Birddogging and Blogging the Primaries
Posted by Allison Fine on January 31, 2008
(This article can also be found here on the Personal Democracy website)
Do you know which sector is the tenth largest biggest business sector in the country as measured by its revenue and number of employees? It’s the nonprofit sector, a sprawling, incongruous group of causes, agencies, universities and hospitals linked together mainly by the tax code that gives them all exempt status. And until now, it would have seemed implausible that nonprofits and presidential politics would go hand-in hand.
Activism is ubiquitous in communities; yet, on the whole the organizations that facilitate and conduct it are ignored by policy makers and politicians. That’s where the new V3 campaign spearheaded by Robert Egger, the founder and President of DC Central Kitchen, comes in. Nonprofits need to be seen by public officials as “not just as good deed doers, but as a vital part of the economy in every part of America.” Activist organizations need to insert themselves in the public policy conversations, which they are legally allowed to do, but not as individual causes and organizations as has been done in the past, but as a unified industry that supports and enriches every community in the country. As Egger says, “Communities are going to look up and find that ten percent of their constituents work for nonprofits (and putting millions into the treasury through payroll taxes) and most of them volunteer.” Nonprofits need to press candidates and elected officials to regard the nonprofit constituency as important a community player as Chambers of Commerce.
I am often asked the question, “What does leadership look like in the Connected Age, and is it only for young people?” The answers are a) different, and b) no. And the best example I can give you is Robert Egger.
By nature and temperament I am not given to idolatry, but if I were, Robert Egger would be atop my list of candidates. He is the founder and President of DC Central Kitchen, where unemployed men and women learn culinary skills by cooking meals for indigent residents of DC from food donated by restaurants, hotels and caterers. According to its website, since opening in 1989, the Kitchen has distributed 17.4 million meals and helped over 605 men and women gain full-time employment. He’s been called one of the “Real Sexist Men Alive” by Oprah, and hailed as Humanitarian of the Year by the James Beard Foundation. And yet, when you talk to him, it is always about the needs of people and community that are of interest to him. His passion for helping other people and alleviating the pain of those who are suffering is palpable, and he doesn’t’ just talk, he makes a difference, in big, bold, collaborative and visionary ways.
Two years ago he helped launch the Nonprofit Congress housed at the National Council of Nonprofit Associations (ncna.org.) The purpose of the Congress was to develop a common voice for grassroots nonprofits on the importance of the sector to American communities. The Congress had its first national convening in 2006 and out of that meeting came the idea of the Primary Project (video description here). And it worked. For months, volunteers in New Hampshire asking candidates for the presidency three questions as reported in the Chronicle of Philanthropy:
- What role has a nonprofit organization played in your life or career?
- How would you strengthen the economic and social capacity of such organizations?
- How would you work with nonprofit groups to achieve your vision for America?
Using blogs, video technology and perseverance, the Primary Project was able to raise the issue of the importance of the nonprofit sector to the American community with candidates during the New Hampshire primary. Organized locally by the New Hampshire Center for Nonprofits, tens of volunteers fanned out across the state on the last weekend before the primary to ask candidates questions and capture them on video for a variety of blogs. You can view responses from John Edwards, and Rudy Guiliani on Eggers’ blog.
It would have been unimaginable as recently as the last presidential election that a local association of nonprofits and its supporters like Joan Goshgarian, Executive Director of the NH Business Committee for the Arts, would have taken such an active role in the primary election wearing their nonprofit hats and used new media to capture their interactions and share them so broadly with the nonprofit community and beyond.
New Hampshire was phase one for this effort. Now the project moves into the second phase with the launch of V3 funded out of Eggers own pocket to encourage and enable nonprofit advocates around the country to ask candidates for local, state and federal office to get candidates what their plans are to work with and support the nonprofit community.
When I first came across this project about a year ago, I wondered if the country really needed another constituency, another issue group to insert their own agenda onto party platforms and into elections. In talking directly to Eggers, though, it is clear that his vision isn’t to propose a single piece of legislation or create a new issue-driven cause, but rather to think creatively and broadly about the future of communities that are going to be facing what he calls the “triple whammy” of an economic downturn + increasing loss of white collar jobs overseas + an aging population. He envisions public officials finding ways to create robust, growing, healthy local communities and economies with nonprofits a vital, dynamic, economically important part of the equation.
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