We Are All Everyday Heroes

How can any candidate, for any office, in a time when our country must grow our economy, not mention our country's third biggest employer? Because, like many Americans, they think nonprofits don't create anything of value.
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When a person sets out to launch a nonprofit organization, they most often do it with the intention of righting a wrong, easing another's pain, uplifting the spirit, healing the earth, elevating the arts or passing along knowledge. The goal is not prizes or accolades; although for some, those honors come.

Last week, Welcome Books published Katrina Fried's new book; Everyday Heroes: 50 Americans Changing the World One Nonprofit at a Time, and I was honored to be listed as a person whose work is making a difference.

That difference -- and my part in it -- is for leading the D.C. Central Kitchen, which I launched in 1989. "The Kitchen" recycles food that would have otherwise been wasted and trains unemployed men and women for jobs in the hospitality industry while engaging Washington, D.C. in a community response to hunger. We don't feed the poor; we feed the soul of the city. And we do it in ways that illustrate our core principles: that waste is wrong and everybody has a role to play in making our community stronger.

And while I am humbled by the fact that I, as founder, have been singled out, D.C. Central Kitchen is a sum of many parts, and I owe all of our successes to an incredible cohort of passionate colleagues with whom I have been honored to work side by side with.

I am equally humbled to be recognized alongside amazing nonprofit innovators. People like Enid Borden, who, as the CEO of Meals on Wheels, has been a leading voice on senior hunger in America. Or Anne Mahlum, who founded Back on My Feet, an organization for which I am a proud board member, that helps men and women overcome addiction through running and physical renewal. Or my friend Darrell Hammond, a man whose joyful heart led him to found KaBoom, an organization that has helped build more than 2,000 playgrounds throughout America.

Collectively, the 50 Americans profiled are a diverse lot, but if I had to hazard a guess and suggest one thing we all have in common, it would be this: We are not that unique.

We are, quite simply, one of roughly 10.4 million people who wake up every day and go to work at a nonprofit organization where we try to make our communities and our country stronger.

That's why I am headed to New York City, to speak at Baruck College with colleagues assembled by the NY Human Services Council, to discuss the role that nonprofits must play in America's economic recovery.

You see, nonprofits are America's third largest employers. In New York State, the sector employs over 1.2 million people, making it one of the state's largest sources of payroll taxes, and also, one of the leading sources of outside investment dollars. Like Boeing and Lockheed Martin or countless other major companies, when a nonprofit contracts with the city, state or federal government, it brings revenue, jobs and stability to a community.

For those who suggest that companies like Boeing create products and generate wealth, whereas "nonprofits" do noble work, I would ask the following: can any city attract business or tourists or investment dollars without hospitals, universities, museums or art galleries, communities of faith or a clean, healthy environment for families to enjoy? The answer is simple: NO.

Which makes the fact that neither President Obama nor Governor Romney has mentioned nonprofits or philanthropy in any of the debates so troubling. How can any candidate, for any office, in a time when our country must grow our economy, not mention our country's third biggest employer?

Because, like many Americans, they hear the word "nonprofit" and think these businesses don't create anything of value. They, like many candidates, fail to realize that we create some of the best profits in America--faith, health, knowledge, innovation, commitment to community, respect for our resources, optimism in the future and respect for the past....the very things that cities need to thrive and businesses require to make the profits that drive our larger economic engine.

The future of America is tethered to a new economic reality -- that non-profits and for-profits are equally essential in our economy. That is why, in addition to my work insuring that food, people and money aren't wasted, I dedicate an equal amount of my time pointing out that the combined work of America's amazing nonprofit sector cannot be squandered. We need all our resources and assets in the fight to rebuild our economy, and every candidate for office must display an understanding of this civic mathematics if they are to be taken seriously.

All this comes back to Everyday Heroes and is why I am honored to be listed. Like all my colleagues, I share in the honor of revealing that there is a hero in all of us, and that, throughout America, the spirit that made our country what it is, is still very much alive.

All we need is leaders who understand that and challenge us to see beyond the artificial divide of business and charity, Republican and Democrat, rich and poor, young and old, hero and citizen. Leaders who see that all Americans are equally needed to ensure that our country rises once again.

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