Robert Egger has issued a challenge to Loudoun County's non-profit community.
"You are the big petri dish," said Egger, founder and director of DC Central Kitchen, at the Sept. 8 Dialogue on Poverty, sponsored by the Good Shepherd Alliance and Loudoun Human Services Network. "You've reached the point in your history where something new has to happen."
Egger was on hand at the Community Lutheran Church in Sterling to guide nearly 100 representatives from non-profit, government and political offices in Loudoun (and some from Fairfax) through an important conversation: what does the non-profit community do next?
The meeting was the first in a series of dialogues which will lead up to a comprehensive report on poverty in Loudoun from Good Shepherd Alliance, tentatively set for completion next spring. While this dialogue featured the administrative types, future dialogues will draw on input from the faith-based, Hispanic and rural communities.
WITH MORE THAN 20,000 residents considered the working poor (making $30,000 or less per household) in the county, Loudoun's "petri dish" is currently still in mitosis. Non-profits multiply with the rate of growth, leading to a duplication of effort. A more efficient, businesslike model is needed to streamline the community and make it do its job better, according to Egger.
"The discussion we need to have is going to be centered around cooperation, consolidation," he said.
The mention of "consolidation" might make a few upstart non-profits feel threatened, but that doesn't bother Mark Gunderman.
"Everyone has their own territory they need to cover," said Gunderman, volunteer vice chairman of Good Shepherd Alliance. "You want to make sure your efforts are appreciated and that they don't go away. I think that's always difficult. You just can't fight poverty, you just can't fight homelessness. Homelessness, poverty, gun violence … they're all related."
Formal efforts to bring all Loudoun's non-profits under one umbrella are still in the fledgling stage. Loudoun Human Services Network, which contains 31 non-profits, is mostly a discussion-based, not action-based group. An attempt to choose an organization to act as the county's community action agency (meaning it would disperse state funds to other Loudoun non-profits) has been on hold since the Board of Supervisors put the kibosh on Good Shepherd Alliance's application earlier this year, citing a lack of information. A committee is set to report back to the board after the new year.
Meanwhile, Loudoun Cares has made the biggest stride toward creating one roof for all non-profits to coexist under — literally. On Sept. 10, U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf announced a $100,000 appropriation for the organization, which was formed with the idea of creating a multi-tenant building for non-profit offices.
The appropriation is going to act as a shot in the arm for Loudoun Cares, according to executive Andy Johnston.
"People are going to sit up and take notice," Johnston said. But while the windfall is a giant first step, a single home for Loudoun's service community is still a ways off; as Johnston noted, it's "a multi-million dollar project."
WHILE APPLYING businesslike attitudes toward helping out the homeless was one of many ideas that came out of the Dialogue on Poverty, one theme arose again and again: informing and involving the public.
"You need more than just the traditional people working on this issue," said John Brothers, executive director of Good Shepherd Alliance. "It can't happen with people like John Brothers at Good Shepherd Alliance. It has to come from community members."
Involving the public, however, is just another nexis where business and charity can meet. Over at the Loudoun Free Clinic, executive director Lyle Werner is preparing to roll out what's called the Angel of Hope program. Supporters of the clinic will be able to wear a tasteful pendant (design still pending) that, in time, will become instantly recognizable.
"It's a brand," Werner said. "People will know what it is."
That kind of idea — blending marketing with charity — is something Egger suggested at the Dialogue on Poverty that could become a county-wide strategy. If there were to be one umbrella organization — or even just a name — that had a familiar symbol, businesses supporting charities could place a decal in their front windows, for example.
It all boils down to giving the public confidence that charities in the county know what they're up to, especially given the impending shuttering of the county's one United Way office in Leesburg.
"They want to make sure they're giving to something that will make a change," said Brothers. "It's not our money. It's not our organization. It's the community's organization."
Good Shepherd Alliance, as a well-established non-profit, is a natural for leading the Dialogues on Poverty, according to Supervisor Eugene Delgaudio (R-Sterling), who was the only supervisor to attend the first dialogue. And, he says, Good Shepherd Alliance's willingness to talk about how to run a successful non-profit is a boon for all the burgeoning charities in ever-growing Loudoun County that all, when it comes down to it, have the same goal: work themselves out of business.
"That's like finding out the ingredients to the oatmeal cookie and Heinz 57 ketchup," Delgaudio said. "Anything could happen, and it probably will."