This article is the final installment in our Knowledge For Nonprofits series, which is made up of articles, interviews and tips for the nonprofit sector. The previous articles can be found here, here and here.
Robert Egger is an iconoclast in the nonprofit sector. He once ran nightclubs, but in 1989 turned philanthropic. That was the year he opened DC Central Kitchen, a community kitchen that uses locally sourced food to make meals for the hungry and provide on-the-job training for the unemployed. Since then DC Central Kitchen has made more than 23 million meals and 800 people get jobs.
Egger is the author of Begging for Change: The Dollars and Sense of Making Nonprofits Responsive, Efficient, and Rewarding for All and a frequent speaker on the nonprofit industry. Quick with colorful language, he’s more likely to speak about marketing, economics, revenue and profit than plea for altruism.
Egger provided me with an extensive interview about nonprofits, why they need to shift their thinking about marketing, and how the next generation of professionals is already changing the game for everyone.
You spend a lot of time not only working with nonprofits, but talking about how the rest of world view them and how they view themselves. What do you tell them?
As much as I love this sector, and will fight for it, I recognize its limits. Our job shouldn’t be just too feed the poor, but to get Americans to think through the way we feed the poor, to open a very different dialogue about how do we approach hunger in America. Do we continue to make it a food thing? Or do we begin to explore the idea that it may be where we shop every day? Or problems with wage in America?
People don’t want to talk about that. Most people are very kind, but they don’t want to get out of their comfort zone, which means that if you’re poor in America it’s all your fault versus something bigger. So people stay there and it’s totally understandable. But then again as a marketer, as someone who desperately wants that discussion – not unlike how I used music, or a show, or a comedy, or even a dance, in a nightclub setting to get to people – I use job training, I use the issue of recovery, I use social enterprise, I use powerful examples of people who have spent the majority of their lives, and often their most formative earning years, behind bars who are now really grabbing hold of something different. It’s not just a job. It’s an adventure.
How do you think your colleagues in the industry and the world at large receive your ideas on nonprofit management?
The response is shared by the nonprofit world, the business world and political world. All three for different reasons find the concept a little esoteric, which I must admit I find startling.
Politicians often look at nonprofits exclusively as how do we cut or take their assets. They’re not looking at it as a potential economic driver. And most people in business see a divide between dot org and dot com. We, dot com, drive the economy and you, dot org, do good deeds. That’s the impression. I find it boring as all get out, but I understand why it’s there.
Again, it goes back to knowledge is power. Once you know all this stuff it allows you to craft your message whether it’s your website, your Twitter, videos you do or writing you do. But it might also be the way you run a nonprofit. It might be the way you point and say, “We’re a little soup kitchen in DC, but we just hired 30 jobs. We’re adding to the economy. We’re paying a living wage. We’re buying local. And we’re making a profit.” It’s marketing, marketing, marketing. More aggressively punching out an idea or a dozen ideas.
So you think the way nonprofits approach marketing needs to change?
We need to transition away from this send-a-check-in-at-the-end-of-the-year culture that keeps nonprofits looking like an “extra”. I’m really more intrigued by how the way people spend their money everyday leads to decreasing the need for charity and elevating the tax base.
Nonprofits were born out of an era of extra in America. There were just a s—-load of extras in America. And nonprofits grew up in an era where they felt the only way to market themselves was the sort of moral absolutes of their projects. The reality is the era of extra is over in America, and it probably won’t come running back anytime in the immediate future. And I think the American public is moving past the situation where they are going to be satisfied with bromides. So it’s going to be imperative that nonprofits provide documentation of what is their economic impact on their community. How much money are they bringing from outside the community into the community?
When use terms like “revenue”, “profit” and “business” among nonprofits, what’s the reaction? Are they on board?
There’s a fear or reluctance about generating revenue. But as I say that, things are happening. You are seeing this tacit influx. You’ve got 70 million young people who have been raised to think about community service, brother. To a person, literally, an entire generation that’s been raised to think about community service and they’re going to be coming out of the best colleges in America. They’re going to want the way they make their money to be their philanthropy. They’re basically saying, “Look man, I want to work. I need to pay my bills. But I want to find a job that not only doesn’t do harm, it actually does good; that makes me feel like I did something positive today rather than just punching the clock.” The folly is trying to convince kids that they need to choose between dot com and dot org, or between making money and having integrity. They shouldn’t have to choose and I don’t think they are.
Consumption every day is a volunteer act. You volunteer every day to walk into a Burger King and buy a Whopper. The question becomes how can you, through this act of volunteerism, have tremendous impact on your local community or the global economy.
How has social media changed nonprofit industry, particularly when it comes to generating revenue?
It allows us to trade information much faster. When I first started the kitchen it was “I’ll mail you a letter and I’ll call you in a couple days to see if you got it.” So it’s had a tremendous impact.
But at the same time it’s like, So what? I put up a little response to Rush Limbaugh on YouTube and it got 50,000 hits and people were like, “Dude that rocks!” And I’m like, “Yeah it’s fun”, but at the same time if I had put up a video of cute kitties flipping off Rush Limbaugh, it would have been 2 million hits. So let’s not get carried away. Just because someone is pushing a button or sending you a tweet doesn’t mean you’re changing the way they think. I love it. I want more of it. But I don’t think it’s showed it’s true potential yet. People haven’t figured out how to color in the lines yet. They’re just scribbling and having a joyful time.
So what available tools should nonprofits take advantage of that they aren’t tapping today?
Some nonprofits have no access to capital. They have to beg for grants. And I have to be honest with you, even the most dedicated philanthropist doesn’t want to give up power. They’re going to keep you on a short leash and make you beg and scrape, which is what we do. I’m interested in access to capital. You get the 30 most powerful nonprofits in an area and you pool your resources, you go to the bank and say, “Between us we have nearly $1 billion in annual revenue. And we’re looking for someone who wants our collective business, but we want a seat on the board in exchange for that. We want to change s—. We want to have a very different way of judging return on investment.”
How many jobs did we create? How much revenue did we create for the city? If I can invest in a 7-11 and get money based on how many diabetes-causing sausages they sell, why is it that I can’t at the same time invest in the nonprofit sector. If a nonprofit can show measurable, viable return on investment, why can’t I get an ongoing tax deduction based on the same rate of return principal as dividend check? There’s no reason. But think of what that means, young brother. You open up that doorway to all different ways of making a profit. To searching out and investing in very strategic organizations that are rocking the house. And how would that incentive behavior in all aspects of the nonprofit sector and really spur innovation? Because there’s no evidence that the way we’re positioning ourselves now is moving the needle.