More than any other type of business, nonprofits need to keep their high-flying ideals tethered firmly to the ground. The essence of this axiom is probably best described by Robert Egger among his list of rules that nonprofits should take great pains to live by: “Nirvana was a great band, but it’s a terrible nonprofit mission statement.”

As president and founder of D.C. Central Kitchen in Washington, D.C., Egger has made this appeal to countless nonprofits, Fortune 500s, business schools, and just about anyone who would listen. “The recent downturn in public support for nonprofits isn’t about the economy or 9/11,” he writes in his book, “Begging for Change.” “It’s about skepticism. The public has had enough with pity and platitudes. Americans want a plan.”

Egger will be the keynote speaker at the 2009 Nonprofit Symposium on Wednesday, May 20, beginning at 8:30 a.m. at the College of New Jersey. Cost: $30. The event is sponsored by Mercadien. Register at www.mercadien.com/RegisterEvent.aspx?calid=55, or E-mail dprensky@tcnj.edu.

The event will feature a series of workshops on accounting for endowments, nonprofit mergers, and “Investing Nonprofit Assets In a Post-Madoff World.” Egger will give the lunchtime keynote speech on making nonprofits more efficient, responsive, and rewarding.

A self-described “recovering hypocrite,” Egger first dreamed of running a nightclub after watching “Casablanca” at age 12. “Much to my Marine Corp pilot father’s chagrin, I landed a job at the Childe Harold, a Washington, D.C., nightclub,” he says. Though he says he barely graduated from high school, Egger worked his way up until he got his dream job as a manager, booking bands around the capital city. His plan: Save the world through the power of music.

Having purposely avoided anything related to volunteerism, Egger found himself tagging along with his wife, Claudia, and some members of a church group that fed homeless people in D.C. “This is why I still refer to myself as a recovering hypocrite,” he says. “There I was talking about changing the world, but I had to be corralled and pushed into helping people in my own backyard.”

Once the reality settled in Egger noticed something worse. “I was immediately struck by the fact that, while we were doing good, we were doing nothing to help people out of the situations they were in,” he says. “We were just handing food out a window to folks standing in the rain. And all we kept saying was ‘See you tomorrow.’”

Egger noticed that while the volunteers shelled out for food to give hungry people, caterer friends of his were dumping vast amounts of expensive food in the trash every night. He had the idea to put the people to work and save the food from the trash.

Egger met with the church group with a plan to train the very people it was feeding, in the business of food service. The response was a set of blank stares. “No one was interested in a program that took people who were thrown away and food that was thrown away and made something out of them,” he says. So, recognizing that it was either him or nobody, Egger “temporarily” postponed his dream job and started the D.C. Central Kitchen in 1989.

D.C. Central feeds 4,000 people on average every day, but whatever you do, do not call it a soup kitchen. “I despise that term,” Egger writes in the prologue of his book. “It’s also a job-training program, a for-profit catering company, a cooking school, a drug counseling program, a support group, a job bank, a food service institution, an empowerment zone, and a true model program. It’s a take-no-prisoners, make-no-excuses, well-oiled hunger-fighting machine.”

Being good versus doing good. In “Begging for Change,” Egger relates the story of a D.C. nonprofit that raised $5 million to open a new permanent location. Egger himself donated to the cause.

But rather than buying the property, the agency had signed a lease. And just as things were ready to go the landlord sold the property, forcing the agency to raise another $7 million to buy it back.

While Egger insists the program is a worthy cause he openly questions whether any cause is worthy of a $12 million home. “How many other programs didn’t get funded or struggled because of these capital campaigns?” he asks. “How many great ideas had to be put aside or abandoned because of this organization’s lack of foresight and the community’s unwillingness to ask questions?”

And Egger feels the world will never know the answers because few dare question the actions of any noble cause. Questioning the actions of such agencies seems to equal questioning the agencies’ integrity, he says.

More than money. A traditional criticism of social reformers is that they believe that throwing money at a problem will make it go away. But Egger says he learned very shortly after opening D.C. Central that all the money in the world will never win the war against hunger. “Hunger is tied to other battles,” he writes. “It’s about education, child care, job training, AIDS work, drug counseling, affordable housing, and healthcare.” It also is about creating a self-sustaining system and building alliances between donors, volunteers, agencies, and corporations to use the money wisely.

While he admits the advice sounds obvious, Egger says it is surprisingly tough to get it across in the nonprofit world. Unlike for-profit businesses, nonprofits typically are started with the express intention of improving the lot of some entity other than itself. Translated, this means they are founded on ideals. But history has been unkind to idealists. You need money, but you also need a good plan for it. “It doesn’t matter how much money you have or how much you raise,” Egger writes. “It’s how money makes something happen in your community.”

Starfish and strategy. Robert Egger is fond of telling stories involving animals. The one about the starfish is the one he hates most but it nicely illustrates his point about the good we really do.

The story goes that an old man walking along the surf sees thousands of starfish washed ashore. Soon he comes by a young man who is throwing the animals back into the water, one by one, trying to save them. When the old man tells him how he can’t possibly make a difference when there are so many starfish that need help, the young man throws one into the ocean and says, “I made a difference to that one.”

While random acts of kindness are a good thing, Egger says, the romance behind them usually steers people away from an actual social strategy. Like disaster relief efforts that focus intense generosity onto a specific situation, piecemeal acts of kindness are only able to make a difference piecemeal.

They don’t fix the underlying problem. “When it comes to the day-to-day work that nonprofits perform,” he writes, “we have to turn to organization and strategy, not random acts.”

The primary strategy, Egger says, is to stick to your organization’s core mission. He holds up the March of Dimes as an example of a good idea put to good use that ultimately achieved its core goal of conquering polio.

Founded by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, himself a polio sufferer, the March of Dimes not only held an annual dance fundraiser, it developed a volunteer army to go door-to-door and raise money a dime at a time. In the 1950s money from the March of Dimes helped Jonas Salk develop the cure for polio.

Rising Tide offers a more direct example of putting business savvy to good use. Founded in California to assist foster children who leave the system as new adults, Rising Tide tapped the finance and real estate savvy of its volunteers to help combat the number one problem facing these kids — they don’t have any place to live.

The agency used a combination of donations, loans, and foundation grants to buy property to rent to people getting out on their own. First month’s rent is free and the rate gradually increases until tenants pay a market-rate rent, with money from real jobs Rising Tide helps the kids find.

A few parting words of advice for businesses. While corporations often are viewed as the antithesis of charity, corporations today have little hope of engendering success without showing the world their philanthropic sides. Even Bill Gates was cowed into developing a philanthropic enterprise when he could no longer justify pure profit.

But corporations allow many nonprofits to survive and thrive. They just need to stop trying to reinvent philanthropy. “There are too many corporations and foundations duplicating philanthropic efforts,” Egger writes.

Rather than starting a new organization hoping to fix a problem many organizations already exist to fix — and, consequently, spreading money and resources around in numerous, starfish-sized drips and drabs — corporations need to pool their efforts and coordinate their strategies.

They also need to rethink marketing. “By marketing the how and why of your philanthropy,” Egger writes, “you can help the public focus on giving. An educated public can be a corporate philanthropy’s strongest ally.”

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