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overhead myth

How Funders Can Help Overcome the Overhead Myth

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

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5 Nonprofit Trends to Watch in 2017

It’s that time of year again, where we take a look back at the year drawing to a close, and forward to the year ahead. We all know that 2016 was rough (and if you want to wallow for a minute or two, check out John Oliver’s cathartic send off to 2016).

But I am ever the optimist, so I’m hopeful that 2017 will be better. In particular I think the upheaval of this year provides an opportunity for social change to mobilize. So 2017 could be an interesting year to watch.

Below are what I predict (hope) will happen in 2017. But I make no promises.

And if you want to see how I did in past years, you can check out my 5 Nonprofit Trends to Watch lists from 2011, 2012, 201320142015, or 2016.

  1. An Expanding Definition of Equity 
    As philanthropy continues to agonize over the presidential election and what it means and what philanthropy missed, I think there may be a reckoning that philanthropy’s growing interest in equity and inclusion must expand to include those in the rural, working class who feel they’ve been left behind. Whether this means increased philanthropic investments in “red” America, it remains to be seen, but I believe philanthropy will seek to understand how they might help to heal a divided nation.

  2. Greater Use of Networks and Movements for Social Change
    There is no doubt that social change must cross organizational boundaries in order to become systemic, so nonprofits will (I hope) increasingly recognize that they must break down their walls and become more networked in order to achieve their goals. From social movements like #BlackLivesMatter and the widespread networks working on LGBTQ rights, social change leaders will increasingly recognize that they cannot go it alone. There will be more organized efforts to marshal resources toward larger social change.

  3. Growing Recognition Among Millennials of the Role of Institutions in Social Change
    But networks and movements are not enough — institutions also play a critical role in social change. And Millennials in particular tend to be anti-institution — we saw their distaste for political institutions in their low voter turnout rates in November’s election. So those Millennials pushing for reforms will need to figure out how to connect their movements and networks to the requisite political and social institutions.

  4. More Nonprofit Advocacy
    Continuing to be squeezed by shrinking government dollars and a challenging political environment, nonprofits will increasingly recognize the need to embrace advocacy as a social change tool. Formerly worried about jeopardizing the legal status of their organization, nonprofit boards and staffs will become more willing to take the risk and work to help policymakers and their influencers understand the need for their social change work.

  5. More Analysis of What Nonprofit Financial Sustainability Requires
    This one is truly optimistic, I know, but I really believe that the discussions about the Overhead Myth and funding a nonprofit’s real costs will give way to a larger conversation (and research) around what it takes to create financial resilience in the nonprofit sector. Funders and nonprofit leaders are slowly starting to recognize that they must invest in financial models in order to be successful. So I’m hopeful that there will be a growing body of research into what works and what doesn’t, more case studies about nonprofits that have found financial sustainability, and a growing push to wield the money sword in the nonprofit sector.

Photo Credit: James Vaughan

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Thursday, December 8th, 2016 Advocacy, Innovators 1 Comment

The Future of the Nonprofit Sector [Slideshare]

I’m excited to be heading to Pennsylvania next month to speak at the 2016 Nonprofit Day Conference. My keynote address for the conference will be “The Future of the Nonprofit Sector.” I wanted to share an abbreviated version of the speech with you here via the Social Velocity Slideshare library.

In my mind, there are some fundamental shifts happening in the sector that will be important to watch. They include:

  • Increasing competition in the space
  • A greater demand for results and social change
  • An increased use of advocacy to achieve that change
  • A move to more “networked” approaches
  • Less “starving” nonprofits of their operational needs
  • And (of course) a move from fundraising to financing

These are interesting times, and they hold tremendous opportunity, I think, for the social change sector.

If you want to see other Social Velocity Slideshares go here. And if you want to learn more about inviting me to come speak to your group or event, check out my Speaking page.

The Future of the Nonprofit Sector from Nell Edgington

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5 Nonprofits Trends to Watch in 2016

Poster_of_Alexander_Crystal_SeerThis is my favorite time of year. Despite the darkness of the last few months, December is often about reflecting on the year that is drawing to a close and hopes for the new one coming.

And as is my tradition on this blog, I like to look ahead at the trends that may affect the nonprofit sector in the coming year. I have never claimed to be a clairvoyant, but I am an admitted optimist, so my predictions are less about telling the future and more about wishful thinking. This year, more than ever, I want to see opportunity amid the uncertainty and the challenges we face.

So here are 5 things I’m really hopeful about for the nonprofit sector as we head into 2016.

You can also read past Nonprofit Trends to Watch lists for 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015.

  1. New Opportunities for the Nonprofit Sector to Lead
    A growing recognition of the value of the nonprofit sector paired with a rising confidence among nonprofit leaders will create opportunities for nonprofits to step up and create opportunity out of the seemingly mounting pile of challenges (like terrorism, natural disasters, political gridlock). The nonprofit sector’s natural place — its core competency — is in righting imbalances and it often coalesces in times of trouble. We are already seeing really exciting collaborations and innovations aimed at increasing civic engagement and winning equal rights, to name a few. Call me an optimist, but I think the challenges we face are merely a precursor to the emergence of a stronger social sector ready to find new solutions.

  2. Increased Use of Protests 
    And as evidence of social movements emerging from challenges, we are seeing an uptick in social protests. This year we’ve seen some impressive organized demands for social change. From Black Lives Matter, to student protests on college campuses, to Chicago protests demanding the mayor’s resignation, people are rising up to demand change. While their methods somewhat mirror the protests of the 1960s and 1970s, their access to and use of technology is quite new. It will be interesting to see how these movements evolve and how much change they will be able to accomplish.

  3. Greater Emphasis on Networks 
    And these protests, like any social change effort, will be more successful if they embrace the use of networks. I think there will be a growing recognition that nonprofits must build networks in their social change efforts. They must understand the points of leverage for attacking a problem on a much larger scale than a single organization can and then figure out who the influencers are in their space and how to connect their work with those others. Because the network approach requires that nonprofit leaders move away from the resource-constrained, scarcity approach that keeps them from forging alliances with other entities that might be competing for the same limited pool of funding, I think (hope) we’ll see more nonprofit leaders move to an abundance mentality that leaves fears behind in favor of a bigger, bolder, more networked path.

  4. More State-by-State Strategies 
    The stunning victory this year legalizing same-sex marriage demonstrated the tremendous success that a state-by-state (as opposed to a national) approach to social and political change can have. Indeed, because of political gridlock at the federal level, other social change efforts (like Represent.us and the legalization of marijuana) have found success at the state level where changing minds and changing policy is sometimes easier and more efficient. But this isn’t a new idea. In fact according to research compiled by Bloomberg Business, social and political change in America follows a pattern: “A few pioneer states get out front before the others, and then a key event—often a court decision or a grassroots campaign reaching maturity—triggers a rush of state activity that ultimately leads to a change in federal law.” Though the idea isn’t a new one, I think it may gain traction as more social movements find a state-by-state approach increasingly attractive.

  5. Smarter Funding
    But to pursue more successful models, like the use of networks and state-by-state strategies, nonprofits must have the necessary funding runway to get there.  So I’m hopeful that funders will increasingly recognize that nonprofits need more flexible and effective funding (like unrestricted dollars and capacity capital). There are already encouraging signs. The Ford Foundation has moved to provide more unrestricted support (and encouraged other funders to build the capacity of nonprofits) and the federal government released new guidelines this year providing more indirect funding to nonprofits. So let’s hope we see more foundation, individual and government funders providing nonprofits more of the kind of money they really need to create solutions.

Photo Credit: Library of Congress

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Advocating for the Value Nonprofits Create: An Interview with Tim Delaney

UntitledIn today’s Social Velocity interview I’m talking with Tim Delaney, President and CEO of the National Council of Nonprofits, the nation’s largest network of nonprofits.

The National Council of Nonprofits helps nonprofits identify emerging trends, engage in critical policy issues, exchange proven practices across state lines, and advance their missions through advocacy. Previously, Tim served as a partner at a large law firm (helping prosecute the impeachment of a Governor and leading the firm’s government relations practice), Solicitor General and then Chief Deputy Attorney General (leading his state to win several cases in the U.S. Supreme Court), and founder of the Center for Leadership, Ethics & Public Service (championing ethical leadership and civic engagement).

You can read interviews with other social change leaders here.

Nell: Historically, “advocacy” has been a dirty word in the nonprofit sector. Organizations have been afraid of getting into trouble with the IRS for pursuing too much lobbying behavior. But that seems to be changing. What are your thoughts on how involved in advocacy 501(c)(3) organizations can and should be?

Tim: Yes, it’s perplexing that using words like “advocacy” and “lobbying” could get a nonprofit employee’s mouth washed out with soap. But seriously, advocacy is not just a right for nonprofits that is protected by the First Amendment; it’s a profound responsibility and effective tool to advance nonprofit missions.

Nonprofits provide a way for Americans to come together to solve problems, large and small. And they often do so through advocacy: simply standing up and speaking out for something they believe. Americans came together through nonprofits to advocate successfully in securing the right of women to vote (via suffragist groups), establishing Social Security (spearheaded by Townsend Clubs), desegregating schools (leadership by NAACP), securing civil rights (Dr. King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech and undertook much of his work as President of the nonprofit Southern Christian Leadership Conference), and so much more.

But advocacy is not just for social movements. Advocacy includes standing up for your nonprofit’s right to be paid reasonably for services it provides under a government contract. Advocacy includes telling the story of your nonprofit’s impact to a reporter. We see advocacy as the answer to one key question: who can I talk to today to advance my nonprofit’s mission?

A barrier many nonprofits run into comes from what I call the “3 As” –uninformed academics, accountants, and attorneys who advise nonprofit boards by passing along false lore that there “might be legal problems” if a nonprofit does “too much” lobbying. Nonprofit staff come back from advocacy training fired up, but boards extinguish that passion based on false lore. After hearing stories like this from across the country, we’ve decided to turn advocacy training around. The traditional approach of “it’s legal” sought to counter the false lore, yet too often it led people to focus on arcane issues more remote than the fine print on your airline ticket or apps that you never read. Therefore, we now focus on “why” advocacy is essential to mission advancement and “why” nonprofits need to be engaged at the state level to protect against government attacks on tax exemptions, nonprofit independence, and charitable giving incentives.

As part of our effort to get nonprofits past those old barriers, we’ve joined together with Alliance for Justice, BoardSource, Campion Foundation, the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers, and Knight Foundation to create Stand for Your Mission, a free website that provides nonprofit board members with information they need to be effective advocates in advancing nonprofit missions.

Nell: The National Council of Nonprofits has been on the forefront of the movement to get government to recognize the importance of funding nonprofits’ indirect costs. The recent OMB ruling mandating a minimum 10% indirect rate on most government grants and contracts with nonprofits seems like a watershed moment, but 10% is still pretty low and many nonprofits don’t understand the implications or how to benefit. What are your plans at the Council of Nonprofits to continue to move this issue forward?

Tim: As you noted, the 10% of modified total direct costs is just the minimum. For tens of thousands of nonprofits, just getting to 10% will make a huge difference. In its most recent State of the Sector Survey, Nonprofit Finance Fund found that 57% of nonprofits are being paid indirect cost rates of 9% or less. And Urban Institute found that of nonprofits reporting a problem, a quarter said that governments were paying them zero for indirect costs.

Now compare those paltry sums against research from Bridgespan showing that a more accurate range is about 25 to 35%. Certainly each case is different, but being reimbursed nothing or just 5% year after year when your real legitimate costs are always higher is debilitating, eroding effectiveness. Delivering sustained impact is impossible. So getting those nonprofits up to just the minimum will enhance sustainability to make a difference in their communities.

Importantly, 10% is just the floor. If a nonprofit is properly allocating costs and documenting its indirect costs, it can receive reimbursement for whatever those costs are, whether they are 20, 30, or even 40%. Getting paid for the true costs of delivering services can reduce burdens on nonprofits to fundraise for the difference, which frees funders from having to subsidize governments and allows nonprofits to dedicate more time to missions instead of diverted to filling funding gaps.

Seeing the OMB Uniform Guidance go into effect is just the beginning and underscores the importance of nonprofit advocacy. The mere issuance of OMB’s mandate doesn’t mean that the tens of thousands of local, state, and federal employees scattered across multiple departments, agencies, divisions, and offices will follow it or apply it properly. First, they need to become aware of it (which still has not happened), then receive training (same), and apply it consistently (same). Plus, states and localities often have contrary laws and policies on their books, requiring advocacy to change them to conform. OMB’s mandate involves a giant systems change, but the federal government still has not informed the system of what is required and the need to change policies and practices to abide by it.

David Thompson and Beth Bowsky on our team have been conducting dozens of in-person presentations and webinars across the country to ensure nonprofits are aware of their rights and how to advocate for proper implementation of the Uniform Guidance. Plus, we have been working with multiple state and local government associations to spread the word, and written numerous published pieces, including an overview, “Know Your Rights … and How to Protect Them,” that highlights potential compliance challenges.

In addition, we’re creating a series of short training modules for nonprofits to better understand their indirect costs. The key is for nonprofits with government grants and contracts to stand up for their rights to fair indirect cost reimbursement and to let their local state association of nonprofits and us know when governments are not living up to their obligations. Working through our network gives a nonprofit cover (so it isn’t fighting alone and having to worry about backlash) and strength in numbers to protect those rights.

Nell: This issue is also part of the larger movement to overcome the Overhead Myth in the nonprofit sector, the idea that “overhead” (or indirect costs) are bad and should be limited as much as possible. How close are we to truly overcoming this myth both among nonprofit donors and nonprofit leaders (who often keep themselves in these handcuffs)?

Tim: We still have a long way to go. OMB’s Uniform Guidance is a huge step forward because the federal government has now expressly acknowledged that indirect costs are legitimate and necessary. The sector needed a powerful external validating voice to overcome decades of treating mythology as orthodoxy. It’s inspiring to see that many private grantmakers have now adjusted their own policies or started to re-examine their past policies that unfairly limit payment for indirect/overhead costs.

However, the anti-overhead culture is deep seated and will take a long time to root it out. That’s true on both the funding side and the nonprofit side, given the powerful disincentives against claiming full costs. Nonprofits were forced to keep overhead artificially low by underinvesting in their infrastructure, staff training, and many other necessary expenses. Until we get so-called “watchdog” groups and reporters to stop using overhead ratios as false proxies for nonprofit efficiency (and get them to stop reporting overhead ratios as if they are a problem), and until all nonprofits are communicating with donors about their impact and what it truly costs to deliver that impact, everyone will still have work to do.

Nell: In both of these areas (advocacy and overhead) and in many others, nonprofits are treated like a second-class citizen. How do we get to a place where the critical role nonprofits play in our economy and in solutions to social challenges is recognized, and nonprofits are fully supported with the tools they need to be successful?

Tim: First and foremost, nonprofits must embrace our role as the place Americans come to solve problems and resolutely assert our role as advocates for the people and our communities. We often are on the front-line of vexing social challenges, giving us front-row seats to see the problems and the solutions. Who are we to hoard knowledge of solutions that could help our fellow neighbors? With the knowledge we hold and the clout we have (10% of the American workforce), we deserve a seat at policymaking tables. We need to proudly stand up, step forward, claim our space, and speak out for government to leverage its resources to solve problems at their source.

We need to tell the full story, not just of how many people were fed or acres preserved, but also the economic impact of the sector as a whole. For instance, CalNonprofits (the state association of nonprofits in California) published Causes Count about the economic clout of California’s nonprofits, and Donors Forum (the state association of nonprofits and grantmakers based in Illinois) released research on Social Return on Investment, showing the economic and social value of dollars invested in nonprofits.

As for being “fully” supported, that’s much more difficult. According to Nonprofit Finance Fund, last year – for the second year in a row – a majority of nonprofits didn’t have the resources to meet demand for their services. That’s going to be tough to turn around, especially as many nonprofits continue to be sliced by government budget cuts. Even as studies boast that individual giving is getting back to pre-Recession levels, that doesn’t make as much of a difference as most people think. Despite the focus on individual giving, it makes up only 9.3% of the sector’s overall revenue. Foundations are an even smaller percentage: 1.9%. Government grants and contracts make up a much larger portion – 32.3% – of the sector’s revenues. That’s why our focus in this area is so important.

Photo Credit: National Council of Nonprofits

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Does Sexism Hold the Nonprofit Sector Back?

nonprofit sexismThere was a great post on the Stanford Social Innovation Review blog last week that clearly articulates a dysfunction in the nonprofit sector and when recognized by nonprofit leaders and their funders could reshape the sector.

Just like the Overhead Myth and other myths that hold the nonprofit sector back, the historic sexism the sector operates under is equally destructive and must be acknowledged so we can move past it.

In the SSIR, veteran nonprofit leader Kristen Joiner argues that because 86% of Fortune 500 leaders are men and 70% of nonprofit workers are women “gender dynamics” often cripple the nonprofit sector:

Like the provider of old, heading off to the office for a day of work, the private sector is focused on money and profit. The nonprofit sector, as the nurturing caretaker, is charged with caring for the young, the sick, the elderly, and the poor…This creates a have-and-have-not situation, where one side holds the money and power, and the other side asks for an allowance to do their “good work,” trying to get traction but more often getting stuck in a rut created by this dysfunctional dynamic…Investors in the social sector make it difficult for nonprofits to gather the resources to measure and pivot as necessary for success. They are looking for the proverbial “good girl”—an organization that doesn’t rock the status quo, that gives them a credential to show they “care” or “contribute.”

Joiner’s argument is not a new one, in fact Robert Egger voiced it in a 2008 Chronicle of Philanthropy article, where he described how the modern nonprofit sector was born out of the gender biases of the mid-20th century:

[In the 1970s and 80s] the number of nonprofits in the U.S. exploded…[led by] tens of thousands of college-educated, stay-at-home mothers…Many of these “founding mothers” brought with them an internalized understanding of their “role”…As long as these new organizations limited their work to nurturing, feminized charity work…they were humored, and even honored. [And foundations were] often dominated by men who were charged with dispensing money made by other men. Foundations rarely awarded money that fostered independence for grantees…In these formative years, and even today, grants are primarily made to submissive organizations — those willing to jump through countless hoops, those that would not push back when confronted with short-sighted policies, and those that would make do with much less than they knew was needed to do the job right…The rules that govern our sector — indeed, the very nature of our how we view ourselves — is rooted in systemic sexism.

Although I have worked in the nonprofit sector for 20 years, this “systemic sexism” never occurred to me until I read Egger’s article a few years ago. But now I see it often. And while I don’t think sexism should become a shorthand for everything that ails the nonprofit sector, I do think nonprofit leaders, board members and funders must be more aware of the underlying forces at play, so that we can all work to overcome them.

There are several key areas where this systemic sexism results in an uneven playing field for nonprofits:

  • Less Access to Capital. Businesses have access to various forms of capital (startup, mezzanine, risk), whereas nonprofits struggle to attract day-to-day revenue, let alone the capacity and growth capital they so desperately need.

  • Inadequate Sales Function. In the for-profit sector, sales and marketing are a much researched, supported and heralded part of a business model because it is well understood that without sales there is no business. But in the nonprofit world, sales — called “fundraising”– is misunderstood, under-supported, and sometimes ignored by nonprofit leaders, board members and funders.

  • Tighter Limits on Overhead. Although this is starting to change, nonprofits are often encouraged to spend only a small amount of money on infrastructure, administration and fundraising (overhead expenses), but for-profit companies can spend whatever it takes.

  • Less Investment in Leadership. Business leaders are encouraged to invest in professional development, training, and leadership coaching, but a nonprofit leader often must figure it all out on her own.

  • A Restricted Role in Politics
    While businesses can spend millions on lobbying and supporting political candidates, nonprofit political action is much more restrictive.

And the list goes on. Many of the dysfunctions present in the nonprofit sector are rooted in years and years of sector inequality. If we hope to make social change more effective and sustainable, we must free the sector of these shackles.

Photo Credit: Campbell’s Soup

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What Do Your Programs Really Cost?

nonprofit costsThere was an historic victory last month in the battle to rid the nonprofit sector of the Overhead Myth. The federal Office of Management and Budget adopted new Uniform Guidance rules that when any local, state or federal agency contracts with a nonprofit at least 10% of the contract must fund the nonprofit’s administrative costs (what the government calls “indirect costs”).

This is huge because nonprofit leaders report (here and here) that government contracts rarely fund even 10% of indirect costs and many times closer to 0%. While this is a big step forward, there is still much work to do in getting nonprofits the money they need to fund the full costs of their work.

The sector is so underfunded largely because we have taught nonprofit leaders that they should keep their indirect costs as low as possible. This is such a ridiculous shackle to put on the sector.

So nonprofits and funders must move to a place where we are funding the full costs of effective operations. But that won’t happen overnight. In fact, it requires that nonprofit leaders do four key things:

  1. Calculate the Full Costs of Each Program
    In order to tell funders and government contractors exactly how much a program costs, you need to first understand those costs yourself. And the full costs of a program include BOTH 1)the direct costs (like the program director’s salary, program materials), and 2) the indirect costs (like the percent of the executive director’s salary spent on the program, office rent and utilities devoted to the program). Bridgespan created a really nice guide to figuring out the full (direct and indirect) costs of each of your programs.

  2. Articulate Those Costs to Funders 
    Once you’ve figured out the full costs of each of your programs, you must articulate those full costs to funders (individuals, foundations, government contractors) interested in supporting your programs. Explain how you came up with the full costs of each program, why you included both direct and indirect costs, and why you need support for ALL of those costs in order to effectively run the program. If a funder balks at supporting indirect costs, explain that a program without space, leadership, evaluation, or systems would not function, let alone function as effectively as it does.

  3. Analyze Your Overall Program Mix
    But don’t stop there. Turn this new knowledge about the financial impact of each of your programs into a strategic tool. Once you figure out what each individual program fully costs, you can compare the financial and social impact (how well it contributes to your mission) of each program to each other, like this in order to understand how well your entire program portfolio contributes to the money and mission of your nonprofit. Through this analysis you can determine what programs you should expand, which you should continue, and which you may need to cut.

  4. Stop Selling Your Nonprofit Short
    Once you’ve figured all of this out, stop accepting less than what your nonprofit really needs. When you allow a funder to haggle their way to receiving the full product without paying the full price you are undermining your organization and your mission. If a funder can’t or won’t pay the full costs then find someone else who will, or scale back on your programs until you do. Nonprofit leaders must break out of the nonprofit starvation cycle of agreeing to do more and more for less and less. You must stop running programs, or worse, adding new programs when they are not fully funded. Be honest with your board, your staff, your funders, and yourself about what each program really costs and whether or not you have the funding to continue (or grow) those programs.

I believe the Overhead tide is really turning. Nonprofits and their funders are starting to recognize that great programs take real money. But to truly take advantage of that trend nonprofit leaders must figure out the full cost of their programs and have the confidence to ask for, and receive, the funding to cover those costs.

Photo Credit: Dave Dugdale

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5 Myths The Nonprofit Sector Must Overcome

nonprofit mythsAlmost two years ago three nonprofit rating organizations launched the Overhead Myth campaign aimed at eradicating “the false conception that financial ratios are the sole indicator of nonprofit performance.” Call me an optimist, but I think it might be working. I see more nonprofit leaders and funders discussing the radical idea that overhead might not be a bad thing. We still have a long way to go, but perhaps there is progress.

The bad news, however, is that the Overhead Myth is only one of many (way too many) destructive nonprofit myths. So in this new year, let’s look at those additional myths that hold the nonprofit sector back.

As we all know, a myth is a story that everyone believes, but is actually not true. Here are the 5 most egregious myths I see in the nonprofit sector:

  1. Good Nonprofits Don’t Make a Profit
    For some reason it is unseemly for a nonprofit to have more money than they immediately need. The best a nonprofit should hope for is to break even, and if they do run a profit, they should not be fundraising. To the contrary, a nonprofit with operating reserves can invest in a more sustainable organization, conduct evaluations to make sure their solution is the best one, recruit a highly competent staff, and weather economic fluctuations. For a donor it is far better to invest in an organization with the people and systems necessary to effectively tackle a social problem than an organization that is barely getting by. The best nonprofits are those that create a financial model that allows them the money mix (revenue, capital, reserves) necessary to make the best decisions and invest where and when they must.

  2. There Are Too Many Nonprofits
    I’m so tired of the refrain (mostly by funders) that there are “too many” nonprofits. Does anyone complain about how many tech startups there are? This myth comes from the fact that the sector is undercapitalized which causes organizations to compete for scarce resources. So let’s fix that problem instead. To be sure, there are times when it makes sense to bring two nonprofits that address similar needs together in order to save costs, but that’s usually the exception not the rule. The process of merging two organizations is itself incredibly time-intensive and costly, and, honestly, rarely do funders invest the amount of resources required to ensure a successful merger. Every nonprofit should regularly assess their Theory of Change and how they fit into the external market place of social problems and competitors working on similar problems. If a nonprofit finds that they are no longer adding unique value to that marketplace, then they should reorganize, merge, or disband, whichever makes most strategic sense.

  3. Nonprofits, Unlike Businesses, Are Inefficient
    This myth takes many forms: “nonprofits are too slow,” “nonprofits should sell more products or services”, “nonprofits should run more like a startup,” and the list goes on. The underlying assumption is that the for-profit world is inherently smarter, more strategic, more nimble and more effective. But the truth is that all three sectors (business, government, and nonprofit) have their stars (like Apple), their screwups (like Lehman Brothers) and the multitude in between. Inefficiency in the nonprofit sector is merely a symptom of a larger problem, which is the persistent lack of adequate capital to fund enough of the right staff, technology, systems, evaluation, marketing required to address the intractable problems nonprofits are trying to solve. Let’s talk about that instead.

  4. Nonprofits Are Outside the Economy
    This is the myth that nonprofits are “nice to have” and make everyone feel good, but are not a critical component of our lives or our economic system. But the fact is that the nonprofit sector employs 10% of the U.S. workforce and accounts for 5% of GDP. And the number of nonprofits grew 25% from 2001-2011, while the number of businesses only grew by 0.5%. As government continues to slough off services to nonprofits, those numbers will only continue to grow.  The nonprofit sector is not tangential to the economy, but rather an instrumental part of it.

  5. Nonprofits Have No Role In Politics
    501(c) 3 organizations have long been told to stay out of politics. The myth is that charity is too noble to be mired in the mess of pushing for political change (Robert Egger has written extensively on this). But the fact is that simply providing services is no longer enough to solve the underlying problems. Nonprofits are increasingly recognizing that they can no longer sit by and watch their client load increase while disequilibrium grows. Nonprofits must (and already are) advocate for changes to the ineffective systems that produce the need for their existence.

Being mired in the demoralizing and debilitating cloak of these myths wears the nonprofit sector down. We must follow the Overhead Myth’s example and start uncovering the other myths that hold the sector back. Because the power of a myth is greatly diminished when we openly admit that the myth is only that — a myth.

Photo Credit: We Shall Overcome, Rowland Scherman, National Archives

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