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Forcing Nonprofits and Their Funders to Talk About Real Costs

By Nell Edgington



nonprofit real costsSomething really interesting could emerge out of new federal rules about overtime pay. My hope is these new rules force a better conversation between nonprofits and their funders about the real costs of creating social change.

This coming December new Department of Labor rules will go into effect doubling the salary threshold for guaranteed overtime pay, from about $23,000 to $47,476 so that employees (in any sector) who make less than that threshold will be guaranteed overtime pay whenever they work over 40 hours a week.

This new rule has a potentially enormous impact on nonprofits, which (because of their resource-constrained nature) often underpay and overwork their employees. Many have pointed out what a burden this will place on an already strapped nonprofit sector, which often tries to squeeze ever more productivity out of staffs that are already working well over capacity.

As the National Council of Nonprofits argues, nonprofits receiving government contracts signed prior to this new ruling will be forced to deliver the same services at a higher cost:

“Nonprofits with government grants and contracts at any level of government (local, state, tribal, or federal) will now be put in the position of having to comply with new federal requirements that impose new costs not known when those grants and contracts were signed. Unlike businesses that can raise prices, or governments that can raise taxes or curtail public services, nonprofits with government grants and contracts may find themselves contractually bound to maintain services at increased costs that may not be expressly covered by existing written agreements.”

Certainly in the short-term this new overtime rule puts nonprofits in a really difficult position.

But I wonder if in the long-term this new rule could shine a light on the impossible situation in which many funders put nonprofits. With a new ceiling on just how many staff hours a nonprofit can get out of a dollar, I wonder if nonprofit leaders will be forced to stand up and say “Enough is enough!”

Writing in The Atlantic about the potential impact of the overtime rule change on nonprofits, Jonathan Timm seems to think the solution is for nonprofits to simply charge funders more for their services, as he put it:

“If nonprofits truly care about the well-being of their staffs, one easy place to start is simply to write higher salaries into budget proposals. Likewise, government and philanthropic funders could be a lot wiser in how they dole out money: Scarce public-service dollars can impose a state of financial stress on the people who put them to use.”

Ahhhh, if only it were that easy…

But at its core, that is the problem. Nonprofit leaders are wary of calculating and articulating the full costs (including all staff costs) of their programs, and government and philanthropic funders are unaware of and unwilling to pay those full costs. But with growing demands on a nonprofit sector already stretched to the brink, something has to give. Perhaps this new reality will force a conversation about what it really costs to address the social challenges we face, and how we must effectively and adequately support the nonprofit sector we have charged with addressing many of those challenges.

The problem has always been that nonprofit leaders are so committed to the work they do and so empathetic towards their clients that when budgets and staff are tight, those leaders simply work longer and harder and ask their employees to do the same. But with these new rules that can no longer be the case.

Program budgets will have to grow to reflect the real costs of those programs (including all of the countless staff hours previously hidden by free overtime). And funders who want more and more services at lower and lower costs will be forced to reckon with the actual costs of the programs in which they want to invest. These new overtime rules will force the “real costs” conversation that many in the nonprofit sector have been encouraging, where nonprofits calculate and report the full costs (including the actual cost of staff time to deliver the work) of the work that they do. 

So instead of being a negative change, perhaps these new overtime rules could actually serve to propel nonprofits and their funders toward calculating, articulating and investing in what it really takes to create social change. Call me an optimist.

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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