Nonprofit founder urges charities to pool resources

November 4, 2012

Robert Egger revolutionized the soup kitchen in 1989 when he created a charity that employed the impoverished people it fed.

D.C. Central Kitchen collects recycled food and distributes meals to poor people while hiring homeless and previously incarcerated people into its catering business. It has become a model nonprofit in the Washington region, one that has won national acclaim from the likes of Oprah Winfrey, who included Egger as a member of her Angel Network.

Now 25 years later, Egger is stepping down as head of D.C. Central Kitchen to start a similar charity in Los Angeles. Capital Business caught up for a chat. Here’s an edited transcript:

How would you describe the Washington region’s
philanthropy community?

Washington by its very nature has a financial stability that many other cities envy. We have groups of people who have the ability to give generously at the end of the year or respond to a crisis. Many other cities don’t really have the kind of employment base that we do. That’s an advantage for many organizations. I’ve always been joyfully impressed by the largess of this community. The chefs in this town, the restaurateurs, anyone in hospitality. All I did was create a professional environment in which they felt comfortable donating food and it opened up a glorious river of food, jobs and goodwill. This town has been tremendous for the business I launched. It’s been incredibly generous to me both as an individual and business leader. It’s with great sadness that I leave but it’s with joy because I felt I gave as good as I got.

Does D.C. Central Kitchen model work for other nonprofits?

Yes. The Central Kitchen earns 60 percent of its own income, which gave us a lot of latitude financially. Other organizations have to rely on the often fickle nature of grants and can’t muster that kind of economic stability that allows growth. It’s essential that the foundation and nonprofit community realize the economy has shifted. The era of “extra” in America has ended. The kitchen relied on extra food. Most organizations rely on extra buildings or extra money or extra clothing or, when you think about volunteers, extra time. And America is not going to produce that kind of “extra” anymore. I think we have to fundamentally realize that if we want to see workforce housing in D.C., we, nonprofits, need to become developers. If we need to see more businesses that reinvest in the community, we need to open those businesses. What’s the economic incentive for anyone to hire a felon? There is none.

What do charities need to do right now to prepare for the
‘fiscal cliff’?

Start considering how to pool their banking businesses. If 60 nonprofits in this town merged their banking business and shopped it out, they’d most likely be able to advocate for access to capital and potentially a seat on the board of a bank. That starts to break the cycle of us being dependent on the “extra” society.

You hear of founders who are reluctant to leave their organization. How did you know it was time to move on?

I’ve been transitioning for five years because of the national work that I do whether in food recovery or the role of nonprofits. I really turned over the day-to-day many years ago to an amazing group of people. But at the same time, I have a creative itch. I love the work I do and I didn’t want to leave the movement.

Vanessa Small covers philanthropy and nonprofits for Capital Business. She also spotlights newly appointed executives in the New at the Top column, which chronicles their journeys to the top. Small was raised in Orange County, Ca. and graduated from Howard University.
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