There’s no future in charity

Thanks to Michelle Davis of Nonprofit Connect, I was able to attend the keynote address at the Philanthropy Midwest Conference on November 19, 2009. She invited me because Robert Egger, author of Begging for Change and force behind the V3 Campaign, was the speaker. Michelle and I have been talking over the past few months about how we can work together to infuse more energy around advocacy and social change within the region’s nonprofit sector, and she knew that Robert would have inspirational and insightful things to say about our endeavors.

His goal is to make it impossible for anyone to get elected in the U.S. without having a plan for the nonprofit sector, and without seeing our work and our contributions. He knows that, to make this possible, nonprofit leaders have to “uncross our fingers and get to work”, and part of his strategy to make that happen is to light a fire under influential sectors leaders. He was very energetic (and, when I say someone’s energetic, that’s saying A LOT) and, while I didn’t agree with everything he said, I loved every minute of the morning.

Some highlights, with my very favorite thing I’ve heard in a long time, last:

  • Nonprofits are in the “extra” business, but the era of extra is over–if we’re always waiting for what’s left, there won’t be anything left in this economy, so we have to be at the table when the initial resources are divided.
  • The Baby Boomer generation offers tremendous promise to the social change movement, but we have to be organized to take advantage of it–12,000 people turn 60 every day (!), and the Baby Boomers represent “80 million of the richest, freest, best-educated people in the history of the world”, many of whom will be looking for a way to contribute.
  • The title of this post comes from his contention that we must stop forcing people to choose between .com or .org–we need social enterprises that offer people options about how they will make a difference. The United Kingdom has a “Minister of the Third Sector” now to promote this, and Egger used the example of extraordinary voluntarism in the U.S. (more than 80 million people here volunteer), and how it is facilitated by incentives within our tax structure, to illustrate how policy changes can bring about new alignments within social service work.
  • He emphasized the economic contributions of the nonprofit sector and, while I don’t disagree with any of his data, I’m not convinced it’s our best lead argument. He had a gripping quote: “The nonprofit sector, as a nation, could have a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, but we don’t even have a stake in local budget processes,” but I don’t necessarily believe that size=strength in the political arena, nor that we are going to get the seat at the metaphorical table we deserve by making a purely ‘economic impact’ argument.
  • I do agree wholeheartedly with his exhortation that the nonprofit sector find something other than “low administrative costs” by which to define our collective value. This seems to be morphing into a real drumbeat, and I expect that the next decade will see considerable transformation.
  • He bemoaned the infighting among nonprofits, likened it to the British control of India with only 3000 officers, and said that the only divide that should matter any more is “dumb/smart”, not “left/right”. I agree to an extent–there is way too much territoriality in social work, too–but I would argue that ideology DOES matter. There are “nonprofit” organizations whose conception of the social good is anathema to mine, and I don’t see any common cause with them just because we share a tax status designation. We need to work across sectors with those who seek social justice and break down those artificial divides.
  • Now, then, for my favorite quote. Robert Egger is the founder of the DC Central Kitchen, an organization that uses food from area restaurants to teach culinary skills to people who are homeless and/or unemployed and to provide food for those experiencing hunger. He said that his real transformation as a nonprofit leader came when he realized the moral dilemma inherent in concluding that “our answer is feeding working moms leftover food?”

    All of our work, essentially, that falls short of fundamental social change includes these moral questions. And the ideal response is not that we abandon such work for its moral ambiguity but, rather, that we challenge ourselves to surpass it and that, in so doing, we build a movement with the vision and power to provide a far different answer.

    Link to podcast of Robert Egger’s keynote

  • 2 responses to “There’s no future in charity

    1. I love Robert Egger he is an awesome guy. We met up and had coffee shots last time he was in Lawrence. He is good friends with some other good friends who do sustainability development projects in Mexico. Future Without Poverty, they are an awesome group of people too who are deeply involved in so many social action endeavors. You should look up Miguel Juanez on Facebook Melinda, he does projects for the immigrant population in Dallas and he is a student =)

      • That’s great, Willow! What a small world! I am going to read Egger’s book over break. I’ll definitely check out the group and Miguel–can I tell him Willow sent me? 🙂

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