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What Do Your Programs Really Cost?

By Nell Edgington



nonprofit costsThere was an historic victory last month in the battle to rid the nonprofit sector of the Overhead Myth. The federal Office of Management and Budget adopted new Uniform Guidance rules that when any local, state or federal agency contracts with a nonprofit at least 10% of the contract must fund the nonprofit’s administrative costs (what the government calls “indirect costs”).

This is huge because nonprofit leaders report (here and here) that government contracts rarely fund even 10% of indirect costs and many times closer to 0%. While this is a big step forward, there is still much work to do in getting nonprofits the money they need to fund the full costs of their work.

The sector is so underfunded largely because we have taught nonprofit leaders that they should keep their indirect costs as low as possible. This is such a ridiculous shackle to put on the sector.

So nonprofits and funders must move to a place where we are funding the full costs of effective operations. But that won’t happen overnight. In fact, it requires that nonprofit leaders do four key things:

  1. Calculate the Full Costs of Each Program
    In order to tell funders and government contractors exactly how much a program costs, you need to first understand those costs yourself. And the full costs of a program include BOTH 1)the direct costs (like the program director’s salary, program materials), and 2) the indirect costs (like the percent of the executive director’s salary spent on the program, office rent and utilities devoted to the program). Bridgespan created a really nice guide to figuring out the full (direct and indirect) costs of each of your programs.

  2. Articulate Those Costs to Funders 
    Once you’ve figured out the full costs of each of your programs, you must articulate those full costs to funders (individuals, foundations, government contractors) interested in supporting your programs. Explain how you came up with the full costs of each program, why you included both direct and indirect costs, and why you need support for ALL of those costs in order to effectively run the program. If a funder balks at supporting indirect costs, explain that a program without space, leadership, evaluation, or systems would not function, let alone function as effectively as it does.

  3. Analyze Your Overall Program Mix
    But don’t stop there. Turn this new knowledge about the financial impact of each of your programs into a strategic tool. Once you figure out what each individual program fully costs, you can compare the financial and social impact (how well it contributes to your mission) of each program to each other, like this in order to understand how well your entire program portfolio contributes to the money and mission of your nonprofit. Through this analysis you can determine what programs you should expand, which you should continue, and which you may need to cut.

  4. Stop Selling Your Nonprofit Short
    Once you’ve figured all of this out, stop accepting less than what your nonprofit really needs. When you allow a funder to haggle their way to receiving the full product without paying the full price you are undermining your organization and your mission. If a funder can’t or won’t pay the full costs then find someone else who will, or scale back on your programs until you do. Nonprofit leaders must break out of the nonprofit starvation cycle of agreeing to do more and more for less and less. You must stop running programs, or worse, adding new programs when they are not fully funded. Be honest with your board, your staff, your funders, and yourself about what each program really costs and whether or not you have the funding to continue (or grow) those programs.

I believe the Overhead tide is really turning. Nonprofits and their funders are starting to recognize that great programs take real money. But to truly take advantage of that trend nonprofit leaders must figure out the full cost of their programs and have the confidence to ask for, and receive, the funding to cover those costs.

Photo Credit: Dave Dugdale

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About the Author: Nell Edgington is President of Social Velocity (www.socialvelocity.net), a management consulting firm leading nonprofits to greater social impact and financial sustainability. Social Velocity helps nonprofits grow their programs, bring more money in the door, and use resources more effectively. For more information, check out Social Velocity consulting services and clients.


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