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
It was really hard to narrow down to 10 great reads this month. People wrote some really compelling (even more than usual) things in October. And some longer pieces in particular were quite thought-provoking. Some asked searing questions like “Is arts innovation really innovative?” and “Is increasing income disparity making us less empathetic?” and “Can philanthropy fix our broken democracy?” And that’s just a start. Lots to think about.
Below are my picks of the 10 best reads in the world of social innovation in October. But please add what I missed in the comments.
- The conversation about the overhead myth, the destructive idea that nonprofits should be evaluated based on how much they spend on overhead (fundraising and administrative expenses), still rages on. First Paul Hogan from the John R. Oishei Foundation reframes the argument to include general operating and program support. Then Heather Peeler from GEO reports on a panel at a recent gathering of Social Innovation Fund grantees and grantors discussing what funders can do to build more sustainable organizations. And Julie Brandt writes a ringing endorsement of the overhead myth movement arguing that “Donors need to focus on evaluating charities based on leadership, transparency, governance, and results.”
- But lest you think that everyone agrees, Tiziana Dearing raises some good points about nonprofits not yet having the necessary resources or tools to boil outcomes down to short term ratios or ratings. As she says, “Everyone has more work to do.”
- There were some great examples of nonprofits using social media in interesting ways. From the Social Media BirdBrain blog comes 4 Best Examples of Nonprofit Video Storytelling and from the HubSpot blog, 10 Nonprofits That Are Totally Nailing Pinterest Marketing.
- And speaking of innovatively using media to move social change forward, this infographic on America’s school dropout problem demonstrates a concise and compelling way to explain a complex problem.
- Part of the potential solution to America’s education problems might lie in new science. An interesting new school within Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh’s Las Vegas Downtown Project is using neuroscience to teach children in new ways.
- If you really want to unpack the buzz around “innovation,” particularly in the arts, take a look at this really interesting, thought-provoking 6-essay series at Culturebot questioning innovation and the arts, what’s working and what isn’t. It is well worth your time and is guaranteed to make you think.
- On the Idealist blog, April Greene wisely counsels those entering the social change space, that if you want to pursue your dreams, don’t tell your mother. Such good advice, ha!
- Richard Eisenberg provides some really interesting analysis of recent data and what it tells us about how generations approach giving differently.
- Writing in the New York Times, Daniel Goleman worries that the widening income gap may be creating a widening empathy gap because “social distance makes it all the easier to focus on small differences between groups and to put a negative spin on the ways of others and a positive spin on our own.” Very scary.
- President of the MacArthur Foundation, Robert Gallucci writes a passionate plea that philanthropy help fix a quite broken (as particularly evidenced in October’s federal government shutdown) American political system.
Photo Credit: ekelley89
There is a growing drumbeat lately (for starters here, here and here) that nonprofits must be more bold. I couldn’t agree more and have argued that nonprofit fear and small thinking sometimes hold them back. But it is becoming increasingly obvious to me that if we want to get better at solving social problems, we have to ask philanthropist to be more bold too.
And I’m heartened to see this conversation starting to emerge. The Letter to the Donors of America, the Donor Forum’s Real Talk About Real Costs effort, Dan Cardinali’s request that philanthropists fund the “unsexy” work of nonprofit capacity building, Rebecca Thomas encouraging funders to support nonprofit resilience, and Ben Powell’s idea that philanthropy provide more start-up capital all add to the philanthropy reform discussion. I love it!
But I want to see the idea that philanthropy can be so much more move beyond talk.
There is a huge disconnect between what nonprofits really, truly need to solve social problems and how funding currently flows. We are locked in a chicken or the egg scenario where often a nonprofit working to solve a social problem encounters some major capacity constraints. For example, a nonprofit doesn’t know how to:
- Create a sustainable financial model
- Effectively grow their solution
- Structure their board and staff for success
- Strategically filter opportunities
- Engage key outside elements in the change effort
And quite often they don’t know how to move past these capacity constraints.
At the same time, philanthropists may recognize that a grantee is encountering some significant hurdles, but doesn’t know how (or is unwilling) to invest in overcoming those hurdles. So the constraints remain unmoved.
But what if nonprofits and philanthropists could start working together to move those hurdles?
What if instead of getting in the way, philanthropists started paving the way?
Philanthropy could provide the critical infusion of the right kind of organization-building money at the right time thereby allowing a great solution to grow.
To me, that’s bold philanthropy.
But how do we get there? Philanthropists need to change in some fundamental ways:
Move to Impact
Just as we are increasingly asking nonprofits to move to impact, philanthropists need to do the same. Instead of tracking outputs (# of grantees, $s given), foundations need to start tracking whether their investments result in change to 1) their grantees and 2) the problems those grantees address. Just as we are starting to ask nonprofits “To What End?” we need to ask funders the very same question.
Help Diagnose the Constraints
Once philanthropists start getting clear about what they want to change and whether their investments are actually resulting in change, they need to become cognizant of the hurdles standing in the way of that change. And I will tell you that there are some almost universal hurdles in the nonprofit sector (lack of management expertise, poor leadership development, board disengagement, financial instability). So if a philanthropist really wants to see change to a social problem, he needs to get clear about what those he is investing in need to make that change a reality.
Invest in Removing Those Constraints
But it simply is not enough for funders to recognize that those they fund have very specific and tangible organizational needs. Those funders then must put their money where their mouth is. More philanthropists need to invest in building stronger, more effective, more sustainable solutions. They need to provide more capacity capital, money to build an effective, sustainable nonprofit that can grow impact.
We have only scratched the surface on what philanthropy can do to solve social problems. But I am optimistic that we can fundamentally change philanthropy so that it increasingly provides the capacity capital the sector so desperately needs.
Photo Credit: Jeffrey Beall
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.
June was all about attacking some pretty fundamental roadblocks in the way of social change. From the pivotal “Pledge Against The Overhead Myth,” to a new database for all nonprofit organizations, to moving philanthropists from innovators to capacity builders, to ideas for growing the level of giving, it seems June was about putting everything on the table and exposing what stands in the way of progress.
Below are my 10 favorite social innovation reads in June. But, as always, add your favorites to the list in the comments below. And if you want to see my expanded list, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or Google+.
You can see the 10 Great Reads lists from past months here.
- The big news in June was GuideStar, Charity Navigator and BBB Wise Giving Alliance’s Open Letter to the Donors of America and their kick-off of the Pledge to End the Overhead Myth. The three nonprofit review organizations are on a quest to expose the destructive nature of the overhead myth.
- This exciting announcement was followed quickly by some great articles. Kjerstin Erickson’s (former Executive Director of FORGE) eye-opening post about how the overhead myth can ruin a great nonprofit. And Ann Goggins Gregory (most famous for the seminal Nonprofit Starvation Cycle article in a 2009 Stanford Social Innovation Review that arguably started the entire overhead debate) great post about what nonprofits can do to speed adoption of the idea of overhead as myth. And Phil Buchanan from the Center for Effective Philanthropy chimes in with what foundations can do. And writing on the Grantmakers in the Arts blog, Janet Brown seems to agree, arguing that “with more efforts for honest assessment and honest communication between funders and nonprofits, we can stop dancing solo and begin dancing as real partners.”
- Antony Bugg-Levine, from the Nonprofit Finance Fund, gets down to brass tacks, gleaning 3 things that funders can do to help nonprofits from the NFF’s most recent State of the Sector survey.
- Echoing these same themes, Dan Cardinali, President of Communities in Schools, argues in the Huffington Post Impact blog that “Philanthropists…must come to grips with their new role as capacity builders rather than innovators.” Amen to that!
- But the reality is that foundations aren’t using innovative tools already available to them. A recent study by the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy found that only 1% of US foundations are using PRIs (program-related investments), which I think is an enormous missed opportunity.
- Keeping with their ultimate goal of building the data infrastructure necessary for social change to thrive, Markets for Good announces the new BRIDGE project, which assigns all nonprofits a “numerical fingerprint” so that we can eventually understand the global social sector at scale.
- The annual unveiling of philanthropic giving numbers shows the same result, giving as a share of Gross Domestic Product has not strayed far from 2 percent over the past four decades. Suzanne Perry offers some reasons why, past failed attempts to grow the figure, and new ideas for moving the needle.
- The Dowser blog interviews Patrick Dowd, founder of the Millennial Trains Project, a ten day transcontinental train journey where each of the 40 Millennial riders profiles a crowdfunded project to build a better nation.
- If you wonder whether social media can actually move social change forward, check out this fascinating case study. A Facebook app encouraging organ donation resulted in an initial 2000% increase in organ donor sign ups. Who knows if those rates will continue, but the experiment definitely demonstrates the power of social media.
- There is a lot of hype in the world of social innovation, and two contrarians offer some thought-provoking perspectives about digging beneath the hype. First Daniel Ben-Horin is fed up with social entrepreneurs who don’t realize what a long haul social change is, when he notes “This making a difference stuff, it turns out, can be a real grind.” And Cynthia Gibson argues that we need to create a culture within the social change space that “encourages healthy skepticism.”
Photo Credit: mindfire3927
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