12 July 2006

Egger, Robert, with Howard Yoon. "Begging for change: the dollars and sense of making nonprofits responsive, efficient, and rewarding for all". New York: HarperCollins, 2004. All references to this item.

Robert Egger began his career in the nightclub entertainment industry and entered hunger relief by founding D.C. Central Kitchen, after realizing that hungry people don't need a breadline as much as a way to escape the breadline (31-32). He developed a model that provides training and support to clients, as well as preparing and distributing food, and has tried to take the model to scale by starting the Kitchens, INC support structure for other community-based training kitchens. He has also served as interim director of the United Way National Capitol Area, so he must be fairly well respected in his local nonprofit community.

Begging for Change was a nice little book, but it does suffer from Egger's ego. While we get plenty of examples from model organizations, most of the text relates to Egger, his organization, and his attitude. It's a pity; he says some good things, but they might be lost because his antagonistic tone grates on readers and costs him credibility. For instance, when he says "This is not about building cathedrals" on page xix of the introduction, Egger takes a direct poke at Bill Shore, founder and director of Share Our Strength and author of The Cathedral Within. This is petty; Shore and Egger could be seen as direct competitors, as both run hunger-relief organizations based in Washington, D.C. and both have recently put out books on revitalizing the nonprofit community. While this may be part of Egger's iconoclastic persona, which stresses his message of paradigmatic change, it also suggests that Egger either does not recognize the need for, or does not have the skills to, cooperate with partners. This is immediately countered in the text by examples of his relationship-building skills, particularly while starting D.C. Central Kitchen and during his term as President of the D.C. United Way. By then, however, the damage has been done. Egger, with his stories of nightlife and conflict, does not come across as one who should be trusted completely.

Egger suggests that to energize the nonprofit community and effectively respond to social problems, we need to focus efforts more effectively by weeding out a large percentage of organizations that overlap efforts, compete for funding, and work at cross-purposes, in favor of a few effective groups whose efforts are taken to scale nationally to address problems.

This duplication is not always apparent. However, health and human service agencies do seem to spring up wherever a need exists, and new ones suggest that the need has not been met. These needs probably could be better served by a single, appropriately organized and scaled program. Arts and education programs, on the other hand, are already so hurt for funds that only the most capable are surviving. Additionally, duplication in arts and education provides more options, with different foci addressing different needs and reaching different clients and audiences. For instance, a community theatre and a professional theatre, while both trying to attract the theatre-loving audience, will put on different shows and provide variety, while also providing outlets for two different levels of talent. In this arena, overlap and duplication is a very good thing.

Egger's purpose is to help us improve our organizations, though, not complain about their present state. First, he describes the problem of random giving with "the starfish story" (69-70). In it, a man confronts a beach covered in starfish left by the tide. When told that his throwing them back one at a time does not really improve things, he responds "it made a difference to that one". Egger thinks this describes much of our nonprofit giving—and that fundraising efforts often promote such random action giving, rather than a planned, consistent approach.

From the business perspective, it would obviously be better to have reliable income. However, complaining about the very generosity that makes our work possible is foolish. While it would be better for organizations to have steady, reliable income that could be used as needed instead of sporadic gifts with strings attached to them, it is up to organizations to educate the giver and change behavior. Likewise, it would be better to have resource coordination for emergencies—but again, work with what you can get. The moral of this for an organization, however, is clear: go after long-term, regular, and unrestricted funding. To advancing this end, Egger next discusses giving to umbrella groups such as United Way.

As he explains, umbrellas equate to saving starfish en masse (78-79). They do this by providing a steady check, weeding out organizations that are not well managed, and not putting restrictions on funds. The last point is especially important, as it allows organizations to pay for infrastructure development and administrative expenses. Ultimately, he feels, donors get better value for money by letting an umbrella distribute it across the community's needs than by supporting a favorite group directly.

For organizations, Egger then delineates his four priorities of doing good (88-89): cause, clients, community, and constituencies. First, he provides a definition, saying "The cause is about creating systems that enable people" (88). Doing this well will address client's needs. This, in turn, fills a community need. The final component is taking care of staff and donors because they are valuable and hard to replace.
The next piece of advice is to make service easy (103). To succeed in recruiting volunteers, make service easy and fulfilling. Opportunities should be where people work, live, and play, so it is convenient, both for transportation and for scheduling. Utilize their skills and fit their needs instead of making them find and fit us. This will also help produce a tangible link between volunteers and the cause. A "tangible link" (115) is a bond between donors and recipients, a connection between effort and purpose. This is what breaks down conceptual walls between workers and clients, making the problem real and stirring engagement. With it, a volunteer is hooked; without it, a volunteer is soon gone.

This is all good advice. Unfortunately, the most valuable part of the book is directory he compiles in appendix and "Robert's Rules" (177-184), which pithily sum up the salient points of his preceding text. While the advice is good, being able to get it without suffering Egger's ego makes buying the book just to skip to the end a fair proposition. Better yet, borrow a copy and Xerox the last few pages that are useful: if Egger can brag about accepting a lower salary than executives at comparable organizations, he can live without the few pennies of royalties this costs him.


Blogger robertegger said...

Robert Egger here...just dropping a line to comment on your comments.

First of all...you are right, I do have an ego. So did Mother Theresa, Malcom X, Gandhi, Dr. King and anybody else who decides that they can't or won't shut up. I'm not comparing myself to them as much as suggesting that that tired old "it's all about them" line has been used by folks who are fat and comfy since time began. Boring then--boring now.

But all that aside...Begging For Change is written about my life...that's what I know. Should I not talk about 16 years of searching, listening, learning? I've tried to read a bunch of books that purport to tell me "how" to run a nonprofit...most are by folks who've never made a payroll and never stuck with something for more than a couple of years. The majority are full of statistics and droll lessons that read like the same textbooks that turned me off to school in the first place. I'm the first to admit that not that smart. I learn from stories, what I see or from dumb ass mistakes I make along the journey, so I tried to tell a few based on what I have seen or experienced or that we as a team have accomplished. Based on Begging being awarded the McAdams Prize, for Nonprofit Management Book of the Year, it's a style that has been well recived by folks who are bored with what's out there.

Second....the Billy Shore-can't we just get along thing. I've partnered SO many times, with SOS and others...only to have our sweat used raise money for other folks inflated salaries. I'll give ALL day long, but not so others can take. Frankly...I've been snookered so many times becuase I insist on trying to partner. Sometimes, hard as it is....you have to walk away. And sometimes, you have to talk outloud and warn others, so that they don't get taken advantage of.

Finally....I don't get royalties...any money comes to DCCK. When I speak (and I do about 30 keynotes a year) I leave 1/3 local....usually at a small program that serves the community. The rest goes to DCCK. That, and the work I do everyday, when I walk in that scanky back door of this shelter, or hit the road to listen and learn, is why most folks look beyond the simple notion that this is all about my ego and try to open up to new ideas. Try it.

ALL that being said...I'm always up for a conversation, if you or your readers are. My numbetr is (202) 234-0707 x 101.


10:59 AM  

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