Real Talk about Real Costs
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.
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