In today’s Social Velocity blog interview, I’m talking with Ann Goggins Gregory, Chief Operating Officer at Habitat for Humanity Greater San Francisco where she oversees programs, the social enterprise called the ReStore, HR and Operations.
Previously, Ann was a Senior Director at the Bridgespan Group, where she led the organization’s work on organizational learning; managed consulting engagements with human services, education, and youth-serving nonprofits; and spearheaded research efforts on a variety of nonprofit management topics. She remains a Senior Advisor to Bridgespan on issues related to the starvation cycle.
You can read other interviews in the Social Velocity Interview Series here.
Nell: You and your colleague Don Howard are in some ways the catalysts behind the Overhead Myth campaign because of your seminal article, The Nonprofit Starvation Cycle in the Stanford Social Innovation Review back in 2009. How far have we come since that article? How prevalent is the starvation cycle today and what can we do to move beyond it?
Ann: “The Nonprofit Starvation Cycle” names what I consider to be a fundamental truth: “Organizations that build robust infrastructure…are more likely to succeed than those that do not. This is not news, and nonprofits are no exception to the rule.” For decades, researchers and practitioners have argued that low overhead does not equate with efficiency and efficiency, in turn, does not equate with effectiveness.
We are seeing (productive) focus and movement now versus five or ten years ago, yet that starvation cycle is still an entrenched issue. On a positive note, the Overhead Myth campaign has been critical in communicating with donors directly and empowering nonprofits to communicate with “back up.” Though I have mixed feelings about some of the messages in Dan Pallotta’s video, it elevated paradoxes of how costs are treated in the social sector. We’ve also seen targeted efforts to help funders and nonprofits address cost-related issues together. Even the federal government is trying to shift practice: the Office of Management and Budget issued guidance requiring that nonprofits receiving federal funding receive a minimum of 10% indirect rate, or they can negotiate a rate. If this guidance is followed, it will be a major policy win.
Yet we have a long way to go. Talking about terminology isn’t scintillating, but it’s critical to breaking the starvation cycle. Overhead costs aren’t the same as indirect, yet we conflate them. General operating support and capacity building—often seen as ways to help break the cycle—aren’t the same thing. Many nonprofits do not know the full costs associated with their programs, and many funders don’t understand nonprofit finance. Bridging the skill gap on both sides of the equation is critical.
Moreover, a single figure like the overhead rate is appealing because it makes comparison easy. Until nonprofits have better ways to communicate outcomes, we will continue to battle against the simplicity of a ratio. Finally, power dynamics between funders and nonprofits inhibit change; candidly, there aren’t strong forces pushing on philanthropy and government to change their practice. In the absence of such change, nonprofits are understandably worried about shifting their stance on overhead if their competitors do not (I do think there are steps that any nonprofit can take, though).
Nell: Part of what keeps the starvation cycle alive is that it is being fed, as you so clearly point out in your SSIR article, by both funders and nonprofit leaders. One of the things you were working on at Bridgespan was the Real Talk About Real Costs series of nonprofit leader and funder conversations. How effective was it to bring nonprofits and funders together to talk about these issues? And is that potential solution to the starvation cycle scalable?
Ann: Real Talk about Real Costs, sponsored by the Donors Forum with Bridgespan as a partner, brought together 300 leaders from nonprofits and philanthropy to wrestle with what good outcomes really cost. The event built upon a nine-month Community of Practice focused on “tackling the overhead challenge.” This interview has more about how Donors Forum decided to put the cost issue front and center. Another such effort is slated to begin in California in 2015.
In watching funder-nonprofit “mixed company” interactions, I was struck by how many funders expressed dissatisfaction with the grant-making status quo, yet frustrated that foundation trustees did not feel the same way. And I noticed how uncomfortable both funders and nonprofits were about having a tough conversation about full costs. At the event, we gave participants a role-reversal case study where a fictitious grantee and grant-maker had to discuss the terms of a grant; nonprofit attendees acted the part of the program officer and vice versa. In feedback surveys, the majority of comments focused on the discomfort and lack of knowledge they felt in talking about costs. Finding more ways for nonprofits and funders to wrestle with cost issues together would go a long way to building empathy and skills.
I don’t see a single scalable solution, but what feels most scalable as a starting point is a fundamentally different approach to communicating about costs: on websites, in collateral, and in conversations between nonprofit and funder. I believe that most funders can still make restricted grants without making unrealistic demands about how the funds are spent. For instance, what if funders asked “what type of capacity will you need to deliver on this grant?” vs. “what is the overhead for this project?” What if funders moved away from prescribed budget templates that don’t align with how nonprofits think about their resources? Even these seemingly small steps would go a long way to empowering nonprofits to communicate differently. Below I share a few specific ways I think nonprofits can help break the cycle.
Nell: The starvation cycle is just one example of the many ways we hold the nonprofit sector to a higher standard than we do the for-profit sector (costs for R&D, marketing, infrastructure, technology are taken as a given in the business world). Why does that discrepancy exist and how do we overcome it?
Ann: Overhead in the for-profit world—sales, general and administrative costs as a percentage of total sales—is 25% across all industries and 34% for service industries. The cruel irony of holding nonprofits to a much tougher standard is that donors often say that they do this because nonprofits ought to “run more efficiently, like a business.” Most people don’t know the overhead of businesses because profitability matters more.
Unlike businesses, nonprofits can’t report results in a single figure that makes apples-to-apples comparisons easy. One way to overcome this challenge is to move toward highlighting outcomes. I don’t mean standardizing outcomes (although efforts like Perform Well are very powerful), and I don’t mean doing away with financial indicators entirely. I mean moving from touting our overhead to sharing our program results. In an ideal world, nonprofits would be able to share not only their outcomes but also the costs associated with producing them.
I know this doesn’t happen overnight. Starting immediately, I would love to see more funders speak out in support of—and actually fund—these investments. And nonprofits have a role to play in shifting the conversation: by sharing for-profit overhead as a way to challenge assumptions; by taking down the overhead pie chart and other “we’re lean!” messaging from websites; and using systems like the Guidestar Exchange to share our goals and strategies in our own words.
Nell: You recently left the consulting/thought leader side of the sector (as a senior director at The Bridgespan Group) to work in the nonprofit trenches as COO of Habitat for Humanity Greater San Francisco. What are you learning as you work to turn theory about overcoming the starvation cycle into action inside a nonprofit organization?
Ann: I am learning that it is doable and reminded that it is hard. In the last few months, we have taken down the efficiency statement on our website (“87 cents of every dollar goes to helping families…”) and will soon to replace it with statements of outcomes we see for Habitat homeowners. We walked away from a $100K+ funding opportunity because the grant would have allowed a maximum of 10% for indirect costs, and we estimated that the compliance costs alone would have been 2-3 times that. The grant’s focus aligned well with a nascent program, so it was a tough decision.
Under our finance team’s leadership, we also implemented a time tracking system. We now have better information on how people spend their time and can compare actual versus what was allocated in the budget. We learned, for instance, that in the last quarter we spent more time on G&A than we’d projected. This makes sense: this summer a small team of board and staff, including myself, negotiated a lease for a new office space, then transitioned to managing the move out- and move-in process. I don’t think anyone would say that was a waste of time; finding a space that met our budget in the San Francisco real estate market has been a challenging but important task.
Next on the list is an internal conversation about Charity Navigator and the way we promote our four-star rating on our website. It will be a healthy debate. On the one hand, I appreciate the focus on accountability and transparency, and I’d be naïve if I thought we hadn’t received donations from donors who use these ratings. On the other hand, I have deep reservations about Charity Navigator’s financial health methodology, particularly in that it penalizes nonprofits with higher overhead regardless of context. If we invest to support our growth—spending time finding a new office in a tough market, or upgrading our HR systems to find and retrain the best staff—we ought not to feel embarrassed about that, nor be penalized for it.
I am fortunate to work with a board and staff who are open to these changes and debates. My hope is that our experiences can serve to keep my perspective about the starvation cycle grounded and productive.
Photo Credit: Habitat for Humanity Greater San Francisco
October was another interesting month in the world of social change. Continued efforts to make the nonprofit overhead myth history, a troubling report about the beloved American Red Cross, a dire prediction about Millennial philanthropy, some new models for scaling social change and connecting people to solutions in their community, and a call for funding for nonprofit performance management all combined to make a great month of reading.
You can read past months’ 10 Great Social Innovation Reads lists here.
- The three writers of last year’s Letter to the Donors of America, GuideStar, BBB Wise Giving Alliance and Charity Navigator, have penned a new Letter to the Nonprofits of America in order to encourage nonprofit leaders to do their part to convince donors that financial overhead is a poor way to evaluate nonprofit performance.
- New York Times columnist David Brooks takes a really interesting position on the difference between networks and institutions. He equates the recent government failures to effectively fight ISIS and stop the spread of Ebola with the death of institutions and our overwhelming focus on innovation and disruption as opposed to systematization and execution. As he puts it, “We like start-ups, disrupters and rebels. Creativity is honored more than the administrative execution. Post-Internet, many people assume that big problems can be solved by swarms of small, loosely networked nonprofits and social entrepreneurs. Big hierarchical organizations are dinosaurs…[but] when the boring tasks of governance are not performed, infrastructures don’t get built. Then, when epidemics strike, people die.”
- The American Red Cross came under fire for the disaster response to hurricane Sandy in 2012. NPR and ProPublica created a two-part story (here and here) uncovering serious issues with how the response was handled. But the American Red Cross, typically a model of effective communications, went largely radio silent. Perhaps they will have a more effective response this month?
- Writing at The Daily Beast, Joel Kotkin gives a (perhaps too) chilling prediction for how Millennial philanthropists could impact our world. As he sees it, “Schooled in political correctness, and not needing to engage in the mundane work of business, this large cadre of heirs to great fortunes will almost surely seek to shape what we think, how we live, and how we vote. They may consider themselves progressives, but they may more likely help shape a future that looks ever less like the egalitarian American of our imaginings, and ever more like a less elegant version of Downton Abbey.”
- Sam McAfee takes philanthropy to task for not being truly innovative, and he looks to technology disruptors for a better model. As he puts it, “The vast majority of the social sector is still trying to tackle social problems with program and funding models that were pioneered early in the last century…The philanthropic community should be interested in the agile and lean methods produced by the technology sector, not the money produced by it, and start reorganizing project teams and resource allocation strategies and timelines in line with this proven innovation model.”
- Amy Celep and Sara Brenner describe the “Intentional Influence Strategy” that nonprofits, like playground creator KaBOOM!, use to create social change at scale. As they describe it, intentional influence is “moving likely and unlikely stakeholders within an ecosystem to take the actions required to solve a problem at the magnitude it exists.”
- Writing on the UnSectored blog, Patrick Davis from the Calvert Foundation describes their new initiative, “Ours to Own” which takes a “radical inclusion” approach to getting local community members to invest in solutions to the challenges their cities face.
- We cannot expect nonprofits to measure performance without providing the funding necessary to do so. Laura Quinn makes this quite clear, writing “If we demand more data without more funding, it logically follows that what we’ll get is simply data that’s more made up.”
- Mark Rosenman, writing on the PhilaTopic blog, describes the particular role nonprofits must play in a world suffering from the “failures of political leaders and the self-serving nature of the corporate world.”
- And finally, the Ford Foundation launched a new online forum kicked off by eight changemakers that asks the question “Where Markets Lead Will Justice Follow?” The articles will get you thinking.
Photo Credit: Joanna Penn
One thing the nonprofit sector desperately needs is more people asking hard questions. A lot of time is spent skirting issues or sugar coating situations. If nonprofit leaders instead forced some challenging conversations, with hard questions as the impetus, the sector could become more effective. And the place to start is with a nonprofit leader questioning herself.
I’ve written before about questions to ask your board, and questions to ask your nonprofit, and questions to ask before you pursue a new opportunity, but there are also some key questions a nonprofit leader should ask herself.
On a fairly regular basis a nonprofit leader should ask:
- Am I Leading or Managing?
A manager shuffles resources around, waits to be told what to do, and focuses on checking things off her list. But a leader crafts a larger vision for her organization, articulates what her nonprofit is trying to accomplish, and then marshals all the resources at her disposal (board, staff, funders, partners) toward that vision. And when some of those resources won’t align to the vision (board members who aren’t performing, donors who want to veer off course) she confidently tells it like it is. A manager will deploy resources, but a leader will ensure that the deployment results in social change.
- How Can I Address My Weaknesses?
A great leader recognizes when he is falling short and where he needs complementary abilities. A leader who doesn’t know how to fundraise hires a rockstar Development person, or gets fundraising training. A leader who struggles with strategic decisions finds a leadership coach. A leader who can’t build an effective board, asks fellow nonprofit leaders for counsel. Most importantly, if there are costs associated with addressing his weaknesses, a leader raises the money he needs, instead of doing it on the cheap.
- Am I Selling Myself (and My Nonprofit) Short?
I see so many nonprofit leaders not fighting for what their organization really needs. From not articulating the true costs of their nonprofit to funders, to allowing the board to shirk their fundraising responsibilities, to addressing capacity constraints with a band-aid, to burning out from long hours with not enough staff, nonprofit leaders are constantly giving their organizations, and themselves, short shrift. A true leader finds the confidence to stand up for herself and her organization and demand what is truly required to achieve the vision for change.
- Which Other Leaders Should I Align With?
It amazes me how many nonprofit leaders exist in a bubble. They may collaborate with others on a programmatic level, but they are not regularly analyzing the larger marketplace in which they operate (emerging competitors, new technologies, changing needs) and figuring out with which other leaders impacting the field (policymakers, organization heads, advocates, influencers) they should forge alliances. Social change requires much more than any single organization can accomplish. It is critical that nonprofits become fully networked in their area of social change. A nonprofit leader makes that happen.
- Am I Still The Right Person for The Job?
This is such a hard question. But if you simply don’t have the skills (or the energy) to lead the right road ahead, then you must step aside. Don’t hold your organization and the vision back because of your ego. If you are a true leader, you have assembled a whole army of board, staff, supporters and allies that can continue to move forward in your wake. It’s not easy to recognize or admit, but if you really care about the cause and want to see real change happen, then you should regularly be assessing this.
A true nonprofit leader drives the vision, marshals resources, forges alliances, inspires support, and, ultimately, leads the charge toward social change. Because now more than ever we need real social change leaders. People who are willing and able to find the best way forward and the confidence, smarts, and humility to lead us there.
If you want to learn more about nonprofit leadership, download the Reinventing the Nonprofit Leader book.
Photo Credit: iwona_kellie
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
As I mentioned earlier, I am building a video library of topics that can spur discussion among your board and donors. So, to add to that library, today I’m talking about why we need to get over overhead.
Traditional wisdom is that nonprofits should keep “overhead” (administrative, fundraising, systems, technology, staffing) costs as low as possible. This is a really destructive idea, and we need to move beyond it. But we will only get there if nonprofit leaders across the country start having that conversation with their board members and donors. Because if we can move beyond overhead, we will have a much stronger, more effective nonprofit sector.
The transcript of the video is also below. And you can view all of the Social Velocity videos on the Social Velocity YouTube channel.
To learn more about getting over overhead and raising capacity building dollars for your nonprofit, download the Launch a Capacity Capital Campaign Guide.
Hi I’m Nell Edgington from Social Velocity. Today I want to talk about why nonprofit board members and donors need to get over overhead.
So overhead is the idea that nonprofit organizations can separate what they spend on programs and services, the mission work of the organization, versus what they spend on infrasturucture, staffing, systems, fundraising function, administrative costs. All of those things in the second bucket are typically considered “overhead.”
Now overhead, I think, is a very meaningless distinction in the nonprofit sector, and we need to move beyond it.
It’s meaningless because you can’t have exceptional programs and services if you don’t have solid staff behind them, if you don’t have evaluation systems to figure out if you are making a difference, if you don’t have a fundraising function to bring the revenue in the door to make those programs and services operate, if you don’t have the infrastructure, the technology, all of the things that you need to make those programs and services run well.
We also need to get over overhead because if you think in terms of overhead as a nonprofit organization you will not seek, nor will you attract, the funding to invest in infrastructure, the funding that so many nonprofit organizations desperately need, the funding for capacity building, for strong staff, for great technology and systems, for evaluation programs, etc. If you think in terms of overhead you are going to keep those costs as low as possible and you won’t try to bring the money in the door to support your capacity as an organization.
Finally, we need to get over overhead because if as a nonprofit organization we are measuring our work in terms of how much we spend on overhead and keeping that as low as possible, we are not measuring our work based on whether we are actually making a difference, whether we are actually creating social change. And we need to move to a place where we are evaluating nonprofit organizations based on their results, based on the social change and the outcomes that they are achieving, not how they spend their dollars.
So those are the reasons I think overhead is very destructive in the nonprofit sector, and I hope that you will talk with your board and donors about how we need to get over overhead. Good luck!
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.