Tactical Philanthropy Podcast: Robert Egger

Today’s interview is with Robert Egger. Robert is a driving force behind the Nonprofit Primary Project and is the Founder and President of the DC Central Kitchen. During the interview, Robert explains the political clout of the nonprofit sector, says it is an urban myth that nonprofits cannot be political involved, and calls me “brother” twice. I think that this is one of the more important conversations I’ve recorded. Whether you are a donor, work for a nonprofit, or at a foundation, you’ll find a lot to stimulate your thinking. You can learn more about Robert via the background notes I posted last week.

Robert will be answering your questions and comments in the Comments section of this post, so fire away.

You can click on the link below to read the transcript.

Sean: Hello, and welcome to the Tactical Philanthropy podcast. I’m Sean Stannard-Stockton, author of the Tactical Philanthropy blog, and principal and director of Tactical Philanthropy at Ensemble Capital. My guest today is Robert Egger. Robert is the founder and president of the DC Central Kitchen. DC Kitchen provides marketable culinary skills to homeless men and women while recovering over one ton of surplus food each day and turning it into 4000 meals for the hungry in the Washington D.C. area. In each of the past two years, Robert has been named to the Nonprofit Times list of 50 most powerful and influential nonprofit leaders.

Sean: Robert, I know you’ve been running around the country, thanks for taking the time to talk with us.

Robert: I’ll always stop for you, my brother!

Sean: Tell me this, why don’t you begin by telling us about the Nonprofit Primary Project. You said in a recent blog post that September 6th, the date of the inaugural Nonprofit Primary Project candidate forum with presidential candidate Mike Huckabee was, and I quote your post, “A day that may well one day be regarded as our Independence Day.” Why is this project so important?

Robert: Well, again, this is a once in a millennium – and I use that term a lot- but it really is, it’s close to one of those once in a lifetime shots where there’s been 80 years since there’s been a presidential campaign in which there’s no incumbent. So, you’ve got in a sense a horse race going on, so it’s the perfect time for the nonprofit sector to take it up a notch, and move beyond the time in which we did it ourselves, or we were allowed to be divided by our sub-sector issues. You know, during the last campaign we saw, for example, the Children’s Defense Fund hosted the first ever… all the candidates came to talk about the issues of children, and that’s cool. But again, as long as we remain divided by housing, AIDS, arts, children, and all these other issues, as important as each one is, it’s in my personal opinion we’re weak, and at this stage of the game, we’re 40 years into the war on poverty, and given what’s coming: 80 million people getting old, a very aggressive global economy, a change in generation that won’t be nearly as prone to giving checks as the Boomers were, this mandates a very aggressive new tactic. And for me, the idea of the nonprofit sector interjecting itself into this election as a sector, a sector that represents 10% of the economy, 10% of the workforce, and I think most importantly, that has 80 million people who either work with or volunteer at a nonprofit behind us, you know, if we’re smart, and we’re involved, we can completely change the game. And that’s why we were so excited when Governor Huckabee came, because again that was the first time ever, at least to my knowledge, ever, that a presidential candidate spoke to the sector as a sector, and that’s a bold, amazing step for us.

Sean: So tell us, for listeners that don’t know about the Nonprofit Primary Project, what are the goals, and how is it functioning, and are other candidates going to be coming through?

Robert: It’s very simple. You have to understand that even though I’m an ardent believer in robust discussion about all the laws that currently limit us, for this case, we are really, completely adherent to all the IRS regulations about what a nonprofit can or cannot do. So first and foremost, we have to provide equal access to all the candidates, so we really decided to keep it focused up in New Hampshire. Because, A). We’re doing this on a shoestring budget. It’s not as if any big foundations are giving us, you know, tens of thousands of dollars, or even millions of dollars, and frankly, we didn’t have the time to hustle a moveon.org kind of infrastructure. So literally, I took 15 grand of money I made from speaking fees, we get it matched, so we put 30 thousand on the ground, we hired legal consultant to make sure what we did was legal, but what we’re doing is basically inviting candidates one at a time to come and meet with nonprofit leaders in New Hampshire representing nonprofits across the country. And first and foremost, that in of itself is something also that’s equally cool, is that the nonprofits of New Hampshire recognized their kind of catbird seat, and rather than limiting their opportunity, their proximity to the candidates, to, again, pitch in their own little sub-sector things, on these special days, they’re standing together as nonprofits. And again, they’re standing on behalf of all of us out there, which is a really brave thing. It’s something we owe them a real debt of gratitude for. What we’re doing is we’re not asking for anything, because the reality is, we’re as divided as the rest of America. I have no illusions that the nonprofit sector can agree on a lot of stuff, but the point is, what we’re trying to do is keep this very focused for the time being, and we’re saying in effect, again, as I mentioned earlier, here is the… over the next 4 to 8 years, if you’re elected president, there’s a high likelihood you’re going to have to deal very, very aggressively with, again, aging population, 80 million people getting old, white collar jobs probably leaving America the same way blue collar jobs did in the 1970s. Given that, we see the nonprofit sector as a great partner. So, how would you partner with us, and how would you strengthen us to be a good partner? That’s basically what we’re asking the candidates, and we’re recording those answers and putting them on YouTube, again, trying to say to the larger nonprofit sector: Look, there’s a lot of people who want to be president, but unless someone has the brains to recognize that 10% of the economy, 10% of the workforce is wrapped up in what we do, it really gives us a sense of vision and leadership. We should look at that as individual voters, and then, as we go forward, we can start to be maybe a little bit more bold and daring in the way we seek to interpret our share of the workforce, our share of the economy.

Sean: So, even though you say that the Nonprofit Primary Project is completely within the letter of the law regarding nonprofit involvement with politics, being involved in this way is rather controversial. You and Pablo Eisenberg had quite a duel this summer when you debated the appropriate role of nonprofits in politics. For listeners that aren’t familiar with it, the debate began in the pages of the Chronicle of Philanthropy, continued in a Hudson Institute debate, and then spilled onto the pages of my blog, where both of you submitted more thoughts on the issue. In one of your recent blog posts, you call the idea that nonprofits can’t be political an urban myth. Tell us about your line of thought on this issue, and why you think somebody as esteemed as Pablo Eisenberg is wrong.

Robert: Well, there’s so many different levels to approach this. First and foremost, most organizations just had their head down trying to make payroll, so, what they do is convince themselves, for right or wrong, they’re just too busy to be involved. Or secondly, and this is equally understandable, many people think that our ability to influence something as gigantic as the Federal Government, or policy in America, is beyond our grasp, and, you know, “I’d love to help, but boy, that’s just too big a task, and I’ve really got to make payroll, so good luck.” Or, they all fall into the kind of “Well, we don’t have anything in common. What do Georgetown University and the DC Central Kitchen have in common? We’re too diverse a sector to ever find common ground.” These are understandable myths that I think many people fall in to. So you’ve got that first trap. Then you’ve got the second, once you do get involved, there’s definitely the urban myth that nonprofits can’t be involved politically at all. I mean, many people just kind of buy that whole cloth. And to a certain extent, I’ve likened it to when the kitchen fist opened and we started going into restaurants and hotels, there was an urban myth, that’s still pervasive quite frankly, even though we’re 20 years in to what we do as an industry, I think it was Newsweek that just had a big article on the Freegans, acting as if the idea of capturing food that was thrown away is some sort of brand new discovery. So there’s still these urban myths that the health department won’t let you reuse food. So again, it’s understandable that people buy into the notion that it’s illegal for nonprofits to even be involved politically. And so I started exploring that, because what I quite often do is I look at things, and I say, in effect, “Huh, I wonder where that came from?” And I just did a little cursory research and I found that what it boiled down to was our inability to be political was slipped into law by Lyndon Johnson in the 1950s, basically to silence some critics in Texas who were openly challenging the validity of the recent election results. So he slipped in, under the banner that somehow nonprofits and foundations in particular were involved in “non-American activities”, again this was the McCarthy era, it was easy to slip in language that said, in effect, that nonprofits can’t be partisan. And, you know, he silenced an entire sector that way. And I think that we grew up with this, and no one’s really ever stopped and said “Wait, hold it a second here! Is this practical? Is this actually smart business?” Take out the whole idea of “Oh, we’ll be sullied if we do it” and all this other gobbledygook that Pablo and them put out about us losing our nonprofitness, which I find almost comical in its application. Again, that word, “nonprofitness” sounds to me like the word “femininity.” You know, it’s like “We’d like to give you the vote, little ladies, but we’d hate for you to lose your femininity.” I just find it absurd, but I’ll come back to that. But finally, the notion that, you know, even if we can be political, we can’t be partisan, and that’s where we’re drawing the line with the Primary Project. We’re doing everything but being partisan. We’re offering, again, equal access, equal questions, equal coverage to all the candidates, because, again, we’re almost trying to get the candidates, as well as the sector, to almost simultaneously wake up to what we’re talking about here. Quite frankly, there’s many people in the nonprofit sector, and guarantee you almost universally, within the cadre of candidates running for the office, there is a stunning, stunning lack of understanding of the depth of the sector. Without mentioning names, we’ve had… and again, this goes back to being fair. But nonetheless, we’ve had candidates who have looked us in the eye when we’ve said “We’d like to talk to you about your vision for the nonprofit sector and your understanding of the nonprofit sector.” And people will give kind of platitudes about “Well, you know, boy, we couldn’t do it without the nonprofit sector,” “It’s faith in action,” and “Boy, where would we be in New Orleans without the nonprofit sector?” But again, people who want to be the President of the United States of America don’t even really begin to understand that, again, that we’re one-tenth of the economy, or that there’s 80 million people out there that are really looking for someone who sees in us the underpinnings for a great vision for what America could be. I say this over and over, but you’ve got 80 million people who will just work like pack mules man, we’re all here really dedicated to making our communities, our cities, our states, our country, a better place to live. That’s an army of people looking for a leader. So it’s surprising at times, and this was evidenced, in fact just recently, even though we’ve had, a lot of the candidates are poking around trying to find the right date in their schedule, we offered candidates an opportunity, in New Hampshire, to come to a leadership summit, in which 300 nonprofit leaders would be assembled. We sent notice out to every single one of the candidates, and nobody accepted the invitation. Now, the reality is that if we were 300 firefighters, or 300 principals, or 300 nurses, they would be climbing all over each other to get in front of us. But the fact is, and we gotta deal with this as a sector, we are not regarded as something important. We’re regarded as charity, or worse, we’re only regarded as a group of people who just have their hand out, and want, want, want.

Sean: What you’re saying here I think really kind of shakes the frame of how people view politics and nonprofits, but it isn’t the first time that you, I think, have shaken the frame of how people think about the nonprofit sector. In 2004 you wrote a book called Begging for Change, and you argued in it there was a lack of logic and a startling amount of waste and inefficiency in the nonprofit sector, and you said that donors need to change the way we give, and nonprofits must change the way we use what we’re given. So, how should donors give, and how should nonprofits be using this support?

Robert: Well, you know, again, there’s two sides to this coin. The DC Central Kitchen, and I must admit, one of the great honors I had in being selected of the Nonprofit Times 50 most influential people, in 2006, and I think frankly I didn’t really check that hard, but in 2006 I was the only person who operated a direct service nonprofit on that list. Everyone else is a foundation head, or an association head, or a politician. That’s one of the things that fascinates me, how we interpret what is influence and power, and I’d like to see a lot more direct service nonprofits considered in the future. This is one of the things that on a daily basis many of us have to figure out how to make the machines we run, which are often times band-aids, run better, faster, stronger. I always say, 49% of my time will always be dedicated to “How can I make the DC Central Kitchen more efficient, more effective, more powerful?” But when you cross that line over 50% of your time, that’s when you’re starting to institutionalize the band-aid. I have no interest in doing that. We have revenue generators at the kitchen, I’m very diversified, but I don’t have any goal, I don’t want to be a self-sustaining food program in the nation’s capital. At the end of the day, me and a thousand, tens of thousands of other organizations do what needs to be done, but shouldn’t be here in the first place. We can never lose track of the fact that we were never supposed to be the answer, and I think that’s where we got off on this wrong road. Somewhere in the 80s and 90s we got drunk with ourselves, and started to think if we built bigger this, or bigger that, it would be a solution. I love when I often times, and I often times employ subterfuge, but I’ll get in front of a group of brothers and sisters in the sector and I’ll say “Hey man, I was in a town recently, in which, can you believe it, their attitude about crime was to build more prisons.” You know, everybody will huff and puff and make noises, and it’s like “OK, you know, then why are we building more food banks? Why are we building more pantries? Why are we building more nonprofits?” It’s the same flawed logic. And this is what I’m after, you know, I mean, I love the sector, man, I love what it represents as far as, kind of, the American Spirit. But, again, it never, never was supposed to be… I always say, man, rock & roll and nonprofits were the Boomer generation’s great gift to America. I mean, both kind of existed prior, but we took it up a notch. Somehow or another, both of them kind of got hijacked, I mean, rock & roll got hijacked and sanitized and sold back as entertainment, and nonprofits, the same thing, it’s been sold back as good deeds. It was never supposed to be that. It was supposed to be, you know, I don’t know, man, something that really… you know, challenged America to think more about, “What kind of country do we want to be? What sort of relationship do we want to have to our community and to our neighbors?” And I think we somehow got lost, and I’m just anxious to see us find our way back home.

Sean: Yeah, you can really hear the passion come through in your voice, and I wonder how much that comes from, as you say, working for a direct service nonprofit. Paul Shoemaker, who’s involved with Social Venture Partners, launched a blog recently, and in one of his first posts, he wrote about how he feels that everybody in the sector needs to be spending more time thinking about the clients that we serve, as opposed to thinking so much about efficiency, or about markets, or about how all this works. So I was wondering if you could spend a little time telling us about DC Kitchen, and about how your experiences there, working directly at a nonprofit, and working directly with the clients that you serve, affects your view on the sector.

Robert: Well, you know, the Kitchen was born out of a volunteer experience. I was a reluctant volunteer who went out on a truck one night that fed people outside, and, frankly, all I did was propose an alternative that I felt was not only more efficient and effective, and would get more people fed better food, but by adding job training, the idea of bringing all this surplus food back to a central kitchen, but instead of just having volunteers come in and cook to serve the poor, why not let the poor in to learn skills? That way the restaurants and hotels and hospitals that donated the food, in exchange could get trained entry-level people, and you could actually shorten the line by the very way you serve the line. That attitude, if I may, was born of two distinct attitudes of mine. One is, again, this is the way you’re supposed to do it, but B, and I think most importantly for our conversation today, is there’s 80 million people getting old, so we’ve got to get as many people who can out of this system and working to make way for those who will be old and infirm who are coming. You can see it a million miles away. But it’s one thing to actually imagine, you know, for a young guy running night clubs to say “I think I’ll start a program that will train men and women who are out of prison, out of drug treatment programs, dealing with mental health,” and actually doing it. And over the past 19 years, with a great group of people, man, I think we’ve developed one of the best programs in America. Again, it’s 80% of the staff are graduates of the program, you know, we’re really… I’ve never endowed the building. I’ve never wanted to build a new headquarters. We’ve endowed the staff, so that people can go back to school, we have family leave, and we’re trying to do everything the right way. But again, man, we are located in the basement of the biggest shelter in America, and I stay here, even though at times the ceilings drip, it’s hot, it’s muggy, it’s, you know… at times you have almost a wall around our kitchen to keep pests out, and keeping it clean. But this is where it’s at, and I really want to ensure that when people come to visit, you know, congressmen, senators, movies stars, or just Joe and Jane to volunteer, you know, that we’re not sugar-coating this, there’s nothing romantic about poverty or homelessness. It’s a vile, wretched situation that demands 100%, 365 dedication to “what next?” And again, like I said, it’s no disrespect, but I think for too long we’ve allowed academics, and people who’ve never made a payroll, to apply theory to where we should go as a sector, and rarely are people like myself, and again, the tens of thousands of other people who run direct service, rarely are we asked, you know, what do we think? Like I said, this Nonprofit Times thing, I don’t know how many times I’ve met with people, and they say in the most condescending way possible, “Oh, Robert, we love what you do. You’re a saint. But we’re going to go over here and have a real conversation about how we’re going to solve the problems, so excuse us.” And that’s what a lot of direct services get, and I think that that’s a lot of what the Primary Project is also about, quite frankly. Saying, to, again, rank-and-file workers, volunteers, a younger generation of people who are coming in, and also an older generation, frankly, that coming in through the volunteer sector. In effect we’re saying, look, this isn’t working for us, and it’s not gonna work. So, we’re open, and we’re going to push it a little bit further, and if our supposed leaders don’t want to go along, hey man, that’s cool, but you’re not leading us. You know, they always say, if you lead and no one’s following you, you’re just taking a walk, and there’s a lot of people out there taking a walk.

Sean: Well Robert, we’re out of time, but I know you have a blog that I read. Why don’t you tell our listeners what the URL is?

Robert: Well, interestingly enough, I think I’m about to relaunch the DC Kitchen website, which is www.dccentralkitchen.org. It’s about to tip over from all the extra junk I’m trying to do, and I think, for people who simply want to call and volunteer, it’s gotten to be a little bit too much, so I’m actually going to be starting a separate website now, www.robertegger.org, that will start to detail a lot of my adventures around the country speaking, and just some of the op-eds I’m writing, because again, like you said earlier, I’m after the whole ball of wax, man. There’s no sitting still, there’s no resting, it’s full tilt, 100% rock solid every day. So that’s where you can find me, and I’m always around!

Sean: Hey Robert, thanks for taking the time to speak with us.

Robert: A pleasure my brother, I wish you well.

Sean: This has been the Tactical Philanthropy podcast, you can visit us at tacticalphilanthropy.com. Robert just gave you the URLs for more information about himself, and you can learn more about the Nonprofit Primary Project here. Thanks for listening.

11 Comments

  1. Holden says:

    Hi Mr. Egger, thanks for participating and being willing to take questions. My questions are:

    1. What are you specifically proposing re: politics? What you say above sounds like “Politicians should recognize the importance of nonprofits and work with them.” OK, but what specifically are you after?

    2. From my observations of similar charities in NYC, it seems that the sort of job training program you’re describing – very general in the people it serves and the skills it teaches – is likely to end up placing only a small minority of clients in long-term employment. This isn’t a criticism (as long as you’re serving them in one way, you may as well help those who can be helped); I’m just curious as to whether you have had the same observation.

    As a comment, I think it makes sense to restrict nonprofits’ lobbying abilities. The issue, it seems to me, is that nonprofits are essentially government-subsidized by their nature. There’s nothing wrong with fighting for your values through any and all available channels, including political advocacy, but it does seem that there’s something wrong with the govt’s subsidizing political advocacy. There’s nothing stopping you from doing this advocacy – it’s just that your donors can’t get a tax deduction for it. Seems fair.

  2. robert egger says:

    Hey Holden…thanks for reaching out and getting Phase II of this dialogue going.

    OK…what do we want? Vision would be cool, and a serious understanding of the assets we (the sector) hold and how we can use them better. Maybe even an office in DC, similar to the SBA, but for nonprofits. BUT…for this phase–we are not asking for anything more than an indicator that the candidates see us as more than a grab bag of good deed doers. This is not just about us…and what they may or might not do for the nonprofit sector, but rather, it’s an attempt to see which candidate might understand that we are, and could be better, stimulator’s of the economy, particularly as we compete in a new global economy. Simply put…there are no big factory jobs coming back to America–so maybe we need a President who has a sense of what the future economy might look like, and how might play a new role in making it run. Cool?

    Second (and this also addresses some of my prior comments)—too many programs train folks for jobs that don’t exist, or that were designed by folks with no connection to the industry. Many times they are built to provide what people “think” the industry needs, versus asking employers to actually help design curriculum, so that grads get, and then keep jobs. To your specific question–DC Central Kitchen usually has 100% placement on graduation day…and the last class, nobody was earning less that 12 an hour. NOW…that’s not a living wage in DC…but it’s a solid step forward. BUT (and this is a big but)…I talk about it, post blogs about it, get on TV about it–not to draw attention to DCCK, but to show folks in our city, and this country that training folks for jobs is SMART BUSINESS…not charity. I’m working to get a new President who wants to help bad ass programs like DCCK thrive, while we also talk, candidly, as a country about “WHY” we need them in the first place.

    Finally…should we be happy where we are, and go with the rules as they exist? Well…business is subsidized to the tune of 200 billion a year in government money–and they are up to their neck in politics. Fair is fair. Democracy isn’t clean and easy…and what I propose (down the road) could force the sector, and our country to re-examine the way we define, use, support and view “charity.” I’m all for it…as I think the “redemption of the giver” model we currently embrace makes us feel good (if you are on the giving end) but does little to really liberate us as a society (economically or socially). Change only comes when you are in the middle of it all–sweating, kicking, dealing, compromising, etc… Standing around hoping things shift, or thinking that we’re pure or independent by sitting on the sidelines is a fool’s errand. Sorry to be blunt—but the status quo sucks…and the clanking of pots and pans outside my office, as we prepare 4,000 meals to be distributed today, offers ample evidence of that. I want change–real change, and you don’t get that on the sidelines, playing “by the rules” as they exist.

    OK…I’ve yapped too much already. If you need more deets, ask away…or even call at (202) 234-0707 x 101. I’m always up for getting down.

  3. Robert,
    I am intrigued by the parallels between some of your points and an argument that Bill Schambra made when he was a guest on the podcast:

    Bill: “One of the problems in the nonprofit sector today is precisely our tendency to treat low-income individuals as passive, helpless clients of professional service-deliverers, rather than as active, capable citizens, able to come up with solutions to their own problems… As I suggested in the podcast, the current tendency in the sector to emphasize business-like efficiency to the exclusion of all else undermines one of its central purposes – to be a school for human agency and citizenship, especially for those at the margins of society with precious little clout in the marketplace or politics.”

    When you talk about the strive for “efficiency” missing the point that nonprofits are designed to fix a problem that should not even exist (and therefore implies that they should have a limited life span), when you talk about the people in line for food coming around the counter to serve it, and when you talk about the nonprofit sector as citizens that deserve a place at the political table, I hear your and Bill’s ideas coming together.

    You’ve very intentionally designed the Nonprofit Congress to be non-partisan. Given that you’re offering candidates a chance to speak to a large population, why do you think candidates are not rushing to sign up? Given the intertwining of partisan ideas and the nonprofit sectors bipartisan members, why is the sector not seen as the Soccer Mom’s of 2008?

  4. robert egger says:

    Dude…you are so singing my SONG.

    Simply put…candidates, and most American’s don’t know of the sectors depth or reach…they see us as one of three things: 1) amazing example of our country’s generous spirit, 2) thousands of random charities out there doing good somewhere, somehow, or 3)or a bunch of big talking takers (thanks to the media’s boorish focus on scandals).

    BUT…if we get together and make a solid effort to build on common ground (during this election and beyond) then I believe we are the 5th ace in the deck that nobody knows is there.

    One of THE major goals of the Primary Project is to spur an “ah-ha” moment–when the candidates discover this extensive, professional, bold, hard working, innovative and dedicated ARMY of employees and volunteers…and they begin to spar for our support, with bolder (and smarter) ways in which their administration would partner with us, and strengthen us to be better partners for achieving their vision for America.

    Think about what we bring to the table!!! Where else in America can you find close to 80 million folks who are, if you boils us down, ALL committed (in a million different ways) to making our communities and this country stronger, safer, fairer and…to be a good capitalist, more productive.

    Perhaps more important…what other group is up to the task of not only caring for the aging boomers, but giving them a way to remain active participants up until the day they depart this mortal coil.

    Look at northern Europe…cities like Amsterdam and Geneva, historically tolerant communities, that are now experiencing some pretty wrenching social unrest (coupled with some disturbing xenophobia), and a lot of it is wrapped up in the economics of consumers outnumbering producers. THAT could be our future…which is one of numerous reasons I advocate for a MUCH more pronounced understanding, and application of the power of Americas nonprofits….at the city, county, state and national levels.

    This will not happen as long as we continue to divide ourselves into sub-sector groups and fight for our own share of a shrinking pie. I say this all the time…but if you think you or your group can go it alone, you are already dead. Divided we stay marginalized, and we will only end up fighting each other for scraps. I love this country, our city and my daughter TOO much to fight with you or any other nonprofit when we could be partnering for a better shot and a better world. THAT is the “ah-ha” moment WE in the sector need to have!!!!

    And, to loop it back to Big Bill Schambra…THAT is why I also dig the whole concept of reciprocity…which is why, when asked if DCCK is a faith based organization, I say “yes…we have faith in people, ALL people,and we work to illustate that everyone has a role in making our city a better place to live, work and raise a family.”

    You know who really turned me on to that…Edgar Kahn, who founded Time Banking. Check him out at http://www.timebanks.org if you want to see an interesting American experiment.

    Like Muhammad Yunus’work with micro-credit (at the Grameen Bank), this is the kind of “let’s take off the boring, 19th century, charity yoke” kind of thinking I so dig learning about when I travel throughout the country and then experiment with when I get back home to DC.

    Seriously…I really do think that we have all the resources and tools we need, we just don’t see the aces we’re holding. And some of those aces are the folks we often make line up for serives, when they should be viewed as part of the solution.

  5. [...] dreams AND he interviews folks for a regular podcast and on-line chat about new directions. I am his latest guest, and the dialogue is already rolling in [...]

  6. Holden says:

    A couple things …

    1. Robert, when you say 100% of graduates are placed, two questions spring to my mind, based on what I’ve observed in NYC. First, do you track job retention and see how often graduates remain at the same job 3/6/12/24 months later? Second and more importantly, what proportion of those who initially enroll in the program graduate?

    2. There are lots of ways to slice a population, but fewer that are highly relevant politically. “Soccer moms” had certain specific concerns in common and were also largely considered “up for grabs.” By contrast, the main thing nonprofit people seem to have in common politically (though not universally) is a generally liberal/progressive leaning.

    There are a lot of legitimate differences within the sector, just as in the for-profit sector. In order to be convinced that there’s much to be gained from putting these important and worth-struggling-over differences aside, I’d need a more concrete sense of what nonprofit people have in common and what they could gain by unifying.

    3. I think there should be more regulation of political activities by businesses receiving govt money. I’d rather see that than a loosening of the regulations on nonprofits’ getting subsidized to lobby.

  7. robert egger says:

    Welcome back, Holden….I’m on a roll, so I’ll get right to it:

    1. We aim for 100% of each…and our partnerships and programs get us close. Still…we loose 10-15% of those who enroll. BUT…we always refer folks to programs that can keep them on the right road, and that often leads them back to us, where they usually end up graduating. If you want to know more about our efforts (which we have shared for free with 60 other similar efforts that out kitchen has motivated), then go to http://www.dccentralkitchen.org.

    And don’t forget…while folks learn a skill, the city gets fed for free

    2. What do nonprofits have in common? Three things. 1) We are all vulnerable to state/federal regulation, and we really don’t have a voice in the process. DO NOT FORGET–we have the biggest pot of untaxed revenue in America, and donor advise funds/the upcoming transfer of wealth is a juicy target for cashed strapped governments (25% of most state budgets is medicare now–and there are 80 million folks about to get old!!! They are coming for our resources–count on it), 2) we are 1/10th of the economy, 1/10th of the workforce and 60-70 million folks volunteer annually, but we get ZIPPO media coverage. Folks need in-depth analysis of our work, so they can descern talk from action. Because of this lack of info, 3) the common thought is that low administrative overhead is THE barometer to determine who is effective/efficiant. Can you spell d-u-m-b?!!?!

    And…if those weren’t enough shared traits–I think most of us all want to make our communities better places to live, work and raise a family.

    3) We agree of regulation of business–but do you think that will happen by magic, or becuase it’s right, or becuase we want it? I don’t. ANY changes to the status quo need to be made form the inside. We are on the outside. Unlike the Greeks, who sat outside Troy for 10 years being right, I want IN.

    Sorry to run…as I dig the dialogue…but I have a speech in 20 minutes. Ask more…I’ll answer as time allows.

  8. Holden says:

    RE the DC Central Kitchen – my intent wasn’t to criticize the program, but to get another data point on my belief that these job programs should be thought of as “helping a minority of people, those who are able to be helped” rather than “turning around all clients’ lives.” Looking at your program’s writeup, I see “Prior to entering the training program, candidates must meet the Kitchen’s standards for attitude and literacy”, so it seems as though the program design is already taking this principle into account. It may seem obvious to you, but I came into this area unclear on what can be expected from programs like this.

    I agree with you about how dumb administrative overhead is. I could see myself rallying behind a movement to make the govt do something about that misperception (depends what).

    RE “wanting in”: you can get in by creating a PAC or other entity (corporation?) that is allowed to lobby, and asking your donors to contribute to that. They’ll forgo the tax deduction if they do this. This seems pretty fair to me – making sure your donors are part of deciding whether to focus their money on direct service or advocacy, and that they understand that the latter doesn’t have the same public subsidy.

  9. robert egger says:

    Hey Holden…folks are going to start talking about us!!!

    First of all…as somebody who is pretty new to the Tactical Philanthropy, I gotta throw a shout-out to Sean for making this site happen. I am totally into this discussion.

    No worries about the DCCK discourse–I’m hip to how frustrating it can be to wander into the job-training universe. Just this week, our local business journal reported on a “training program” that was getting lots of work from our business improvement districts (BIDS). When you read past all the “miracle worker” fluff, you saw that this group was only paying folks 6.00 an hour to clean streets, which allowed them to outflank other companies that paid folks a living wage. The real rub, is what are they training folks to do? Where are the jobs? This is another example of the kind of shit that should be called out…and regular, in-depth coverage of the sector might give the public the ability to see through clap-trap dressed up as good deeds, and start to reward high performing groups that really set folks on a path to independence.

    Which leads me to your point about PACs. Simply put…if you ask folks to choose between feeding a kid everyday…day after day, or advocating for a way to liberate that kids parent–guess which they will choose? And while I know you are right….we have passed the point where this is an academic discussion. I know some won’t dig my motivation, but I read almost exclusively about independence movements…and if you read about King, Chavez or Gandhi… they all had safe options and legal recourses..and they were told to take them, over and over and over (by folks both inside and outside their movements). They chose instead to look for symbolic ways to strategically bend the rules.

    To me…the footsteps of the 80 million baby boomers who are coming, and the knowledge that nonprofit systems are already straining (as are our prisons) makes me think that we might have to consider pushing a tad harder, and maybe even making up some new rules.

    I’m out there, Bruther…and many in the field have to distance themselves from my vitriol…and here’s a classic example—what are they gonna do if we ALL don’t play by the rules…close us down? Who is gonna feed the poor, care for the sick, teach kids to dance, organize the volunteers, care for returning vets….hold America up? WHO???

    We hold more cards than you/we think…and if we got our act together we might not have to show em all…just enough to make our point.

    Cool?

    And Holden…I love you, Dude. So few take the time to say what they think, or get into a solid back and forth. I’m digging it.

  10. Robert, you write, “We hold more cards than you/we think”. To me, this is the key part of your whole message. Most American’s think of nonprofits as entities that “ask for something”. Even if they believe that nonprofits do good, they still think of them primarily as a group that wants something, rather than offers something.

    While for-profit businesses want something (namely, your money), people think of for-profits primarily as organizations that offer something.

    This framing shows up in how we evaluate nonprofits; we look at how they spend their resources, not at the good they produce.

    Your message is an important one. Nonprofits produce a massive amount of value in many different ways. It is time that nonprofits as a group and the American people re-framed nonprofits as producers rather than as consumers.

  11. robert egger says:

    Warning–the following is hard to say, but needs to be said.

    In MY opinion, if there were 25% fewer nonprofits, we’d be a MUCH more vital, productive and focused sector.

    Because we have what is akin to a saturated market, most of the sector spends most of their time chasing dough. Regular Joes and Janes have come to see us as a sector with its hand out, not as providers/sustainers of health, art, safety and the common good…let alone stimulators of the economy.

    On top of that…too few of the sector are comfortable talking about what they do, in person or through the media (we’re suppose to be humble and quiet, so we don’t look like we’re tooting our own horns). Put that together and you’ve got just what we’ve got–confusion over how to measure impact, and a GROWING public frustration over the constant barrage of “asks,” which, by the way, makes us ALL vulnerable to divisive attacks from posturing politicians who do know how to use the media (which LOVES a good nonprofit scandal story) and are projecting us (rather successfully) as a sector out of control and using tax dollars or the publics hard earned money to spin our wheels while living “champagne lifestyles.”

    (Personal note here–I HATE it when Sen. Grassley uses that term…like HIS healthcare and salary isn’t a champagne lifestyle compared to most Americans!!!)

    This steady drumbeat is already leading to a critical loss of public faith. At the VERY time our communities will need a robust, high performing sector, as we deal with the aging boomers and a shifting global economy, we will be vulnerable to legislation designed to tax nonprofit property or to channel money away from donor advise funds, family foundations, etc.. to cover predicatble state/federal deficits.

    (I know…I paint a pretty messed up picture sometimes…but that’s what I see and hear as I travel this country)

    But….as in all things (and in all of my thinking), there are some interesting options, if we lift our heads up and understand that WE will either rise or fall together.

    First of all…a thinning is coming whether we like it or not. For all the reasons I’ve discussed throughout this exchange…there will be fewer nonprofits down the road. So…we need to work to get regular, in-depth coverage of our shared sector in EVERY American paper. An educated public will be our best friend. We must insure that survival isn’t predicated on cause du-jour markering or colored ribbons….and to do that, we need more folks to understand the vital socio-economic role we play in every community.

    We have a great case to make to any publisher or manager (we represent readers AND revenue) and we need to make it….NOW.

    Intelligent, daily coverage needs to be our “#1 GET!!”

    And we also need to start pushing the envelope on new theories about how we can measure and maximize the impact of the dough we get.

    One I’ve had fun exploring, with groups I speak with, goes as follows:

    If Sean had invested $1,000 in Microsoft in 1975, he’d be getting annual dividend checks. In fact, he’d be RICH.

    If any of you gave $1,000 to…say, Habitat for Humanity, you would have gotten a one time tax deduction.

    Given all that Habitat has produced, and using basic probability formulas, why haven’t we figured out how to get you a annual (and potentially growing) tax deduction, based on the same principles of the dividend check? Makes sense to me.

    Similarly…down in Brazil, they are trying to introduce a new version of a stock market analysis, based on social impact. It will run side-by-side with the traditional stock market news, and allow Brazilians to guage the economic impact of their social sector.

    THAT might open the doors to a whole new era of philanthropy/reporting…which would give donors the tools they need to identify and then reward high performing, risk taking or just plain, old fashioned hard working organizations, rather than ones who promise big…and deliver small.

    And that might free some of us up from the routine of running after pennies long enough to find common ground, build on it and then, with our donors and the people we often serve, begin to push, in a measured and mature fashion, for political solutions to the problems we face as a country and as a society.

    Anyway…It’s almost 9:00 a.m., and I’ve got to get to the Kitchen to hook up with some volunteers. I hope this early morning ramble made some sense…if not–call me on it and I’ll try again.

    Thanks again for reading or writing in.