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.