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Why there’s ‘no profit without nonprofits in America’

Robert Egger at Light City. March 31, 2016 Category: FeaturedMediumPurpose

Disclosures

This is part of a series about Baltimore's social impact community via its Light City conference.
Robert Egger founded nonprofit D.C. Kitchen nearly 30 years ago as a means of improving his city’s food system and boosting employment by training unemployed adults in the culinary arts. But he took the stage at Light City in Baltimore to talk about a “deeper” hunger in America — how nonprofits can get better at what they do.

And why they deserve more recognition than they get.

“Nonprofits are the third-biggest employers in America,” he said. “But when was the last time you heard any political candidate talk about the role of nonprofits in their economic recovery plan?”

In 2012 alone, nonprofit organizations employed nearly 11.5 million people. That number was 14.9 percent in pre-Recession Pennsylvania — not that the Recession did much damage to nonprofits (they actually did more than just sustain through the economic tumult).

Egger expects those rates will only continue to rise.

“There’s a huge hunk of people who want to blur this idea of making money and doing good, Egger said, “to find a way in which their job is their philanthropy.”

Here are five takeaways from the rest of Egger’s talk:

  • “There’s no profit without nonprofits in America.” “How are you ever going to attract people to a town, open up a business in town or set down roots in town” if you don’t have arts and culture, health services or community development organizations?
  • Nonprofits employ the “unemployable.” Nonprofits are the only organizations “that have it in their DNA” to hire folks considered by many businesses to be unemployable — like the middle-aged woman who’s schedule revolves around taking care of her elderly mother.
  • Philanthropy doesn’t work. Egger doesn’t believe charitable giving is a sustainable solution and benefits the giver more than the receiver. “Philanthropy is driven by the idea that you make a bunch of money, but don’t forget to give it back,” he said. “It does not work. It’s not designed to work. How do we liberate ourselves?”
  • There’s no real difference between .com and .org. “This is the great revolution,” Egger said. “We think everything that drives the economy has to be a .com [but] it’s just an old IRS thing.” The social enterprise movement, he said, is blurring the lines between those models.
  • The solution is small and local. Instead of municipal leaders trying to corral big businesses, they should look to foster small businesses and nonprofits. “Elect people who show up on day one thinking this way,” Egger said. “If you are a mayor, how will you partner with nonprofits in your community to create jobs?”

The role of nonprofits in the American economy, Egger said, should not be underestimated. But there’s still a lot of work to be done. Social entrepreneurs have to make sure they’re making a profit even if their model is technically nonprofit — that approach is “still wrapped up in the bondage of charity.”

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