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Overhead By Any Other Name

FastCoExist recently continued its discussion about how a poor view of non-profit overhead cost is limiting the good such organizations can do by offering some “rebranding” suggestions in order to help change perceptions.

As an illustration of how the concept that non-profits must restrict their overhead cost is a severe impediment toward doing good, they cite a lawsuit against Architecture for Humanity.  The group was experiencing huge program growth, but was limited by donors to only devoting 10% to overhead costs. Because they dipped into program money to fund their growth, they have been taken to court accused of looting the funds.

Many company donations, the suit alleges, were earmarked for project costs. As overhead rose and things got more desperate, those got tapped to cover broader expenses. The plaintiff is calling that looting. The suit shows pretty clearly how groups—even if their rapid growth is woefully mismanaged—can be trapped by antiquated views on things like “overhead” and “indirect costs.”

FastCoExist spoke to two brand naming experts who mulled over various concepts for changing how overhead costs are viewed by changing the terminology. The article go through various ideas they discarded to come up with the following suggestions.

From Margaret Wolfson of River + Wolf:

1: Circle funds
2: Encompass funds
3: Vessel funds
4: Core funds

Anthony Shore of Operative Words suggested:

1: Operations costs
2: Operational costs
3: Direct operations costs
4: General operational costs

The author of a Bridgespan report on paying overhead costs noted that this latter set of terms may not be appropriate because “not all operational costs are indirect, and not all indirect costs are operational.”

The naming experts made some additional suggestions that sounded a bit like arts organization donor categories so maybe we are already heading in the right direction and just need to find more sexy language:

Wolfson’s other idea is to award branded titles for budget line items, so folks who cover electrical costs could consider themselves “Illuminators” while those picking up the hardware and software tab would be “Digital Drivers.”

The point is, words definitely do matter. The final expression might end up being a bit unsexy, but only metaphorically. As Shore puts it: “What could be more sexy than dramatically influencing how much money pours into the critical, staying-afloat initiatives within an organization?”

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Every Musician Is Important To A Symphony

In a move that I like to see as reinforcing the importance of orchestra musicians in a time where their value is being diminished during contract negotiations, a long time supporter of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO), Marjorie Fisher, recently left $5,000 to every one of the 78 current full-time musicians.

If supporters of other orchestras being to follow her example, we may see musicians fighting a lot harder to maintain the number of permanent positions during contract negotiations.

When I first scanned the story on the Non Profit Quarterly, I initially wondered if this bequest might be in response to the poor treatment symphony musicians have received during contract negotiations. However, given that the Fisher family has made donations to support the DSO in every way possible, (and just illuminated a new possibility), it would be difficult to make that assumption.

That said, between the prevalence of crowd funding campaigns and indications of a shift toward direct support of those in need, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that people were investing greater effort into ensuring support was going specifically where they intend.

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What Many Of Us Have Learned

Awhile back Barry Hessenius asked me to write a “What I Have Learned” essay for his blog. He noted that in the past he often featured similar pieces written by people who were approaching the end of their career. This time around he wanted to feature the voices of people who were on the upward arc of their careers.

This past Sunday he posted the collection of essays. I should warn you, the post is L-O-O-O-N-N-G. I wasn’t given a word limit and I would guess none of the other 17 people whose contributions appear were either.

True to Barry’s purpose of providing a forum to some lesser known people, there were names a recognized but many I didn’t and ended up Googling. I had originally intended to provide a list of the contributors with links to bios or websites as a reference, but after opening 10 tabs in my web browers, I realized my entire post was going to end up being a list of names.

So read the post and if you see someone you like, Google them to learn more.

There is a lot to read but there is a lot worth reading. Over a couple days I made note of the next person on the list and performed a Find on the page when I came back to continue reading.

To give a small sample of what people submitted, I was really struck by this advice from EMC Arts’ Karina Mangu-Ward:

Accept offers of support, even if it makes you feel vulnerable:  Early in my work at EmcArts, a more experienced colleague of mine approached me and said that if I was ever interested in developing my practice as a facilitator he’d be willing to mentor me.  I brushed it off at the time, unsure of how to accept the support.  But I kept in the back of my mind.  Four years I later, when I was in a difficult moment of growth, I called him up and asked him if he’d be willing to to set aside two hours a month to talk with me about the big questions I was wrestling with.  Now, he’s one of the most important people in my professional life.

A few contributors mentioned issues of Power, but Ian David Moss from Factured Atlas & Createquity made it his central topic. After a lengthy admonition about abuse of power which included the first sentence below, he suggests people are often unaware of the power they possess and the effective, if seemingly mundane ways, in which it can be exercised.

Power is like a precious, poisonous metal: it requires care and professionalism in handling or people are going to get hurt.


Know that speaking up is always, always an exercise of power – no matter who you are. Know that asking uncomfortable questions is a way to change the course of a meeting, a policy discussion, a decision. Know that sharing your experience in a forum where it will be heard is an exercise of power. Know that doing so again and again is more powerful than doing so once, as tedious as that may seem to you.

Know that doing your job well, maybe even better than anyone else, is an exercise of power. Know that understanding what you’re good at is an exercise of power. Know that vacuums of leadership mean more power for you. You never need to let your title and salary have the final say on what you’re capable of.


Know that charging yourself to gain more knowledge, particularly knowledge that most people around you don’t have, is one of the most valuable and impressive forms of power you can exercise. And absolutely no one is stopping you from exercising that particular power starting right now.

Taken out of context, any one paragraph might come off as advice for ruthless ambition, but he figuratively starts and literally ends his contribution with the reminder that “…with power comes responsibility.”

Each of the contributors comes from a different place with their “lessons learned” essay, but generally offer insight of a similarly high quality. Bookmark it and allow yourself to read through it over time.

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Finding Things Out Only Adds

Since I seem to have started on a philosophical kick this week, how about we consider Richard Feynman’s “Ode To A Flower” commentary in the video below? You can also see it illustrated in an awesome Zen Pencil’s comic.

Like Feynman’s friend, I remember being in my high school science class and thinking that it was robbing life of all its wonder. I would rather be entranced by the fictitious stories that made things seem magical than to learn the dull truth that it was all a result of chemical reactions.

Later, I came to appreciate, as Feynman points out, that science actually gives you the tools to extend your wonder and experience the delight of discovery.

For example, one of the things I have wondered about for 20+ years is whether squirrels in Florida hide nuts for the winter since there is no danger of food scarcity. If they don’t, if you transported a Florida squirrel to Boston, would instincts kick in and lead it to hide nuts or would it be in danger of starving?

It may sound like a silly question, but I keep it tucked away in the back of my mind in case I meet a scientist who can provide the answer. I find it exciting to know that I can discover that answer and receive additional interesting revelations with follow up questions.

Feynman’s short comments illustrate just how valuable the skill of communicating what you do to the uninitiated is. Feynman was great at explaining scientific concepts to people. A lot of scientists aren’t.

By the same measure, a lot of artists and arts organizations aren’t really good at explaining art and the value of the arts either. I wonder how much of that is due to simple lack of practice and how much is due to fear of being accused of selling out or dumbing things down.

I had a recent email exchange with Carter Gillies about this subject. I wondered if the scientific community felt Neil DeGrasse Tyson wasn’t a real scientist because he used his public profile to explain science to the general public. Is he accused of dumbing things down for a general audience? Do people suggest he can’t have time to engage in real scientific work due to all his media appearances?

I assume I don’t need to cite any parallel sentiments in the arts and cultural sphere.

Unfortunately, in these days when people have a high degree of control over the information they receive and are able to more easily ignore and filter out what they don’t want to hear, explaining the value of a subject becomes more difficult even for highly skilled communicators.

Frequently the initial encounter with the revelations and new questions that emerge isn’t easy or comfortable to bear.

Even with the tools to communicate your message to a wide range of people, getting someone like the high school me to accept a less magical view of the world in exchange for one that still had a lot of potential for wonder requires a retail, one-on-one, effort.

While Feynman gave physics lectures to packed lectures halls, the “Ode To A Flower” comment came from a series of one on one discussions he and artist Jirayr Zorthian had about art and physics over the course of eight years.

As an added aside: There is frequently discussion about people needing to see people like themselves on stage. I can’t express the thrill I got when I first heard a New York accent coming out of the mouth of a person acknowledged to be a brilliant scientist. I think it can be easy to underestimate the impact of those types of experiences.

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