasked with delivering relief money to desperately needy people during the pandemic. Unfortunately, there was no roadmap for standing up such programs quickly. To create its information technology systems, Lewis said, CNHA turned to network engineers who had done work organizations like The Queen’s Health Systems and Hawaiian Electric.

“The reality is we stood this up from scratch,” he said. And did so at a time when Hawaii’s economy was largely frozen, with households and businesses facing enormous uncertainty and crises.

“We too, like all of them, were facing a pivotal moment,” he said.

Lewis acknowledges there were glitches. As the head of the organization, he heard emotional stories from anxious residents, some facing threats from their landlords, who wanted to resolve their financial issues as quickly as possible.

Still, Lewis says CNHA has provided relief funds to 15,000 households.

Robin Danner Farrington HS forum. 11 nov 2016
CNHA founder Robin Danner says for too long HTA focused on “selling a plastic Hawaii” to entertain visitors at the expense of residents. “The latter essentially have been ignored,” she said. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016

And it took CNHA to a new level. The organization administered as much grant money during the pandemic as it normally would in three to four years.

In total, the organization has landed $150 million in contracts and disbursed $110 million of that so far.

Now CNHA is poised to take on something even bigger. The Hawaii Tourism Authority’s new marketing contract comes at a pivotal time for Hawaii tourism. As the industry rebounds from the worst days of the pandemic, when tourism was mostly shut down, the HTA is trying to manage concerns among residents who still say the state has too many tourists.

A 2021 study by the tourism authority found 67% of residents surveyed thought their “Island is being run for tourists at the expense of local people,” the same as the previous year and up from 50% in 2010.

Against that backdrop, the tourism authority has been trying to redefine itself as a group that will not simply market Hawaii but also manage the negative side effects of tourism. Accordingly, HTA says it wants its next contractor not simply to market Hawaii but also to manage it.

Danner says the change in vision is overdue: for too long HTA focused on “selling a plastic Hawaii” to entertain visitors at the expense of residents.

“The latter essentially have been ignored,” she said.

Hawaii Tourism Authority CEO John De Fries speaks during the arrival of ANA's A380 aircraft at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport.
Hawaii Tourism Authority Chief Executive John De Fries is turning to the CNHA to market Hawaii as a tourist destination for U.S. travelers and to better manage Hawaii as a destination. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Despite the new vision, the HTA’s request for proposals issued in April still focused largely on marketing and advertising. The vast majority of performance measures stated in the document related to HTA’s usual tasks: advertising, marketing and public relations. While a few of the measures focused on items concerning destination management plans, roughly 50 looked at things like numbers of social media followers, eyeballs for print and television ads and the number of articles produced by writers coming to Hawaii on HTA-sponsored junkets.

Although the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement has no direct tourism marketing experience, it won the contract after assembling a group it calls the “Kilohana Collective.” Key members include Core Group One, a marketing, branding and media services company that’s done work for hotel companies like Aston; Wondros, a marketing communications and advertising agency with over 200 staff in Los Angeles, San Diego, Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C.; Pae ‘Āina Communications LLC/Island Agency, a public and media relations and corporate communications firm, and Ward Research, an established research and data company.

Lewis said what interested the council in the contract was that the HTA is looking beyond marketing.

“I think it’s important to point out that this is a new job description,” Lewis said of the HTA contract, adding that it’s no longer simply about marketing the state to visitors.

The council’s winning proposal went beyond gaining eyeballs. Its destination management proposals included ideas like leveraging the council’s workforce development programs to support people interested in working in tourism.

Another idea: to promote the guiding principle established by a nascent organization called Aina Aloha Economic Futures, principles HTA has officially adopted as part of its mission. This includes supporting farms that employ organic and sustainable practices and internship-to-employment training programs for community members.

The council still must prevail over a last-ditch effort by the visitor and convention bureau to keep the marketing contract by protesting the HTA’s awarding it to the council.

But if the council prevails, it will be enormous for Hawaiian companies, said Naalehu Anthony, a Native Hawaiian filmmaker who is also a co-founder of Aina Aloha Economic Futures.

For the past 100 years, the HVCB used its contract to build up an ecosystem of businesses. If the council lands the contract, it can start to do the same, said Anthony.

“It is absolutely incredible,” he said of CNHA’s growth. “And it goes to the leadership of Kuhio Lewis.”

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