- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 26, 2004

Before writing that check to a favorite charity, one potential recipient wishes more people would look hard to see whether a charity is naughty or nice.

Although most charities have the best of intentions, some run operations that perpetuate dependency, said Robert Egger, founder of the D.C. Central Kitchen.

“Nirvana was a great band, but it’s a terrible nonprofit mission statement,” Mr. Egger said.

In his book “Begging for Change,” which was released this year, the former nightclub manager and regional United Way official challenges nonprofit organizations to be more responsive and efficient. And he challenges donors to hold the organizations to their promises.

“Americans give on average $1,600 a year to nonprofits. Would you invest that much in the stock market without doing research? Ask questions. Demand answers,” Mr. Egger said.

Some of the harder questions include whether the organization teaches the proverbial man to fish, or whether it simply feeds him for the day.

D.C. Central Kitchen was started in 1989 with the idea of collecting leftover food from restaurants, hotels and caterers, and redistributing it to the needy. Those people — including the homeless, drug addicts and ex-convicts — become part of the solution, serving 4,000 meals a day after completing a 12-week culinary course.

Mr. Egger said the $200 billion a year Americans give to good causes is a significant amount and should be able to make a difference if nothing is wasted.

“Don’t participate in mediocrity” is his message to both charities and donors.

Organizations such as the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance and Guidestar can be checked for information on nonprofits’ finances, executive salaries and fund-raising efficiency.

Mr. Egger said some administrative overhead is needed, and donors should be wary of nonprofit groups that claim no administrative costs or overly high success rates.

“If I said we graduated 90 percent of our people and had a 100 percent success rate, no one should believe that,” he said.

He also asks nonprofit groups to justify salaries of chief executive officers.

“If the average donor makes $25,000 to $50,000 a year, we need to justify why we’re paying our CEO five to six times their salary,” Mr. Egger said.

His book shows tables of average CEO salaries in various cities as guidelines. And he follows his own advice.

When he was helping the scandal-scarred United Way of the National Capital Area restore donor confidence, he accepted $85,000 — less than a third of what his predecessor got.

The Washington metro area has 25,000 nonprofit organizations competing for donations. Mr. Egger said that if donors were more selective, it would allow the best organizations to not only survive, but also focus on their mission, rather than on raising money.

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