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Sept. 8, 2011
TOPEKA According to Robert Egger, he’s probably done enough good works to earn a statue of himself in the nation’s capital.
But he’s not interested in resting on his laurels.
Instead, the founder of the D.C. Central Kitchen, one of the nation’s most successful nonprofit organizations, is focused on bigger accomplishments. Specifically, he said he wants to transform the nonprofit sector from a loose confederation of charity and civic organizations into a national force focused on both serving the needy and rebuilding the nation’s economy.
He brought his cause to Topeka Wednesday, speaking to about 100 people as a part of the Sunflower Foundation’s Advocacy in Health series.
“Most people think that nonprofit (work) is almost a zero-sum game. They hear the word ‘nonprofit’ and they don’t think we create anything of value,” Egger said in an interview after his speech. “Where I think we’ve been remiss is in not creating an understanding of how a domestic violence shelter, an art gallery, or a church or synagogue contribute to a community economically as well as socially and in not making the case that there is economic value in a good, healthy civic society.”
Egger said the organization he founded in 1989 is a good example. It uses food discarded by restaurants, hotels and caterers to prepare 4,000 hot meals a day for the hungry of Washington, D.C. But it does more than that. It also operates a culinary training program that prepares 80 people a year for restaurant and hospitality jobs. The program helps former drug addicts, convicted felons and the homeless become productive members of the community, Egger said.
“Every year 80 men and women leave our program and instead of going back to jail, they go out and get jobs,” he said. “They earn over $2 million (a year) collectively and pay over $200,000 in payroll taxes. And they’ll do that year after year after year. That’s economic gain for the city.”
Egger said new tax policies could help nonprofit organizations focus more on the economic impact they have on their communities. He said if the value of tax deductions that people receive for making charitable contributions were allowed to grow with an organization’s economic impact, it would give nonprofits incentives to both increase their impact and measure it.
“I don’t think that we, in this economic climate, can be burdened anymore by the idea of dot-com, dot-org – charities do this, businesses do that,” Egger said. “I’m interested in the hybrid. This idea of a program that generates wealth for a community but also creates a strong social, civic safety net that helps everybody thrive.”
Egger, a former night club owner, said 90 million young adults who have been raised in a service culture no longer believe in the old model of charity, which he describes as donating a little part of one’s income to a worthy cause at the end of the year. Rather, he said, they want to use their power as consumers to support businesses and nonprofits that contribute to improving the economy and quality of life in the communities in which they live. Egger calls it “Capitalism 2.0.”
“It’s going to be how on a daily basis does the way I run my business, the way I make my money make Topeka, or Kansas or America stronger. And I think the more consumers actually seek out and reward those kinds of businesses it will create market forces that will fundamentally lead to this Capitalism 2.0.”
Egger’s vision for transforming both the nonprofit sector and the American economy are outlined in his book, Begging for Change.