A photo of Robert Egger.
Archive photo

Robert Egger founded D.C. Central Kitchen in 1989 after many years in the nightclub management business. Through this program, he has created a model for kitchens across the country: collect surplus food from local restaurants and hotels and then prepare other meals with training homeless people, ex-convicts and others to be chefs. The Kitchen now prepares more than 4,000 meals a day for the poor and homeless in the D.C. area.

Last year he published a book entitled Begging For Change. In this book, Egger outlines the responsibilities that a nonprofit organization has to the public. He is also in the process of setting up the Nonprofit Congress, planned for Fall 2006, which will bring together thousands of the country’s nonprofits to share ideas and strengthen networks. Arlene Waifer sat down with Egger for this interview.

Street Sense: Good morning. Thank you so much for allowing us to interview you. I have read your book. Can you elaborate on how effectively nonprofits are working together to provide services to the poor and homeless?

Egger: I think we are getting better and better at doing the kind of old-fashioned thing – in other words, things that, in my opinion, we should have been doing 20 years ago – when men and women come into these shelters. There is communication between the different providers. We are getting better at that, but I’m very interested in whether the thing we are getting better at is the solution. Sometimes that is where I stop.

I don’t think sometimes that the goal we seek is the goal we should be seeking – again, I’m interested in what is the big prize? How do you find the place where the larger homeless community starts to see homelessness differently? I believe we still play the pity card too much. We still act and talk as if homeless men and women oftentimes are somehow a different group.

I will be honest with you. I really don’t like the word “homeless.”

If you get down to it, people who are homeless in this city, it is a combination of wage, prison, mental illness, substance abuse, health and family. There [are] a bunch of different issues. Each one is significant, yet as long as we use this blanket word “homeless,” it keeps us from the larger conversation we should be having as a city, as a country, about these issues.

I think it is a safe word, and I do not like the safety.

I grew up in this town watching Mitch Snyder very effectively bring the idea out in front. Now I have tried to take it to a different direction with the same goal of: How do you get the public to deal with the issues?

 

Street Sense: What do you think needs to be done to improve this situation?

Egger: Courage. Organizations or administrations that can’t move the needle in demonstrative ways should be let go. That’s a bold statement.

I think the city is full of people who have been working and getting paid for a decade or two and have yet to show any understanding of how to really move this experiment beyond big giant shelters.

I have consistently watched the city change, whether it’s gentrification or the economics of Washington, and you can see it coming a million miles away, yet a lot of our leaders within this movement tend to wait until this happens and then react. They are not proactive about it. They tend to play the victim roles or, in some cases, the protector role. Either way, I think it has been ineffective and, personally, my thing is if organizations or individuals have not made something happen, we should not be afraid to say, you know, we are going to try someone new – we are going to try another organization.

I’ve always thought that with the non-profit sector, particularly with this kind of direct human service, that there is a kind of ammeter-hour attitude that somehow its OK If people mess up consistently. You know, “What do you expect? They are just trying to feed the homeless. They’re just a nonprofit.” Those kinds of attitudes are dangerous. I think they make me quite frustrated.

People always ask: Is the kitchen a faith-based organization. Yeah, it is. We have faith in people. I believe that all people have this great little spark, and the nonprofits’ job is to help find that spark and make a fire out of it. I think sometimes that the way I see too many organizations going is just so boring.

I think this is the most prejudicial word in my vocabulary – I never want to be accused of being boring – but I find so many organizations just dull to the point of tragic. I see organizations just excused year in and year out, when these are real people we are talking about.

I believe that if you are an organization in Washington, D.C., you will have a double responsibility. You can’t just be a program serving D.C. You have to recognize that in this city, we have the potential to influence people on Capitol Hill to the way they might do things in their hometown. In my opinion, any organization that does not take that dual responsibility to heart needs to go away. What we do here can influence so many people who may not have the kind of faith we do.

They might be comfortable with the notion that if you are hungry in America, that’s your own fault. We want that national community that lives upon the Hill to see a different thing. We’ve used the kitchen here as a stage for the better part of 15 years now. We can’t solve hunger here. Providing 4,000 meals a day is not the solution, but the way we do it, if that can engage people, enlighten people, get people energized in what they might do in their communities, that’s what we are after.

Right now we have a bunch of people here from Louisville, Kentucky, where my great grandfather was mayor, by the way. If they can go home saying “I never thought you could use food like this. I kind of just thought food was gas for the body. I never thought about a place where you can train people” and then it was targeted out to the community – it might save other agencies billions of dollars a year if they can do their job better. I never thought about it that way. Why do we call it a soup kitchen?

I do not want to tell them what to think. That’s what I think is the mistake that too many organizations make, but I want to set the stage for what we call the “calculated epiphany.” I want people to leave here with their own ideas. I know what I want them to get out of it, but I am not going to tell them.

At the end of the day, we have orientation for volunteers before they start, and at the end of the day we say, “What do you think?” You have some of these young men and women and older people who say, “This is so much different than what I thought – I thought it was going to be feeding someone who was poor with this table between us – and it was so fun to stand side by side with someone and share responsibility for taking care of the community. This changed my whole attitude.”

That’s what we are after. That’s the way we fight hunger.

 

Street Sense: In your opinion, how do you judge whether a nonprofit is effective and doing its job?

Egger: Results. You know, I don’t look at the percentage. One thing you can do is look at the percentage of what an organization spends on administrative overhead.

Right now, probably 90 percent of Americans, if they were asked the same questions, would say the administration with the lowest overhead. But organizations need this kind of administrative money.

I always tell people that when I first volunteered I went out in a truck that served people sleeping outside the mall, and there was no administrative overhead. By each measure, it was the best organization in town because they spent no money. The volunteers cooked the food. They bought it. The Salvation Army picked people up and drove them around – everybody was there. If you looked at it another way, nobody was getting off the street. Food was being thrown away every single night.

My thing was, with a little administrational overhead, we came along and said, “Hey restaurants, give us the food. We will come and pick it up. We will do a job training program. We target the food.” With a little administrational overhead, it allowed us to do remarkable things.

So that’s the first thing. Never look at administrative overhead. I always suggest that you ask organizations their goals for the year. You know by what it is on our annual report. We put on our web page all of our goals so that people can say at the end for the year: O.K., here Is what you told us you were going to do – how did you rate?