Housing Advocacy

Nonprofit Chamber of Commerce?

When you see a conference plenary session described as “positioning your organization for growth,” you probably expect some descriptions of grant writing strategies or succession planning. That is distinctly not […]

When you see a conference plenary session described as “positioning your organization for growth,” you probably expect some descriptions of grant writing strategies or succession planning.

That is distinctly not what Robert Eggers, founder of DC Central Kitchen and author of Begging for Change: The Dollars and Sense of Making Nonprofits Responsive, Efficient, and Rewarding for All, offered yesterday at NCRC’s annual conference opening afternoon plenary. Instead he meandered through a range of stirring calls to re-envision the nonprofit sector, and the work it’s doing, away from a supplicant/charity model.

Eggers started with his history of getting reluctantly talked into volunteering to feed the homeless, having a brainstorm about getting restaurants to donate unused food and training homeless people to cook and serve it so they had a leg up out of poverty, and finding that all the nonprofits were so set in their ways they wouldn’t consider it.

“I didn’t want to do this. It was clear that no one would do this and it had to be done,” said Eggers. DC Central Kitchen is about to graduate its 83rd class. It buys $300,000 worth of local produce a year, serves 5,000 meals a day, pays living wages of $13/hour plus benefits and is self-sufficient, earning 50 percent of its money.

It’s a great story, but Eggers wasn’t there to get accolades. Recounting how someone told him Dr. King would be proud, he disagreed. “Dr King would probably recoil at our work. He didn’t come here to talk about free food for the poor from restaurants. He was talking about economic justice. I don’t want to live in a country where the solution is feeding a working woman leftover food from a restaurant.”

And, he noted, as the economy of extra — extra food, extra money, extra time — disappears, non profits are going to need a different model.

Referring to how the British kept India subjugated by dividing Indians against each other, Eggers issued a call for unity in the nonprofit sector, instead of “fighting each other for crumbs from the table. Pull us together and we’d be the 7th biggest economy in the world. We’d have a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. But we don’t have a say in the smallest town’s budget process. We have accepted that it’s our role to wait outside while decisions are made.”

Even very disparate nonprofits have some things in common, said Eggers. What do we have in common? We get no in-depth analysis, no media coverage. Low overheard. We are all burdened by the idea that a good nonprofit is one that has low overhead, so we have this bar around our necks that say we can’t pay good wages, advertise, be politicial. Legislation is being made on anecdotal evidence about what we do.

Nonprofits are burdened by the roots of modern philanthropy, Eggers argued. White women trying to enter the workforce in the 1970s were told they had no skills and had to work in charity. The nonprofit sector exploded in size, but it is still viewed by most of the country as women’s work — nice but not necessary, a place where charity is OK, but no politics, no economics.

Given our tremendous effects on the economy, both in our employment and in our results/causes, “we need a chamber of commerce mentality for nonprofits in America,” he argued, pointing to Connecticut’s new governor, who has a cabinet person whose job it is to work with nonprofits. But we have to let go of the panic about survival of our own organizations and “realize this has to be an all boats must rise moment.”

Eggers sees tremendous hope for new approaches in generational change. “Anyone who asks the current generation to give back, doesn’t understand,” he said. “They were raised doing service. They are poor, they are plugged in, they are pissed off and they are coming. They are not interested in charity. They want to be part of an empowerment movement. . . . They want a different way to make a living.” Meanwhile, the boomers are turning 60 and looking for redemption.

One of the differences Eggers hopes to see is more of an integration of everyday spending decisions into nonprofit work. “The future of philanthropy will be how you spend your money every day.” He referred to Dr. King using dimes you use to ride bus, Ghandi using the power of not purchasing salt, Cesar Chavez using boycotts of grapes. “It’s the power of poor people’s pennies. . . . Any business that pays a living wage, gives people the day off to vote, is a social enterprise too.”

He concluded with calls for an ongoing tax credit for money donated to programs like microcredit that produce results year after year, and work to encourage consumers to reward businesses doing the right thing, not just boycotting the bad actors.

It was a lot to take in, but it seemed to leave the room energized. Is anyone out there implementing pieces of Eggers’s vision or hoping to?

(Photo credit: RH Photos Charles Matthews and Dave Patterson)

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