Begging for Change: The Dollars and Sense of Making Nonprofits Responsive, Efficient, and Rewarding for All
by Robert Egger, with Howard Yoon
240 pp., $24.95
Robert Egger jabbed a finger at the menu he had just picked up. “It says ‘Hearty Chicken Soup.’ What makes it hearty?” The chefs—neatly uniformed, but with faces that bespoke hard lives on the streets—exchanged nervous glances. Finally, one of them spoke up: “It’s the seasoning.” Ever the professional restaurateur, Egger wafted handfuls of the steam rising from the aluminum foil platter of soup toward his nose. “Okay. ‘Hearty’ is a good word. But you have to be able to back it up.”
Egger’s nonprofit organization, D.C. Central Kitchen, is a “hearty” one. Central Kitchen serves 4,000 meals a day in the District of Columbia, but that’s only the beginning. Through a 12-week culinary training program, Egger is turning homeless individuals into skilled employees for the city’s booming food industry, or for the catering business the Kitchen has launched. Meanwhile, nervous, stereotype-ridden volunteers by the hundreds come to the Kitchen to work side by side with former homeless addicts (wielding knives, as Egger points out). As a result, many of the volunteers are “converted” and become believers in the power of personal transformation.
Central Kitchen has not, however, reaped the rewards of success. Establishment-type foundations often consider Egger’s group a simple “charity”—an organization that treats only the symptoms of poverty—and will not fund it. Never mind that the Kitchen takes otherwise wasted food, wasted lives, and wasted volunteer service, and combines them into a “take-no-prisoners, make-no-excuses, well-oiled hunger-fighting machine.” It still fails to meet the test of modern philanthropy, which is to get at the “root causes” of poverty through projects that address, say, low-cost housing policy, or the psychology of addiction, or the shifting flows of global capital.
In Begging for Change, Egger launches a powerful attack on modern philanthropy’s notions of effective giving; the sector, unaccustomed to a voice as targeted, blunt, and frequently profane as his, is chafing. A man with no patience for waste, Egger finds it everywhere in the world of donors and nonprofits more concerned with preserving turf, protecting jobs, and raising money than with empowering people to turn their lives around.
Waste Is Wrong
Egger was enjoying a successful career as a manager of popular nightclubs in Washington, D.C., during the late 1980s when one evening he found himself tagging along with his church’s “Grate Patrol,” a volunteer-staffed van that delivered sandwiches to the multitudes of homeless people wandering the streets of the capital. Appalled at the lives that free food seemed only to be sustaining rather than changing, he also reflected on the mounds of food that ended up in dumpsters behind Washington’s numerous clubs and restaurants. He could not “walk away from a hunger problem I knew I could help fix.”
And so was born the notion of a “central kitchen,” whose refrigerated trucks gather unused food from participating stores, restaurants, and catered functions into a central location, where it is converted into meals that are then delivered the same day to the city’s food pantries and nonprofit meal programs. The model has been replicated by other “community kitchens” around the country, which have organized an internet consortium to exchange ideas, stories, and moral support.
The Kitchen idea has morphed into yet another form. Egger observed that the nation’s college students lost hours of time driving from their schools to inner-city volunteer programs to fulfill service requirements, while the kitchens back at their own schools were “wasting away” in idleness for much of the day. He decided those students could work more efficiently as volunteers in their own schools’ kitchens—where the students are now busy in the off-hours producing meals for charitable nonprofits. “Waste is wrong,” goes Egger’s motto, “be it food, money, or the potential for productive lives.”
As these imaginative and productive ideas have spun out from Egger’s brain over the years, the nonprofit sector, rather than welcoming and honoring him, has dismissed him as idealistic or naïve. “As an outsider to the sector,” he notes in his book, “I ran into many ‘lifers’—nonprofit veterans who were content doing what they’d always been doing instead of shaking up the system. They seemed more interested in maintaining the status quo with their jobs than searching for new ways to improve their community.” As a result of self-interested turf-consciousness, Egger argues, the nonprofit sector has too many groups—perhaps 25 percent too many—who are chasing resources just to stay alive. And too many of those groups are directing funds into unnecessarily inflated salaries for executives, and into capital drives for new facilities that are not really needed.
For these reasons, Egger urges donors to be far more deliberate in their giving, to stop responding to guilt-inducing emotional solicitations on behalf of photogenic groups, and to insist on seeing precise plans for productive impact. Foundations in particular, he suggests, seem “almost intoxicated by the concept of helping new nonprofits” and have a penchant for funding flavor-of-the-month causes. Yet while foundations want nonprofits “to become independent of their grantmaking cycles within a short time span of a few years,” few offer “grants of much more than $25,000 a year; and many of these funds c[o]me with strings attached” that involve endless hours of report preparation and “finessing relationships” with program officers. Egger suggests instead that foundations should give “more to less”—larger grants focused on a smaller group of nonprofits with solid records of achievement.
He cautions, however, that foundations should be wary of making grants on the basis of dubious “measurable outcomes,” especially the ever-popular percent of expenditure for administrative overhead. Effectiveness, he insists, often requires more, not less, administrative apparatus. “The bottom line I’m trying to get you to see,” he said when we spoke over lunch, “is that there is no bottom line [author’s emphasis]. No one has been able to come up with a reliable set of metrics or standards to judge nonprofits.” That is because “nonprofits provide a service, sometimes tangible, sometimes intangible, and it’s impossible to create a tool that can accurately measure these services.”
Egger resists ideological pigeonholing, and his opinions are sufficiently various and colorful both to please and alienate almost everyone. Conservatives will appreciate his practical, hard-nosed approach to social problems, and his conviction that far too many social programs today, like his church’s “Grate Patrol,” have no plan for enabling “people to free themselves of their cycle of need and dependency.” They will nod at his remark that he has “heard countless nonprofit, foundation, and other liberal colleagues wax on and on, and demean entry-level jobs as dead-end, burger-flipping drudgery.” He insists that “there is no such thing as a bad job.” Conversely, liberals will be enthusiastic about Egger’s advice to corporate leaders: “Don’t donate your time to the inner city if your own employees aren’t making a living wage.” They will applaud his call to business to modify pursuit of profit with a stronger sense of social responsibility: “People no longer want companies to squeeze profit out of everything they do. They want purpose and meaning.”
A powerful vision keeps this kind of leader from slumping comfortably into the high-salaried careerism that Egger sees in so much of the nonprofit sector. It gives him the courage to name names of the self-indulgent and wasteful, disregarding the sector’s unwritten rule that all discussion is to be bland, uncritical, and focused on process, not results. Likewise, it makes him generous enough to praise those around the country driven by similar visions who can show comparable results.
Any effective donor will seek out a leader like Egger and solicit his unvarnished opinion. It may mean listening to an account of a vision that seems unrealistic and far-fetched. But respectful attention is richly rewarded with insightful views about what is working in the sector and what isn’t, who is the “real deal” as a nonprofit leader or who is just coasting on the fumes of reputation or public acclaim. (That sort of information circulates freely on the streets, but is seldom otherwise available to establishment institutions like foundations.) Personal, subjective evaluation of projects by such a leader is far more useful and accurate than reliance on questionable measurable outcomes, because, as Egger notes, “the fundamentals of nonprofiteering aren’t based on surveys or studies. They’re not part of an academic or government trend. Rather, they’re based on hands-on experiences in the trenches, seeing things work beautifully or blow up in our faces.”
The sad truth, however, is that established philanthropy is unlikely to seek Egger’s advice. Most foundations react poorly to criticism, and he is no less honest about their bad habits than those of his fellow nonprofits. His views about public policy are rooted not in data or research, but in everyday experience—a source of wisdom heavily discounted in an increasingly academic field. His boisterous sense of showmanship no doubt unsettles the typical buttoned-down program officer, even though Egger rightly notes that a sense of theater is useful for attracting and retaining volunteers, especially younger ones.
The sadder truth is that Egger struggles even to attract major institutional funding for his own projects, in spite of his new book, numerous awards and media appearances, and a term of selfless service as interim director of the local United Way, helping it to recover from a series of scandals. Indeed, after this book was published, Egger sent out several hundred requests for support to foundations, but has received no positive responses.
Instead, numerous foundations pour millions of dollars into efforts to reverse ineluctable social trends or to reform intransigent social and political institutions, without discernible results—but also without apparent alarm. They are readily shocked, though, by the suggestion that they “waste” a few thousand dollars on a group like D.C. Central Kitchen, which can claim only to transform lives one by one. This is an attitude that truly begs for change.
William A. Schambra is director of the Hudson Institute’s Bradley Center on Philanthropy and Civic Renewal. Krista Shaffer, research assistant, contributed to the review.