Recalling the debate between Robert Egger and Pablo Eisenberg about nonprofits and politics

Nov 1, 2022

Egger: “I question openly whether those laws were designed by people to keep us right where we are. … [O]ur ultimate goal is to change the laws.”

Eisenberg: “[H]e strongly believes that the regulations governing nonprofits are too restrictive and should be changed to allow nonprofits to participate directly in political campaigns and partisan politics … and I heartily disagree.”

In 2007, The Chronicle of Philanthropy published two thought-provoking op-eds about the proper role of nonprofit organizations in partisan politics. The first was written by DC Central Kitchen founder Robert Egger. The second was written by longtime philanthropy watchdog and liberal activist Pablo Eisenberg, who died last month.

Egger argued in an April 2007 piece that nonprofit organizations deserve the kind of political stature corporations enjoy because, like corporations, they employ millions of Americans, command billions of dollars in resources, and thus play a vital economic as well as civic role in their communities. Yet nonprofits face a double standard when it comes to political activity, he wrote, and they “accept their muzzled role.” He concluded that the laws prohibiting charities from direct campaign activities “not only are outdated, but also will be counterproductive” as nonprofits continue to grow in size, wealth, and stature.

Eisenberg responded the next month. “Existing regulations are not the culprit for the nonprofit world’s failure to be more activist and politically involved,” he argued. Historically, charities and foundations have held themselves apart from business and government, serving as a mediating force between the two, he wrote. Yet as a result, nonprofit groups have “enormous leeway in supporting and promoting activism and influencing the political system.” The problem is not that these organizations are hampered by their nonprofit status and all that it entails, he concluded, but that most simply fail to exercise their existing rights to engage in activism—an activism that respects a strong and independent civil society and its separateness from partisan politics.

In August 2007, the Hudson Institute’s Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal co-hosted an event with The Chronicle of Philanthropy during which the two storied nonprofit leaders further explored underlying issues in the debate. Edited excerpts of their remarks, from the full transcript of “Should Nonprofit Organizations Play an Active Role in Election Campaigns?,” are below.


Robert Egger

You have to understand that a lot of the ideas I have, the theories I forward, and the things I believe passionately in are born out of the day-to-day work in the basement of the biggest shelter in America. I say this a million times: I love my job. I hate my work. I love going to work at the DC Central Kitchen. I’m surrounded by great people. And I think more than many nonprofits I have the amazing luxury of seeing people’s lives change. I know a lot of us want to think we can see that immediate impact. At the DC Central Kitchen, I’m really lucky; I get to see people graduate and move on.

But at the end of the day, I don’t want to be more efficient. I don’t want to be a self-sustaining nonprofit. At the end of the day, I want to have a very robust discussion in America about why it is that a program in Washington, D.C., has to pull a van up to the back of The Mayflower Hotel and pick up leftover food to feed working poor people in America. I don’t like it, and I’m not going to sit still. Fifty-one percent of my time will always be devoted to the question of what next? Why do we do the things we do? Who says we can’t do anything different? That’s where I’m coming from. That’s where this article germinated. It was also reinforced by about 117 different town-hall meetings that were held last year before the Nonprofit Congress, meetings with rank-and-file nonprofits that really make up 85% of the sector. Mom-and-pop stores out there, most of them under $750,000 a year, just trying to make payroll. Just trying to do something good in their communities. And they see no end in sight, and they’re looking for some new alternative, something that gets them out of this trap we’ve all fallen in—and not just us, but also the people we serve, the foundation world. We’re all trapped in this charity model.

So what I’ve tried to do, and what I’m pleased to see, is get a discussion going about what next. When I first started the Kitchen, people said, you can’t do it. The laws prohibit it. The rules don’t allow it. All we did was say, okay, let’s change those rules. Let’s challenge those assumptions that homeless men and women can’t be trained for work, that somehow it’s illegal for restaurants and hotels to donate food. And we went out and we got laws changed. We didn’t just stop and say, here are the laws as they exist; let’s try and work within the confines. No. We pushed and we got new laws. Thanks to the work of the DC Central Kitchen—and God bless America—a schmo like me went to the back of the Rose Garden and watched Bill Clinton sign a law (the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, signed on October 1, 1996) that shielded all nonprofits, all donors of food, from liability, because we pushed to get a new law. That’s what I’m saying.

To a certain extent, we are held hostage when we assume that the laws that we inherited are the only laws. I look at the nonprofit sector, and I have to be honest—to paraphrase my friend Pablo Eisenberg—I’ve met the future and it’s us. We’re the future of this country. We’re one tenth of the economy in America. And oftentimes terms like “one tenth” kind of roll off, but that represents the gross national product of India. I’ve said this for the past two years. If we were a country, we’d be the seventh biggest economy on the planet—the nonprofit sector in America. Yet in the smallest town, we don’t have a say in the budget process. We pace outside City Hall waiting to see what gets cut, and then rend our clothes and bark at the moon, thinking that’s all we can do.

There are laws that allow us to be actively involved and we should utilize every single one of those laws to the maximum potential we have. I’m in the middle of that in New Hampshire with the Primary Project (an effort spearheaded by the Nonprofit Congress and the New Hampshire Center for Nonprofits), which I’ll be happy to talk about later on. But at the end of the day, it feels to me a little bit like telling women in America that if you just keep playing by the rules, someday you’ll make as much as men. That’s what we’re hearing.

Sure we can play by the rules. Sure we can use the laws. But at the end of the day, I question openly whether those laws were designed by people to keep us right where we are. And I question those laws. I don’t like where we are. I’m not going to sit still. And I’m going to work every single day with my brothers and sisters in the sector to start to come together and find a unified voice that starts to get us at the table, which is where we need to be.

… Eighty million baby boomers are about to get old in this country, and there’s no big plan. And if programs like the DC Central Kitchen are struggling every day to feed an estimated 20 million people who are at risk of hunger, what happens in this country when we add 10, 20, or 30 million more people and we try and fit it into this charity box. I’m not going to wait. And like many people I have met on my journeys over the past three years, they don’t want to wait either. They want to start to come together and exercise much more of a voice, much more of a sense of ownership of this country, our shared future. And that’s what I’m suggesting. We have a role to play, and it’s not passive. It’s not sitting on the sidelines with our fingers crossed, hoping that the right person gets elected. It’s jumping into the middle of this fray. Like many of you all, I’m about to turn 50. And my trajectory across America—I grew up in southern California watching César Chávez. I was in Los Angeles at 10 years old when Bobby Kennedy got shot. I grew up with Martin Luther King. I grew up with Mitch Snyder in this town.

I grew up with people who said, we respect the laws and we’ll work within the confines of the laws, but our ultimate goal is to change the laws. That’s all I’m suggesting. The laws that limit our role in politics were introduced by Lyndon Johnson in 1954 without hearing and without testimony, designed to silence critics in Texas who were challenging him openly. And with that middle-of-the-night gesture, all of us were silenced. And I think we ought to openly, honestly, and bravely step forward and say, no more.


Pablo Eisenberg

The major difference between Robert Egger’s and my position on the issue of politics and nonprofits is that he strongly believes that the regulations governing nonprofits are too restrictive and should be changed to allow nonprofits to participate directly in political campaigns and partisan politics … and I heartily disagree.

But there are a few other issues that our respective editorials in The Chronicle have raised that, in my view, also deserve discussion. First, what should our vision of the nonprofit sector be? Does it have a unique role as an independent sector, apart from government and business, or should its boundaries become increasingly blurred with those of the business and political sectors? A second issue revolves around the role of government, federal and state, in ensuring the transparency and public accountability of our nonprofit world.

A third issue focuses on the means by which nonprofits can become more activist in influencing public policy and the political process without actually becoming directly involved in partisan politics and campaigns. And the last issue, on which I think Bob and I agree, is the need to create new leadership for our sector so that in fact it can be strong and much more vigorous than it is.

I essentially have five reasons—both practical and political—why I oppose loosening the restrictions on nonprofit political activity.

The first is the massive taxpayer opposition that such a proposed change would generate in this country. The federal government has provided generous tax advantages both to charitable donors and nonprofits on the understanding that nonprofits will provide vital services and benefits to our society. That is the compact that the federal government has made with our civil society. Taxpayers would not tolerate—and they shouldn’t—their money going to politics and not nonprofit activities. Otherwise, taxpayers would be giving money to nonprofits so that those nonprofits could designate politicians, parties and campaigns to be the recipients. There’s no need for that; taxpayers can do that directly now without nonprofit intermediaries.

A second reason is that politically, such changes would not be feasible. The Congress has consistently, and strongly, prohibited direct nonprofit political activity for many decades—even before Lyndon Johnson’s role. You’ll recall the frantic efforts of conservatives, as well as many Democrats, to undermine the advocacy role of nonprofits by almost passing the Istook Amendment several years ago. And that was an effort only to limit nonprofit lobbying, not political activity—which is a much-hotter topic. Congressmen don’t want nonprofits meddling in politics, and they would not let it happen. Pushing them to do so could be counterproductive, undermining their current, very positive view of nonprofits today.

Third, direct political activity would inevitably taint the integrity and public trust of nonprofits, thereby diminishing their capacity to deliver services, retain public confidence. and raise charitable dollars for their operations. We expect many of our Congressmen to be corrupt and on the take; we don’t want that to happen to our nonprofits.

The fourth reason is simply that nonprofits don’t need fewer regulations in order to become much more activist, influential in policy and influential in moving politicians, than they currently are. They have not yet begun to tap their enormous legal capacity to lobby, to shape policies and to influence politicians and the political process. When you think that just a little more than one percent of all public charities that report to the IRS report any money going to lobbying, you’ll see the untapped potential. And should they want to exceed their current limits on lobbying as well as become more involved in campaigns, they can create 501(c)(4) organizations, political action committees (PACs) or 527 organizations. In short, the current regulations offer ample opportunities for much more political activism on the part of nonprofits.

The fifth reason is that I believe that nonprofits must maintain that independence from business, government, and politics that has characterized their history in this country if they want to do their jobs well, serving as an intermediary between these factions. It is, I maintain, the unique quality of “nonprofitness” that has been the backbone of our civil society over the years. It is that quality that has enabled nonprofits to challenge governments, monitor and hold accountable corporate America, give a voice to the voiceless, mobilize constituencies, influence public policies and generate crucial scientific and medical research. It has done so because of its independence, not because it has become more like businesses or politicians.

In short, nonprofits don’t need new regulations or standards to be effective activists or promoters of democracy. What they need is tough, visionary and courageous leadership. We have to find a way to develop this leadership in the coming decades. The culprit for our nonprofits’ lack of activism and political lethargy is not the current “rules of the game,” but rather—as I mentioned in the editorial, citing Pogo—our own reluctance to be activists. “We have met the enemy and he is us.”