Note: In April I will be moderating a panel at the Center for Effective Philanthropy Conference about what funders can do to support nonprofit sustainability. To promote that panel and the conference, the Center for Effective Philanthropy asked me to write a post for their blog, which is reprinted below. You can see the original post at the CEP blog here.
Among the many myths that pervade the nonprofit sector, the Overhead Myth is perhaps the most destructive. It is the erroneous idea that nonprofits must keep their fundraising and administrative costs cripplingly low, which leads to anemic organizations that are not as effective as they could be.
In fact, the disparity between the nonprofit and for-profit sector in investment in strong organizations is striking. As just one example, research from the Foundation Center found that in 2011, the business sector spent $12 billion on leadership development, whereas the nonprofit sector spent $400 million. Or, viewed another way, businesses spent $120 per employee on leadership development, whereas the nonprofit sector spent $29 per employee.
But the reality is that nonprofit organizations are no different than for-profit organizations in terms of overhead. Last summer a Bridgespan study analyzed the indirect costs of 20 different nonprofit organizations and found, not surprisingly, that overhead rates vary greatly depending on the business model and industry of a given organization (just as it does in the for-profit sector).
Some nonprofit, philanthropic, and government leaders are recognizing that we must move beyond the Overhead Myth and start building stronger nonprofit organizations. This is partly due to the Overhead Myth campaign, launched in 2014 by GuideStar, CharityNavigator, and BBB Wise Giving Alliance with their famous “Letter to the Donors of America” and follow up “Letter to the Nonprofits of America,” which argue that nonprofit leaders and funders must stop judging nonprofits by their overhead rate — and instead focus on a nonprofit’s results. So the idea is that instead of evaluating the effectiveness of a nonprofit organization based on how it spends money, funders would move to evaluate the effectiveness of a nonprofit based on the results it achieves.
This campaign has gained some traction. The federal government and some local governments have moved to increase the indirect costs paid to nonprofits, which means more money for things beyond direct program costs.
But unfortunately, we are far from overcoming the Overhead Myth. An article just this month in Philanthropy Daily extoled the virtues of the Salvation Army because “the most effective nonprofits are those with lean management. The Salvation Army is a constructive example of an effective charity with very low overhead.” And a recent article in Forbes profiled five nonprofit leaders advising other nonprofit leaders about how to keep overhead costs low.
There is still much work to be done in recognizing the need for and investing in strong, effective nonprofit organizations.
Which is where progressive funders, like those who will be attending the 2017 CEP Conference in Boston in April, come in. If a critical mass of funders could start supporting nonprofits to create strong and effective organizations, we could perhaps overcome the Overhead Myth once and for all.
But what does that look like? In my mind, funders can lead the effort to eradicate the Overhead Myth by:
- Working with their nonprofit grantees to uncover the full costs of their work. Instead of hiding or severely limiting non-program costs, nonprofit leaders must fully analyze, report on, and fund ALL of the expenses necessary to achieve results.
- Uncovering the capacity constraints that impact their grantees. Funders must actively work with their grantees to determine what is standing in the way of building stronger, more effective organizations — and then fund the solutions to those hurdles.
- Moving from program-specific funding to unrestricted, general operating support of the organization.
- Investing in the revenue-generating functions of their grantees. It takes money to create mission, so we need more investments in sustainable financial models, which includes (among other things) smart plan development, recruitment of effective revenue-generating staff, and training of board members on their role in the financial model.
The good news is that there are already funders who are doing these things. For example, there is the collaboration of California grantmakers who lead the Real Cost Project aimed at helping grantmakers understand “what it would take to fund the real costs of the organizations they support — that is all of the necessary investments for a nonprofit organization to deliver on mission and to be sustainable over the long term.”
So to help move this conversation and work further, I will be moderating a breakout session at the 2017 CEP Conference titled “Supporting Nonprofit Sustainability,” where Jacob Harold, president and CEO of GuideStar, Vu Le, nonprofit blogger and executive director of Rainier Valley Corps, and Pia Infante, co-executive director of The Whitman Institute, will be discussing how foundations can start advocating for and investing in stronger, more effective nonprofit organizations.
If nonprofits and those who fund them could overcome the Overhead Myth once and for all, it could be a watershed moment for social change. It would be the point at which we move from a nonprofit sector that is just trying to get by to a nonprofit sector that is armed with the people, infrastructure, and systems necessary to deliver on lasting social change.
I hope you’ll join us for what promises to be an exciting conversation.
Photo Credit: Mike Baird
Later this month I will be heading to Miami for the annual Independent Sector conference. I haven’t been to this conference before, so it’ll be new for me. And I’m excited about it for a number of reasons.
First, former CEO of Independent Sector Diana Aviv spent the last six months on a “listening tour” talking to nonprofit leaders around the country to get a sense of the trends and challenges they face. She recently announced her departure from Independent Sector to lead Feeding America. This will be her last chance to report on what she’s learned and where the sector should focus moving forward. She’s gathered the data, and she’s on her way out, so I imagine she will have lots of interesting things to say.
Because of Aviv’s listening tour, Independent Sector has organized this year’s conference around six key trends she found shaping the sector: 1) Disruption from inequality and environmental degradation, 2) Greater ethnic diversity and new generations of leadership, 3)Technology transforming learning, gathering, and associations, 4)Swarms of individuals connecting with institutions, 5)Business becoming increasingly engaged in social and environmental issues, 6)New models for social welfare and social change.
Beyond these trends, I’m also excited about the conference because it will be one of the first large, national discussions about the Performance Imperative. Launched by the Leap Ambassadors earlier this year, this new definition of a high-performing nonprofit has certainly been shared and discussed widely (including on this blog), but this is one of the largest presentations of the PI among so many nonprofit and philanthropy leaders. It will be interesting to hear what they have to say about it.
The schedule also includes some fascinating breakout sessions, like the one where Hewlett Foundation’s Daniel Stid and GuideStar’s Jacob Harold will discuss nonprofit cost structures and why we need to Pay What It Takes to Get Results. Amen! And philanthropic visionary, Lucy Bernolz’s Future of Philanthropy session should be eye opening.
Finally, this conference will be an incredibly impressive gathering of 1,000+ thought leaders and social changemakers. There are so many people on the attendees list that I’d love to meet. Perhaps I can convince a few of them to participate in a future Social Velocity blog interview.
So that’s where I’ll be the last week in October. If you can’t make it, you can view the livestream here, or follow the Twitter stream #ISEmbarks2015. I’ll be Tweeting and blogging from the conference, as time allows. If you are planning to be there, let me know, I’d love to see you!
Photo Credit: Independent Sector
In today’s Social Velocity blog interview, I’m talking with Jacob Harold, CEO of GuideStar, the clearinghouse of information on nonprofits. Jacob came to GuideStar from the Hewlett Foundation, where he led grantmaking for the Philanthropy Program. Between 2006 and 2012, he oversaw $30 million in grants that, together, aimed to build a 21st-century infrastructure for smart giving. Jacob was just named to the 2014 NonProfit Times’ Power and Influence Top 50.
You can read other interviews in the Social Velocity Interview Series here.
Nell: It has been over a year since the Letter to the Donors of America about the overhead myth. Where are we today in getting donors (and board members) to understand that overhead is a destructive mindset?
Jacob: I’m glad to report that the response to the first overhead myth letter far exceeded our expectations. Hundreds of articles have been written about the letter. It comes up almost every time I hold a meeting or give a talk. For at least a few people, I think it’s been a deep affirmation of something they’ve known a long time. And, indeed, many others in the field have been working on this: the Donors Forum, Bridgespan, the National Council on Nonprofits, and others.
But we also know that we have a long road ahead of us. The overhead myth is deeply ingrained in the culture and systems of the nonprofit sector. It will take years of concerted effort for us to fully move past such a narrow view of nonprofit performance to something that reflects the complexity of the world around us. But it’s essential if we want to ensure we have a nonprofit sector capable of tackling the great challenges of our time.
Nell: The Letter to the Donors of America was obviously focused on the donor side of the problem, but how do we also change the mindset of those nonprofit leaders who perpetuate the Overhead Myth in their reporting, conversations with donors and board members, etc.?
Jacob: This is a critical aspect of the challenge. Every year nonprofits send out something like one billion pieces of direct mail to donors that prominently display their organization’s overhead ratio. It’s no wonder that donors think that’s a proxy for performance—we’ve trained donors to think so!
That’s why the CEOs of Charity Navigator and BBB Wise Giving Alliance and I are currently working on a second overhead myth letter—this one to the nonprofits of America. We’re still finalizing the text, but in it we will be calling on nonprofits to be more proactive about communicating the story of their programmatic work, their governance structures, and the real costs of achieving results. And, more, we want to recruit nonprofits to help us retrain donors to pay attention to what matters: results. In the end, that means that nonprofits have to cut the pie charts showing overhead versus program—and instead step up to the much more important challenge of communicating how you track progress against your mission.
Nell: At the Social Impact Exchange Conference you announced some pretty exciting plans with the GuideStar Exchange to, in essence, create a marketplace of information about nonprofits so that the best nonprofits receive more resources. Talk a little about your plans for the Exchange, and most importantly, how you plan to bring nonprofits and donors there.
Jacob: The GuideStar Exchange is our mechanism for collecting data directly from nonprofits. By going straight to nonprofits we can build on the data we already have from the IRS Form 990. The 990 is a regulatory document, it’s not meant to offer a comprehensive view of nonprofits and their programs—that’s what we’re trying to do with the Exchange. And it also lets us get information much more quickly!
So far we’ve had great success. More than 100,000 nonprofits have shared data with us through the GuideStar Exchange and more than 38,000 have reached one of what we call our participation levels—Bronze, Silver, or Gold. But we have a long way to go if we want to approach a comprehensive view of the marketplace. So we’re adding new incentives for nonprofits to share data through the Exchange, building new ways to distribute that data through other channels and improving the user interface to make the process easier. Right now we’re collecting quantitative financial data and qualitative programmatic data but later this year we’re going to release a tool for collecting quantitative programmatic data, too.
This comes back to the overhead myth campaign. If we’re going to ask donors to go beyond the overhead ratio when considering nonprofits, we have to offer an alternative. GuideStar Exchange is a critical part of that alternative: a chance for nonprofits to tell their story in a structured way that forces them to articulate in clear terms what they’re trying to accomplish, how they’ll get there, and how they’ll measure progress along the way.
Nell: The Money for Good reports that came out a couple of years ago rather discouragingly found that the majority of donors don’t give based on nonprofit results. With the GuideStar Exchange you obviously think that is changeable, so how do we go about changing donor interest and behavior?
Jacob: Well, I had a different read of that data. It is absolutely true that the Money for Good research showed that most donors don’t give based on nonprofit results. But it also showed that a significant portion—about 15%, depending on how you cut the data—do. That may not seem like much, but that represents 30 million people responsible for close to $40 billion in annual giving. So there’s already a huge unserved market, even if it represents a small portion of the entire system of philanthropy.
And at GuideStar we see this every day. We have 7 million unique users a year. And that’s just on our website, our data was used another 22 million times on other platforms last year through just one of our distribution mechanisms. So people want data. And as we get more and more programmatic data—data that is oriented towards results against mission—I’m absolutely confident that we’re going to unlock new behaviors among donors, nonprofit executives, journalists, and others. The nonprofit sector is about to enter a new phase, and I think it’s going to be remarkable.
Photo Credit: GuideStar
This week I attended the 5th annual Social Impact Exchange Conference in New York City. It was an interesting gathering of funders, change makers and intermediaries all grappling with how to reach and sustain scaled social solutions.
“Scale” is such a challenging concept, and as I mentioned earlier, there are many entities struggling with exactly what scale means. According to Heather McLeod Grant (author of Forces for Good) whose keynote address kicked off the conference, “scale” is no longer about growing individual organizations or addressing individual issues, but rather about building movements and networks.
The idea of a networked approach to social change is not a new one (see the great Stanford Social Innovation Review article from 2008 by Jane Wei-Skillern and Sonia Marciano on this approach), but Heather underlined the importance of a more integrated and aligned approach to creating social change. I would have liked to see this idea taken further, perhaps with some of the Transformative Scale discussion that is happening elsewhere, included in this discussion.
There were some real highlights of the conference for me. First was the luncheon panel on the Black Male Achievement Movement and President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative. Tonya Allen of The Skillman Foundation was a hard hitting moderator of Shawn Dove, from the Campaign for Black Male Achievement, William Snipes from Pipeline Crisis/Winning Strategies, and Andrew Wolk from Root Cause.
The group had a fascinating conversation about the movement to address “a whole generation of young men being pushed to the side.” As Snipes so eloquently put it, “This is a problem about who we are as a society, whether or not we are going to survive. The road we are on is not sustainable. We cannot continue to incarcerate one third of a community. This is an impractical way to run a society.”
The panel described and debated the complexity of addressing a huge systemic problem and how they have launched a movement to do just that. It was a candid and thought-provoking exchange.
Another highlight was GuideStar CEO Jacob Harold’s talk on their exciting efforts to transform the nonprofit information landscape (Jacob is describing this landscape in the picture at the left).
GuideStar’s goal is to address the “two elephants in the philanthropic room:” 1) some nonprofits are better than others (they create more impact per dollar spent), and 2) some donors are better than others (they create more impact per dollar given).
To address these “elephants,” GuideStar is collecting and analyzing deeper information about nonprofits and then distributing that information so that donors make better investments. (More on this next month when I interview Jacob as part of the Social Velocity Interview Series.)
The other real highlight of the conference for me was the keynote address on financial sustainability from Antony Bugg-Levine, head of the Nonprofit Finance Fund. Antony defined financial sustainability as “Repeatable and reliable revenue that exceeds ongoing operating costs, coupled with the ability to fund periodic investment in adaptation and growth.” In other words, a financially sustainable nonprofit brings enough reliable revenue in the door and can, when needed, raise capital for change and growth.
And that capital piece is often overlooked by nonprofits and funders. Antony described 5 types of capital helpful to nonprofits:
- Change Capital to position an organization for growth.
- Working Capital to handle fluctuations in cash flow.
- Recovery Capital to address shocks to an organization (natural disaster, fire, etc.)
- Risk & Opportunity Capital to develop a new program or different approach.
- Endowments which can provide some unrestricted money, but should not be considered reliable revenue.
Antony also described 5 things that funders do and 5 things that nonprofits do to derail sustainable growth (pictured at right.)
I also enjoyed participating in the “Business Models for Sustainability at Scale” panel with my colleagues Dana O’Donovan from Monitor Institute, Megan Shackleton from the Einhorn Family Trust, Heidi Shultz from the Helmsley Charitable Trust and Craig Reigel from the Nonprofit Finance Fund. We had a great discussion with very thoughtful and engaging audience questions about how to create sustainable financial models and how philanthropy can help move that forward.
The Social Impact Exchange assembled a smart, talented group of people to grapple with how we fund and grow solutions to the wicked problems we face. It was a thought-provoking couple of days.
In this month’s Social Velocity blog interview, I’m talking with Brian Sasscer, Senior Vice President of Strategic Operations at The Case Foundation. Brian is responsible for the Case Foundation’s web presence strategy and overseeing the Foundation’s operations. His passion for his job is fueled by a desire to continually push new technologies and for-profit thinking into the nonprofit sector.
I wanted to talk to Brian because of the very exciting new Giving Graph project they announced last March at SXSW. The Giving Graph would help the social sector use data and technology to connect people to causes they are passionate about in a seamless way.
You can read past interviews in the Social Innovation Interview Series here.
Nell: When you presented about the Giving Graph at SXSW last March it was just an idea. Where does it stand now? Is the Case Foundation moving forward to execute on the concept?
Brian: The Case Foundation has been thrilled by the positive response we’ve received since introducing the concept of the Giving Graph in March. We’ve had multiple conversations with folks from the tech and social good community that have surfaced some exciting opportunities to help advance the project. For example, we were approached by Rayid Ghani, who served as Chief Data Scientist from the 2012 Obama for America campaign. He is spearheading The Erich & Wendy Schmidt Data Science for Social Good Summer Fellowship program at the University of Chicago. This new program is bringing together 36 aspiring students in the fields of computer science, programming and statistics to seek out opportunities to use data science as a tool to solve complex social issues. The Giving Graph was selected as one of the projects collaborators and these students will experiment with over the summer.
Through conversations with other nonprofits, for-profits, foundations and technology companies, we’ve made great connections and relationships that have helped us understand the possibilities the graph could provide for a stronger infrastructure within the social good sector. Specifically, we have opened dialogue with the Gates Foundation, as well as Guidestar CEO Jacob Harold. Michael Lewkowitz of Igniter is another individual who has done an exceptional job of exploring the concept of an impact graph, and understanding the landscape of this data play in the social good sector.
We also reached out to other organizations such as Network for Good and Global Giving in an effort to survey the space and understand the big data players in social good data. There are a number of talented individuals who share our vision of helping to further develop a concept that supports and encourages growth in the social sector. As for the Graph itself, we will continue our discussions and experimentation with the University of Chicago fellows assigned to the project with a goal to produce key findings from the experiment sometime in the fall.
Nell: You have sought a good deal of public input on the concept of the Giving Graph. How has that input altered the initial concept?
Brian: We have received excellent feedback from the public related to the SXSW presentation and our blog post. The majority of the input we have received is from thought leaders, nonprofits and foundations, for-profits, and other individuals already working in the data space as it relates to the social sector. Their feedback has validated the need for a tool like this for the sector. The first part of the Giving Graph concept itself was focused on identifying the key players in the data space for social good, understanding the space, and analyzing data location in the social good sector. Through research and discussions with other organizations, we have concluded that our end vision and goal is aligned with the goals of numerous other projects.
We found one project that is working to reform the sector from an information infrastructure point of view, another is helping to facilitate data-sharing amongst organizations, and another is working to match social good opportunities to an individuals interests. Each project can support and build off the others, propagating the number of resources available for the social good sector. From our findings, we have validated our concept and identified different projects out there that satisfy different components of our vision. The hope is to bring these different initiatives together and see this concept come life.
Nell: Do you think something like the Giving Graph could cause an appreciable increase in the amount of philanthropic dollars available in the sector, or would it simply alter where philanthropic dollars get spent?
Brian: We think the Giving Graph concept has the potential to drive both outcomes – both shifting of philanthropic dollars, as well as increasing the overall dollars being given to philanthropic causes. We believe the Giving Graph could help identify new spaces for social good and new campaigns and programs to live in those spaces – leading to potential shifting of philanthropic dollars, as well as bringing in new audiences that would help bring more dollars to the space. And by leveraging data to more effectively connect individuals with causes and organizations that are relevant to them, we can increase the potential for both financial contributions as well as people to give back in other ways – whether spreading the word about a particular campaign or organization, or volunteering in some capacity.
Nell: A huge challenge of any new social media application is getting a critical mass of people to actually start using it. How do adoption rates factor into your plans?
Brian: That is absolutely correct – the Giving Graph concept will be a collaborative effort in many ways. One aspect is the data. In addition to tapping into different data sources, partnerships among additional organizations will be necessary. We need a series of nonprofits, for profits, cross-sector foundations, and other companies to contribute and share information into this graph to maximize the potential. This can be a challenging component, as data in today’s world is very valuable. Nevertheless, we have started conversations with various organizations about sharing data for the benefit of the graph and we’re optimistic. We’re at a turning point in data sharing, as organizations are becoming less reluctant to share than they have been in the past.
Another aspect of the project is end-users, and they appear in various ways. It could be a program manager at a nonprofit who is identifying a program to implement at her organization. In another instance, it is a college student trying to find out a local seminar to attend based on his charitable interests. For individuals, we are not going to put a front end on this database. The idea is that applications/platforms will be able to tap into this graph and ultimately provide users the ability to plug in their information, and for platforms to then integrate this information into the larger graph.
So absolutely, critical mass from both a data and usage point of view will play an important role in this project. It will take a lot of relationship building and trust, especially around data. The web is transforming into an experience that truly knows the end-users. The Giving Graph is unique because it not only represents another way for the web to understand end-users, it also provides the ability to give insight into and improve the entire social sector as well.
Nell: Why did the Case Foundation decide to spend time and resources on creating a new technology for the overall philanthropic sector? How does this effort fit into the Foundation’s larger and longer-term goals?
Brian: Our founders Steve and Jean Case were responsible for bringing America online decades ago. They believe in the potential of technology, and particularly the Internet, to connect people together to drive positive social change. The Case Foundation has a storied history of investing in and leveraging new technology platforms for social good – from our investments in online giving platforms like Network for Good, Causes and MissionFish, to programs like the Make it Your Own Awards and America’s Giving Challenge. Our intent is not to create the graph ourselves, but rather to seed the conversation and collaborate with our partners to provide the sector with a new tool in their tech for good arsenal. We think this Graph concept has the potential to change online philanthropy and revolutionize the sector, sparking innovation in ways akin to the commerce and entertainment industries.