January 13, 2013

Independent Sector’s New Policy Wonk Juggles International Charity Work

Courtesy of Geoffrey Plague

Geoffrey Plague, who oversees public-policy work at Independent Sector, founded Building and Books, a group that builds community libraries in Africa.

When Geoffrey Plague isn’t lobbying for nonprofits on complex federal tax-policy issues in his new job as vice president for public policy at Independent Sector, he pursues a more straightforward passion: building libraries for needy children and stocking them with books. But getting to see the results of his moonlighting charity efforts is far more complicated than his typical five-minute subway ride between Independent Sector’s Washington office and the Capitol.

That’s because Mr. Plague’s charity, Buildings and Books, builds community libraries in Africa.

And after spending most days in offices brimming with books, the 43-year-old Capitol Hill veteran focuses on exporting such items overseas.

“There is no shortage of books in the world,” Mr. Plague says. Except in nations such as Kenya, where Mr. Plague first saw the need for books and libraries as part of his former job directing government relations at the Basic Education Coalition, a nonprofit that united humanitarian and international-development groups to advocate for federal aid to organizations that provide educational programs in poor countries.

“I learned there is not a culture of community libraries in sub-Saharan Africa,” Mr. Plague says. “Maybe a way to make a small contribution to this was to build children’s community libraries. It helps me put things in perspective.”

What things? Well, for one, the long days he spent in the past month with Independent Sector and other nonprofit colleagues protecting the charitable tax deduction from new limits during “fiscal cliff” talks in Congress.

Balancing Act

His new role at Independent Sector is likely to be a busy one in 2013, as Congress and President Obama prepare to battle over budget issues expected to affect charities. That may give him a little less time to focus on his charity.

For the three years since he founded his charity in October 2009, Mr. Plague has successfully balanced a day job of hobnobbing among big-name leaders in the nation’s capital with an unpaid executive role serving impoverished children in obscure towns in Kenya.

“You can see that he deeply cares about kids and is trying to have an impact on their lives in the difficult and dangerous places where they live,” said Cris Revaz, executive director of Basic Education Coalition and Mr. Plague’s former boss. “The thing that was remarkable to me is that he did that pretty much all on his own, moonlighting if you will, with my full blessing. He did his job here, and without paying himself a dime he made a success” of his other pursuit.

Buildings and Books has built three libraries in Kenya since 2010, receiving nearly $24,000 in contributions and spending $21,000 in the first two years.

“We hope that in 2013 we will build two more, one in Kenya and one in Rwanda,” Mr. Plague says.

Washington Pro

Mr. Revaz serves on the board of Buildings and Books along with Mr. Plague’s father, Charles, a retired salesman for Hallmark Cards.

Mr. Plague always wanted to work in public policy and has spent his entire career in Washington. On Capitol Hill, he worked as a staff member for Democratic lawmakers, serving as chief of staff to former Rep. Anthony Weiner of New York and legislative director for Reps. Steny Hoyer (Maryland) and Robert Andrews (New Jersey) and former Sen. Byron Dorgan (North Dakota).

Mr. Revaz says that at the Basic Education Coalition, Mr. Plague was instrumental in increasing lawmakers’ support for steering federal aid to overseas programs that provide education.

Mr. Plague’s combined interest in public policy and public libraries is expressed in a quote on the Web site of Buildings and Books that came from the late U.S. congressman Carl Elliott, who represented Alabama until the mid-1960s: “Education represents nothing less than the doorway to personal fulfillment, social justice, true freedom, and actual equality.”

Mr. Plague is now reading The Cost of Courage, a book on Mr. Elliott, who drafted the 1956 Library Services Act that provided access to books in rural areas. Mr. Elliott eventually lost his seat and his livelihood by resisting Gov. George Wallace’s segregationist political machine.

Inspired by such books, Mr. Plague has an opportunity, through his personal charity efforts and his new position, to examine broader implications of the public policy he helps formulate for the 600 national charities and foundations represented by Independent Sector, whose former public-policy executive, Lois Fu, retired in October. It’s a more thoughtful position than the grind of being a Congressional staff member, he says.

“As a staff person on the Hill it’s much harder than I find it now to step back and think longer term and think how certain things fit together,” he says. “You do have more of an opportunity to step back and take a broader view of how what you’re working on fits into a bigger picture.”

Education: Bachelors degree, political science, University of Kansas; masters degree, international affairs, American University

Career highlights: Advocacy and policy director at the Basic Education Coalition, an advocacy group for international aid; chief of staff to Rep. Anthony Weiner, the former Democratic congressman from New York; legislative director to Reps. Steny Hoyer and Robert Andrews and former Sen. Byron Dorgan

Salary: Not disclosed

Send an e-mail to Doug Donovan.