Ever since last year’s Letter to the Donors of America from GuideStar, Charity Navigator, and BBB Wise Giving Alliance there has been a growing movement to debunk the “nonprofit overhead myth,” the notion that donors should evaluate nonprofits based on the percent they spend on “overhead” (fundraising and administrative) costs.
More and more articles (a most recent one here) are cropping up explaining the overhead myth and highlighting donors who overcame it. And even fundraising journal Advancing Philanthropy is devoting their entire Spring issue to the topic.
But at the same time we have very obvious examples of the continuing strength of the overhead myth. The latest is nonprofit darling Charity:Water, which is often held up as the gold standard of innovative fundraising and nonprofit strategy, claiming that 100% of their donations go “directly to the field.” And thus the overhead myth lives on.
Will we ever be rid of the idea that nonprofits can somehow achieve a nirvana where very little (or no) money goes to boring things like salaries, technology, infrastructure, fundraising, leadership development, planning, R&D?
I wonder if we could gain more traction by talking less about the negatives of an overhead myth and talking more about the positives of nonprofit organization building.
For example, one of the things that is often considered “overhead” and rarely gets funded is nonprofit leadership development. But in the for-profit sector, leadership development is viewed as an incredibly important and worthy investment. According to a recent article by the Foundation Center, the business sector spent $12 billion on leadership development in 2011, 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.
And leadership development can have such a positive return on investment. A stronger nonprofit leader can:
- Recruit, train and manage a more productive and effective staff
- Engage a more invested board of directors
- Use money and other limited resources more strategically
- Open a nonprofit to bigger and better networks
- More effectively manage to outcomes
- Create an overall more highly performing nonprofit
So what if we refocused the overhead myth discussion on the power of nonprofit organization building? Beyond leadership development, investing in nonprofit organization building means money for things like: talented, effective fundraising staff; smart long-term planning; performance management systems; effective technology.
At the core, organization building is about creating a smart, strategic nonprofit that can actually realize the outcomes it was set up to achieve. Organization building can make the difference between a nonprofit that is just getting by and a nonprofit that is actually solving problems.
Photo Credit: liquidnight
As 2013 comes to a close, and we all head off for some much deserved rest and relaxation, I wanted to thank all of you wonderful Social Velocity readers. You are an inspiring group of people working tirelessly to make this world a better place. I am very thankful to be able to work and interact with you all through the Social Velocity blog.
Before I take a break from the blog until January, I want to provide a list of the ten most popular Social Velocity blog posts from this year in case you missed some of them. You can also read the 10 Most Popular Posts lists from 2011 and 2012.
I wish you all a peaceful and relaxing holiday season. I look forward to talking and working with you in 2014. Happy Holidays!
The 10 most popular Social Velocity blog posts of 2013 were:
- 5 Nonprofit Trends to Watch in 2014
- 5 Taboos Nonprofits Must Get Over
- Why Your Board Should Raise 10% of Your Nonprofit’s Budget
- 5 Reasons Your Nonprofit Isn’t Raising Enough Money
- Addressing the Nonprofit Fundraising Elephant in the Room
- Find and Keep a Great Fundraiser
- 5 Questions to Get Your Board Moving
- Getting Real About Nonprofit Overhead Costs
- NextGen Donors and the New Golden Age of Philanthropy
- The Nonprofit Sector Needs to Get Over the Fear Thing
And if you want to make sure not to miss a single post in 2014, sign up for the Social Velocity e-newsletter (and download a complimentary copy of the Financing Not Fundraising, vol. 1 e-book in the process).
Photo Credit: Wikipedia
In this month’s Social Velocity blog interview, I’m talking with Laura Zumdahl, Vice President of Nonprofit Services at Donors Forum. Donors Forum provides networking, education, leadership and advocacy for philanthropists and nonprofits in Illinois. Laura provides leadership to Donors Forum’s efforts to strengthen nonprofits. I wanted to talk to Laura and Donors Forum primarily because of their innovative work bringing nonprofits and philanthropists together to talk about the real costs (including administrative costs) of creating social change through their Real Talk about Real Costs effort I highlighted earlier this year.
You can read past interviews in the Social Innovation Interview Series here.
Nell: What was the impetus for Real Talk about Real Costs and what is your ultimate goal with the project?
Laura: We’ve long known “overhead” has been a challenge in the nonprofit sector. Over the past few years, we’ve been engaged in some conversations and education about overhead and the “starvation cycle” that encumbers nonprofits, but it had been in fits and spurts.
In 2012 Donors Forum decided we needed to do more to directly address the issue with our membership and see what kind of change we could make locally on this tough issue. So we launched a “Community of Practice” focused on bringing together a group of dedicated funders and nonprofit leaders to tackle the issue over the course of a year through education, sharing of stories, and collective action to move the needle on funding nonprofit overhead.
Ultimately, we want to see change in the sector related to funding the full cost of service delivery. We want nonprofits to be able to understand and articulate their true costs of delivering their missions, and we want funders to understand those costs and fund organizations accordingly. We want funders to invest in the impact they can have with their dollars, not just a limited portion of a program that doesn’t include the real costs. For nonprofits to have a greater impact, they need to have their mission fully-funded.
Nell: The underlying assumption behind Real Talk about Real Costs is that it is possible to get nonprofits and funders to talk openly and honestly with each other. But that is something that rarely occurs in the sector because of the power imbalance between grantor and grantee. How do you overcome that imbalance and get to open, honest, productive conversation?
Laura: The power dynamic you articulated is often a huge barrier for authentic, productive conversations between grantors and grantees. We recognize that as part of the challenge of this work and know that we are only going to make change by helping people to shift that in their own work and experience so they can understand the perspective of the “other”.
When we first started this effort we formed a community of practice comprised of about 30 leaders – half grantors and half grantees. This community spent a year coming together every six weeks or so to learn more about overhead cost issues, hear each others’ stories about the challenges related to their work, and develop relationships. We intentionally focused on helping them to create a trusting and safe space where they could understand and learn from each other. It’s not easy to get to open and honest conversation when power dynamics are at play, but we saw this happen when we were deliberate about getting a commitment from participants to engage in this way and create a space for them to develop relationships and trust to allow these conversations to take place.
Nell: What are your plans, or do you have any plans, to take these conversations to a national level? How do we encourage these conversations beyond Illinois?
Laura: We do! We are continuing to work with our national partner, The Bridgespan Group, on the ongoing conversations at the local level in Illinois. We plan to launch another community of practice later this year, which will continue this work that has evolved over the past few years. We also are working with other great national partners, such as Guidestar and Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO), to take the conversations to a national level and encourage change in other locations, not just Illinois.
We need to encourage these conversations across the country – and that happens when people take the risk to build relationships that enable authentic conversations so stories can be shared and nonprofits and funders can work together to make change on how we address the issue of overhead costs in the sector.
Laura: We were thrilled to see Guidestar, Charity Navigator, and BBB Wise Giving Alliance make such a strong statement to the donors of America. Their recognition of how overhead rates can be wrongly used as a measure of effectiveness helps to raise awareness about this misconception and the importance of donors investing in impact.
Their leadership on this issue and the pledge that they’ve asked donors to commit to is an important step in helping to clarify the myths that have long surrounded overhead costs. They are looked to by many donors for signs of what to consider when selecting nonprofits to invest in, and their plea to donors to consider the real cost of outcomes and impact of an organization – not just a ratio that doesn’t tell the whole story – is a clear directive that we hope will affect both individual and institutional donors substantially.
Nell: What do you think it will take to really move the needle and get a majority of donors to recognize and invest in real nonprofit costs?
Laura: Change is hard when you are trying to affect behavior in a whole sector, so it’s not going to happen overnight. It’s a long process of affecting change in some areas that can build and eventually influence others to reconsider how they invest in real costs. We believe that if we can take the lead on making change in Illinois and share that experience with others, it’ll eventually help to influence behavior in other geographic areas across the country – hopefully leading to a wide-spread sector shift somewhere.
Several years ago nonprofits and funders weren’t talking about this issue together – and now, in some small pockets – they are. That’s a step in the right direction. And those of us in the sector need to support this work by making a personal commitment to address the myths around overhead whenever we can so we are part of making change happen.
The nonprofit sector and the philanthropy that funds it have been changing dramatically over the past several years, and there’s plenty more change to come. This month’s Social Velocity webinar, Embracing the Future of the Nonprofit Sector, will help nonprofit leaders and board members understand how the sector is changing and what they can do to keep up.
Here are some of the future trends facing the nonprofit sector that we’ll cover in this webinar:
- More Demand for Outcomes
There is a growing demand for nonprofits to 1) articulate what results they hope their work with achieve and 2) track whether those results are actually happening.
- Decreasing Emphasis on Nonprofit “Overhead”
More and more people are realizing that you can’t just invest in programs without the staff, infrastructure and fundraising to make those programs happen.
- More Advocacy for the Sector
as a Whole
The nonprofit sector has long been a fractured grouping of organizations of various sizes, business models, and issue areas. But that tide is starting to turn. We are starting to see the sector organize, mobilize and build the confidence necessary to claim its rightful place.
- Savvier Donors
Because nonprofits are getting more savvy, donors are as well. In addition to an increasing demand for proof of outcomes, donors are starting to realize that in such a stark economic environment those nonprofits that don’t have adequate infrastructure simply will not survive, let alone be able to adequately address the social problem they were organized to solve.
- Increased Efforts to Rate and Compare Nonprofits
We are increasingly evaluating nonprofits based on the results they achieve, not on how they spend their money. And to do that a whole infrastructure for evaluating and rating nonprofits is emerging and will continue to evolve as we get smarter about focusing resources on the most effective nonprofits.
These are exciting times for the nonprofit sector. This webinar will help you understand and embrace these trends.
Embracing the Future of the Nonprofit Sector
A Social Velocity On Demand Webinar
Photo Credit: Adolf de Meyer
A reader of my blog post earlier this month, From Nonprofit Scarcity to Social Change Abundance, took issue with my argument that nonprofit leaders need to be more bold. He believes that I, and others, should stop telling nonprofit leaders to chart bolder goals because nonprofit leaders simply don’t have the time or resources. I think his comments and our subsequent exchange (you can read the whole comment string here) illustrate the self-imposed limitations that hold some nonprofits back.
In his comment on my blog post, Dan Owens argues that nonprofits are not at fault for limiting their goals. Nonprofits’ very lack of resources holds them back, and it is unreasonable to try to push nonprofits to be more bold:
Nonprofits everywhere are working incredibly hard to solve some of the toughest challenges our society has to offer. Even truly great nonprofits…are stretched to capacity, and even those who embrace all the latest trends and business models cannot solve all the problems they seek to address. The money doesn’t exist, and without sustained and increased federal funding for nonprofits and those they serve, we will not be able to solve the problems we hope to achieve, including childhood hunger…Nonprofits need more resources. You’re right in saying that nonprofit leaders often design plans based upon last year’s fundraising figures. But they have very good reasons to be afraid, and to worry for the future and the clients they serve. They don’t have the freedom and money to make those “pie in the sky plans”…most nonprofit have to fight and scrap for every dollar they have, contributed, earned or applied for. And then they have to do it all again the next year. Is it any wonder they operate as they do?
But my point with the blog post, and really my point with the entire blog and Social Velocity in general, is that nonprofits have to break out of the starvation cycle of never having enough to do more. Instead of embracing the fact that the nonprofit sector is incredibly under-resourced, nonprofits must see past that and envision a future where they have everything they need to accomplish bold social change. It is the very act of turning scarcity on its head that creates abundance, as I point out to Dan:
You have clearly delineated many of the funding problems inherent in the nonprofit sector. There is no doubt that nonprofits need more resources. But the only way that will happen is if nonprofits become more bold, not just with “pie in the sky plans” (which I, by the way, think are absolutely critical) but also by being more bold with funders, government regulators…board members. My whole point with the Financing Not Fundraising series, and really this blog overall, is that nonprofits must break out of the cycle of “fighting and scrapping for every dollar they have.” That is an unsustainable scenario. Instead of accepting the shortcomings of the current funding for the nonprofit sector, let’s get bold about asking for more. But that request must be made in the name of bold goals for social change.
Still seeing the current hurdles standing in the way of bold goals in the nonprofit sector, Dan wonders if the solution might lie in separating nonprofit leaders from the day-to-day work of their organizations so that they have the time and space for envisioning true social change:
I believe one of our greatest challenges is to get those in the nonprofit sector with the real knowledge (usually EDs working on the ground) to have the time and space to work up the bold (and yes, fearless) ideas. Everywhere I have worked I have had the all-too-rare conversation with the ED or program director who can articulate the overall bold vision but cannot see how that can be achieved within the current framework and particularly without harming those they currently serve- because the disruptive innovation necessary would take resources away from current programs…I heard a great speaker recently who [had a great idea for change] but she never really had the chance to build the idea out until she took a few weeks off from her job and was able to really focus on specifics and practical considerations. Perhaps that is what we need more of — sabbaticals, and then planning to implement the bold ideas.
Again, I believe this is the wrong approach. Bold action must be part of the day-to-day work of the organization. We can no longer separate big picture strategy from the day-to-day work of the nonprofit sector. Every effort, every resource, every staff member must be engaged in the larger vision of social change. It must become part of the everyday culture of the nonprofit sector, not just the purview of the elite few at the top, or an exercise conducted a few times per year.
If we are going to truly break free of the hamster wheel and make social change a reality, we must make bold vision part of every day life in the sector.
What do you think? Do the resource constraints of the nonprofit sector stand in the way of big, bold goals?
Photo Credit: cdrussorusso
Note: While I’m off during the holidays I wanted to provide some archive blog posts that you might enjoy. A version of this post originally appeared on the Social Velocity blog in November 2011.
It’s that time of year when donors make key decisions about their end of year giving. But a post on the Social Earth blog advising donors about questions they should ask nonprofits perpetuates thinking that actually hurts, rather than helps the nonprofit sector. The author asks “How do you know where your charitable dollars are going? Are they going to the cause you want to support or are they going to administrative and fundraising expenses?” In reinforcing old, and destructive binary thinking about program vs. overhead expenses, the author is doing nonprofits and their donors a real disservice.
The author lists 4 key questions she thinks every donor should ask of the nonprofits they consider donating to:
As various charities vie for your charitable donations, there are many questions you can ask them directly, including:
- How much goes to the cause? How high are their expenses?
- How efficient is their fundraising? What is their cost-per-fundraised-dollar ratio?
- Is the charity run properly? How efficient and effective is their human capital? Management team?
- Do they even need your money? Will your money just be lying around in their reserve?
I think questions #2 and #3 are excellent, but questions #1 and #4 perpetuate thinking that holds the nonprofit sector back.
Let’s start with Question #1: “How much goes to the cause? How high are their expenses?”
As I’ve written before, the distinction between program (or “cause”) and administrative expenses is meaningless at best, and destructive at worst. If a nonprofit organization is creating change, then everything they do is in support of that change. How can a program run if there is no financial engine (fundraising) to fund it? If there is no building or space to house it? If there is no financial management or regular audits? If there is no regular evaluation of whether the program is making a difference? How can you possibly separate “program” from “overhead?” We must move beyond this distinction and encourage nonprofits to raise (and donors to give) more capacity capital, or the money that nonprofits so desperately need to create effective and efficient organizations.
Question #4 “Do they even need your money? Will your money just be lying around in their reserve?” is equally troublesome.
This question reinforces the backward notion that nonprofits should not have a reserve fund. As I (and others) have written before, we have to get away from the nonprofit taboo that operating reserves are wrong. Nonprofits cannot plan for the future, have a sustainable financial model, experiment with program changes, take risks, or any of the other things that are absolutely necessary to creating social change, without some operating reserves. If nonprofits are continually forced to go month to month without any cushion they will never emerge as strong, sustainable organizations capable of creating lasting change.
We must move away from thinking that encourages nonprofits to scrape by without the tools and infrastructure they desperately need. We must stop measuring nonprofit performance with meaningless financial metrics and instead evaluate nonprofits on their ability to deliver change. If a nonprofit is creating real change, does the minutia of how they spend money really matter?
Just a few years ago, the only measure for a nonprofit’s effectiveness was the percent they spent on overhead expenses. If a nonprofit spent a magic 20% or less on non-program expenses they were deemed worthy of donations. This destructive way of evaluating nonprofit organizations has been losing favor over the last few years as rating agencies like Charity Navigator have recognized the need for a broader evaluation of nonprofit effectiveness. New measures have started to include outcome and impact elements.
But all of this begs the ultimate question which is how do we create a system for measuring and comparing nonprofits across the many social issues and operating models that make up the sector? Because however faulty the overhead percentage measurement was, at least it allowed a comparison of apples to apples. You could see how one nonprofit stacked up against another. But if each nonprofit organization is now creating their own theory of change, and their own outcome and impact measurements, how do we compare those to another nonprofit’s outcome and impact measures?
Enter a host of efforts to solve that very problem. One of these efforts is Markets for Good. They aim to create an infrastructure for evaluating nonprofit effectiveness based on outcomes and impact. You can watch their video explaining their efforts below, or if you are reading this in an email click here to watch the video.
And there are many other efforts to move the nonprofit sector toward measuring outcomes instead of spending practices. These include Idealistics, GiveWell, Philanthropedia among many others. But it’s not clear yet how any of these efforts will be able to analyze and compare the effectiveness of social change efforts because there are many pieces to that puzzle.
To truly be able to evaluate and compare the effectiveness of social change efforts, we have to:
- Encourage nonprofit organizations to develop a theory of change, because you can’t measure whether an organization has created change if they have no idea what they are trying to change in the first place.
- Give nonprofits resources with which to measure whether their theory of change is actually coming to fruition. Measuring outcomes and impact takes time and money.
- Separate a single nonprofit’s efforts to create change from other forces working on the same social problem so that we can understand the effectiveness of a single organization.
- Create a standardized system for comparing the ability of one nonprofit organization to create change to another’s ability to create change.
- Connect such a system for measuring nonprofit effectiveness to systems already being created for for-profit social entrepreneurs (like GIIRS) so that those with money to invest in social change efforts can compare the social return they would get in a for-profit and/or nonprofit setting.
- Communicate the results of those measures to philanthropic and social investors so they can make more informed, more results-focused investments, whether those be to nonprofit or for-profit social change organizations.
To me, comparing the ability of organizations to create social change is an enormous nut to crack. But it is an incredibly worthy endeavor. I applaud Markets for Good and the many other efforts working to create a system for understanding and comparing social change efforts. It will be fascinating to watch this space develop.
Photo Credit: KJGarbutt
I hope you all find time over the holidays to relax, unwind and spend time with friends and family. Thank you all for reading and contributing to the Social Velocity blog this year. I really appreciate all of my readers and look forward to talking with you in the new year. Happy Holidays!
The 10 most popular Social Velocity blog posts of 2011 were:
- 5 Lies to Stop Telling Donors
- The Financing Not Fundraising Blog Series
- 10 Great Social Innovation Reads: November
- The Problem with Strategic Planning
- 5 Nonprofit Trends to Watch in 2011
- 4 Things Every Nonprofit Needs
- What is Social Innovation?
- A Step-by-Step Guide to Creating a Nonprofit Financing Plan
- 7 Things Board Members Can Do to Raise More Money
- Why Nonprofit Overhead is Destructive
Photo Credit: Charline Tetiyevsky
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