How American non profits are getting politicians to sit up and notice

13 May 2015 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 6 Jul 2015

How Californian not for profits got noticed in their last election

As cuts deepen should the sector lie down and take it, disappear into silos, with everyone fighting everyone else for scraps, or is there a better way? 

Scope looks to America for answers, talking to the Californian visionary Robert Egger, author of Begging For Change, an indictment of the non profit sector and a rallying call for radical change.

Next month he will be joining the XChange Summer School in Derry, which aims to change the conversation on key policy issues, centring around four main themes: action, bravery, change and diversity.

The General Election is over and a new government is in power with a manifesto of cutting even deeper, and the sector is likely to bear the brunt of that. The cuts already seen are only the beginning.

For all that, how many times was the sector referenced during the election by any of the party leaders here in Great Britain? The interests of for-profit business were made much of; trades unions, public sector workers also got rightly got plenty of airplay. But not-for-profits were not an issue.

Who do we blame for that? The politicians, their advisers? The people who run focus groups? Or does the sector need to take a long, hard look at itself and take action before it is too late.

Egger’s track record is extraordinary. He used to run night clubs in Washington DC before a friend persuaded him to go out with him to distribute food to the homeless.

He came back that night convinced that charity was not enough – it transformed the giver more than the receiver - and so came up with the idea of using surplus food from restaurants in order to prepare nutritious meals, and to recruit recipients, many of whom had criminal convictions and or problems with drugs and alcohol, as trainees and staff.

Since opening in 1989, the Kitchen, now an $11-million-a-year, self-sustaining, social enterprise, has produced more than 30 million meals and helped 1,000 men and women gain full time employment.

Recently he founded L.A. Kitchens, which recovers fresh fruits and vegetables to provide the raw materials for a job training programme for men and women coming out of foster care and older men and women returning from incarceration.

Egger has serious credibility and deserves a proper hearing. 

Asked what the biggest single challenge the Third Sector faces,  his answer is unequivocal. “The biggest challenge ALL NGO's have is the way we're perceived by elected leaders.”

That’s a view that many share. However it is what Egger and fellow-minded Americans are starting to do about it that could be best learnt from.

His starting point is that many - if not most - of the things that make cities most attractive to move to or start or relocate businesses are provided by not for profits: there is therefore no profit without non profits.

“For example,” says Egger, “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, non profits.”

And there’s more: “We should be at the front and centre of every political campaign, promoting our role in economic recovery. In the last Presidential race, not once did either candidate – President Obama or Governor Romney – mention the word “non profit.” 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.”

Egger has no time for the traditional argument that the Third Sector is too diverse and siloed for common ground to be found. He believes that it is time to change the game, rather than playing to rules dictated by others.

One state where this is already happening is California, where the California Association of non Profits ran a campaign called Vote with Your Mission last year aimed at the Statewide Primary Elections.

The aim was to have 100% of eligible non profit staff, board members, and volunteers vote in order to build a strong, highly visible lobby where people involved with charities were encouraged to interrogate candidates closely on their attitudes to the sector as a whole as well as on specific, individual causes.

Those who signed up wore badges declaring: “I work for a non profit and I vote.”

This is not rocket science, it’s very simple. Yet if the sector is to get together to make its case about its fundamental importance to the economy, then surely, finding common purpose, building an effective lobby and recruiting staff, volunteers and board members to the cause would be a very good start.

And remember just how big the sector is and how powerful it could be: there are approximately 4,836 voluntary and community sector organisations employing more than 27,000 in Northern Ireland which collectively have revenues of £741.9 million of which 97% goes directly back into the economy…

Robert Egger will be speaking at the Xchange Summer School in Derry on 11 & 12 June – further information on the Summer School may be accessed here.



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