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The Nonprofit Leadership Crisis We’re Not Talking About | An Interview with Robert Egger

A picture of Robert Egger in a kitchen.

When I think about flipping the nonprofit sector on its head, I think about Robert Egger.

He is a long-time rebel rouser in the best way possible; a no-nonsense leader that pushes us all to think of the sector and its capabilities in a different way. I’ve been following Robert’s work ever since I read his book Begging for Change in 2004, where he talks about the ineffectiveness of the nonprofit sector and challenges the nonprofit sector to reform and innovate.

His most recent initiative, The L.A. Kitchen (set to open this year), will recover fresh food and fuel a culinary arts job training program for men and women coming out of foster care, and older men and women returning from incarceration. He speaks throughout the country and internationally on the subjects of hunger, sustainability, nonprofit political engagement, and social enterprise. He writes blogs and editorials to share his ideas about the nonprofit sector and the future of America building on his more than 24 years of experience in this sector.

You’re going to want to settle in for this one, so grab a glass of your favorite wine (or if you don’t partake grab a hot tea) and sit back, enjoy a deeper dive into the leadership crisis we’re not addressing and what’s keeping Robert up at night.

On leadership

Patty: I’ve been following your work and I’d love to talk to you about one of your recent articles, Jobs, Not Services where you challenge nonprofits to start creating businesses to employ the men and women we have traditionally “trained” for work, or simply served. What does this mean for your work and for people who work in the philanthropic sector?

Robert: I was walking along this morning and thinking about how nonprofit leadership is in the hands of association presidents. That’s one of the giant reasons we are in the state we are in; associations, by their very nature, aren’t leadership groups. They bring people together for conferences to discuss problems, but when it comes to responding to the problems, they are usually risk adverse.

In fact, many of the people who lead these groups, or their boards, are lawyers or accountants, who have been trained to be risk adverse. At the very moment the sector needs dynamism, innovation, bravery…the leaders of these organizations, the leaders of our movements—whether it’s the academic, foundation leaders, or association presidents—none seem equipped or prepared (intellectually or economically) for the type of leadership not only our sector needs, but our society needs. Our society needs an elevated nonprofit sector, but to get there, we need people who are prepared to challenge antiquated ideas about the role we play in the economic and political process.

In fact, one of the things I find comical is these leaders are constantly telling young people that there is a leadership crisis and promote classes or cohorts so they can teach you leadership, but all they are teaching is their version of leadership, which the sector does not need. FYI—there really isn’t a leadership crisis. There are thousands of people ready to assume responsibility for our sector, and who are ready to lead us in new directions. What we don’t have (due to stupid ideas about overhead) are retirement plans that would allow long-time leaders to step aside. That’s a real problem…leaders who can’t afford to leave.

What are those skills that are different from previous leadership styles that are needed and how do we gain those skills as young leaders?

I don’t act young or dress young, but I try to hold on very diligently onto the dreams of my youth and remember what I didn’t want to become. No one wakes up when they are 20 and looks in the mirror and says, “When I grow up, I want to be a boring nonprofit executive who limits innovation.” But, if you look around, our sector is loaded with them. Clearly it’s not something people planned on doing or think they are doing; it’s something that evolves…it creeps up on you. That’s one thing I try like hell to avoid, which is why I try to empower my team to speak UP, challenge me and help me be that leader I dreamed of being when I was 20.

I oftentimes refer to the fact that the number one challenge for your generation is – will you redefine what success and happiness looks like, instead of mimicking the folly that led to the economic implosion that my generation did (big salary, big house, big cars)?

I’ve always thought that one of the greatest failures I’ve ever seen has been my generation’s version of success…and I hope we can, in our older years, acknowledge that.

I’m hoping more and more people of my generation will turn to your generation and say, “I spent years and years chasing money and junk. Now that I’m 70, I see how fucked up that was, and take my word for it, it didn’t buy me happiness.” It can be a powerful lesson and I’m hoping that I’ll be part of exposing it.

On a personal level, there were all kinds of ways that we experimented with [redefining] leadership at DC Central Kitchen. I wasn’t the highest paid person at DC Central Kitchen although I could have been. My circumstances didn’t mandate it, and my authority wasn’t derived from it. It became another personal experiment in leadership.

Think about it. What does it say to the average person when they look at the 990 and see the Founder and CEO is not the highest paid person? What does it say when a big ass hunk of our (DCCK’s) management are former addicts or felons? What does it say when you post highest paid and lowest paid on our website? Or have a “Volunteer Bill of Rights” on your wall?

It says, “This is the place you’ve been looking for!”

On mistakes and the future

What’s your best career mistake?

Going out on a truck to feed the poor. I ran nightclubs and I didn’t anticipate feeding the poor for a living. I just went out one night and experienced the charity thing (which is about the redemption of the giver, not the liberation of the receiver) and thought it could be better. I made the mistake of proposing a new concept for feeding the poor, thinking others would run with it…they didn’t, and 25 years later I’m talking to you (about my journey) and starting the LA Kitchen.

And, never make a career decision after two pitchers of beer. I stepped in to run the United Way in DC when it imploded (in the early 2000s). Without any experience and after having drunk two pitchers of beer in front of a bunch of friends, I said “I’m going to take over the United Way.” Nine days later I was leading the United Way. BUT, It opened my eyes to the larger need for nonprofits to act in unison instead of everyone chasing their own pots of money.

What’s keeping you up at night?

Aging in America – there is a wait list for Meals on Wheels in half of American cities and there is 70 million baby boomers coming, who statically have no money saved. Literally half of workers ages 45-65 have less than $10,000 in retirement and it is mind-boggling what’s right around the corner.

(To read more on Robert’s thoughts, click here.)

What do you think the nonprofit sector needs more of?

Political activism and courageous leadership.

What does your vision of an elevated nonprofit look like and where should it be in five years?

We should be at the front and center of every political campaign, promoting our role in economic recovery. Think about it, we are the third highest employer in America, and we create a full 10% of the economy and in the last Presidential race, not once did either candidate – President Obama or Governor Romney – mention the word “nonprofit.” Not once did they talk about the role we play in bringing money into a community, the number of people we employ and the payroll taxes we pay, or the millions of volunteer hours we channel, and more importantly, how we provide the foundation upon which all profit is made.

For example, next time you fly, take a look in the airline magazine and you’ll find a page that some chamber of commerce took out, encouraging you to move your business to, let’s say, Cleveland for example. Read through it, and near the end, they’ll have an inventory of the programs they highlighted (and EVERY TIME, on average, about 60% will be a nonprofit, a .org).

In essence, what they are saying is, “Come to Cleveland because we have the arts and culture, beautiful parks, thriving universities, great healthcare, bike and nature trails, communities of faith and all these things that are 100%, American-as-apple-pie, nonprofits.”

What they are saying here is that you can make money here because we have great nonprofits.

Yet, you never hear them say this. You never hear candidates saying, “I love the nonprofit sector. You all bring in so much money in from outside of this city, and you employ so many people, and the work you do makes our city thrives. Elect me, and we will work together to ROCK this CITY.”

That’s the future. Not because it’s good for nonprofits, but because its good for America.

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About the Author | Patricia Gentry is the senior operations manager at Share Our Strength where she supports over 80 culinary events including Taste of the Nation® and No Kid Hungry dinners across America. She is also a committee member of the Young Nonprofit Professionals - DC chapter where she is currently serving her second year.

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