Nonprofit founder talks about shortening the food line as you serve it
Robert Egger, founder of the DC Central Kitchen and author of Begging for Change, began his career by working at clubs and restaurants. At the age of 13, he wanted to open the greatest nightclub in the world.
It wasn’t until 10 years down the line, while volunteering for a food truck, that he came up with an idea that would later morph into the DC Central Kitchen. Based in the nation’s capitol, the nonprofit serves millions of meals to the homeless, while at the same time running a culinary job-training program.
In 2004, Eggers published Begging for Change, a book about steering through the modern nonprofit field and successfully serving a cause. Recently, Eggers has been taking to the road, speaking at nonprofit-related conferences and interviewing notable people in the nonprofit and political world.
Q: What first inspired you to start your own nonprofit organization?
A: [Once while volunteering for a food truck] there was this line of people outside in the rain, waiting for this truck to show up. I kept thinking — restaurants have food to throw away, but they also have jobs. What happens when we put the two together? I was just a volunteer who came back with a whole business plan, saying, ‘Hey man, here’s an idea that will allow you to feed more people better food for less money but also, if you do some truck training, you can offer people a chance to be part of the solution.’ I just assumed that people would say ‘Dude, thank you, what a great idea!,’ but all that the groups that I proposed it to could do was tell me reasons it wouldn’t work. When I realized they weren’t going to [use it], I thought ‘Dang, this is too obvious an idea to just throw up my hands and say that if they won’t do it, I guess no one will do it.’ I figured I’d get it started and then go back to running nightclubs … but here we are 23 years later.
Q: In your book Begging for Change, you address the problems surrounding an ‘overpopulation’ of nonprofits. Do you still see these problems, like lack of efficiency and structure, as a problem in today’s nonprofit field?
A: It is a saturated market. I don’t necessarily advocate for fewer nonprofits — I just wouldn’t want [‘overpopulation’] to create destruction, like there is in some of the other fields. Right now, for example, there’s not really any agreed-upon consensus over what is a good nonprofit, so in that vacuum, you just have thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of semi-anemic organizations all struggling to try and do their own thing versus something a little bit more coordinated or focused. And that’s what interests me — not the survival of the nonprofit sector, but the destruction of the problems that predicate the need for the nonprofit. So when I talk about efficiency, it’s not like I want to blame nonprofits for some of the things that they are forced to do because there are so many 501(c)(3)s issued every year. You could make a case that we’re almost purposefully out there fighting each other for scraps versus finding any kind of common tactics.
Q: How would you say your time on the road has affected your perspective on nonprofits?
A: What it’s allowed me to see is the millions of breathtaking examples of innovation that are happening all across America in towns big and small. I’ve seen not just nonprofit leaders, but I speak at a huge amount of universities, and I see your generation doing all kinds of breathtaking examples and trying to forge this interesting alliance between profit and purpose, like ‘Look I’d like to make some money, but I’d like to do it in a way that makes the world a better place at the same time.’ You’ll be told by a million older people that that can’t happen. [But] I believe it is the future.
Q: What would you recommend for anyone trying to start a nonprofit?
A: I think it’s always responsible to suggest that they look to make sure there’s not another organization with which they could partner to avoid duplication. I would also tell people not to meet the need that exists right now, but anticipate how can you take the resources in the community to not only meet the need, but potentially solve the problems simultaneously. What made the DC Central Kitchen so unique was the idea of ‘Can we make the people that are serving part of the solution while also meeting the need?,’ and that was a very bold new idea. You have to move away from just the service culture of nonprofit work and go boldly into the empowerment zone — that evolution away from service into a power is a huge, important step.
Cat Nuwer is a senior writing major who is begging for change… and chocolate. Email her at cnuwer1[at]ithaca[dot]edu.