Today at lunch a musician friend was picking our brains about a fund raiser he wants to do for a cause he really believes in. He outlined his vision and then asked for ideas of places he could hold it. There were a couple assumptions he made about his budget that were unrealistic which we helped him to re-evaluate.
The discussion made me think of an article someone I follow on Twitter recently linked to by Nell Edgington, “5 Lies to Stop Telling Donors.”
Edgington lists the lies as:
1. X percent of your donation goes to the program
The distinction between “program expenses” and “overhead” is, at best, meaningless and, at worst, destructive… It is magical thinking to say that you can separate money spent on programs from money spent on the support of programs…“overhead” is not a dirty word…
2. We can do the same program with less money
No you can’t. You know you can’t. You are already scraping by…Politely, but firmly, explain to the donor that an inferior investment will yield an inferior result…
3. We can start a new program that doesn’t fit with our mission or strategy
Yes, that big, fat check a donor is holding in front of you looks very appealing. But if it takes your organization in a different direction than your strategy or your core competencies require, accepting it is a huge mistake…Don’t let a donor take you down that road.
4. We can grow without additional staff or other resources
Nonprofit staffers truly excel at working endless hours with very few resources…But someday that road must end…
5. 100 percent of our board is committed to our organization
If that’s true, then you are a true minority in the nonprofit sector. Every nonprofit board I know has some dead wood…It’s a fact that funders want to see every board member contributing. But instead of perpetuating the myth that 100 percent is an achievable reality, be honest with funders…It is far better to demonstrate that you are tirelessly working toward 90 percent.
I have frequently linked back to a post Andrew Taylor made about 6 years ago where he suggests non-profit organizations aren’t doing themselves any favors by keeping funders expectations high when they report everything went as good, if not better, than planned every single time.
In recent years “overhead” has come to the fore as a problematic measure of effectiveness. I think the whole idea about low overhead being a measure of effectiveness is the root of the other evils Edgington mentions in her article, in the pursuit of portraying themselves as having low overhead non-profits will say they can do more with less money, do more with same/fewer staff and the organization has a super efficient board.
An April article in the LA Times talks about why overhead is such a poor measure of a charity. In that column, Jack Shakely, president emeritus of the California Community Foundation, cites the example of a group that was buying its medicine in Canada but was using the cost of the medicine in the U.S. as a basis to report the difference in price as an in-kind donation in order to make their administrative costs appear to be a smaller portion of their budget.
Writes Shakely (with my emphasis added),
Don’t get me wrong. Low administrative costs could indicate prudence and sound judgment at a charity, but they could just as easily indicate inadequate staffing, insufficient salaries or, shall we say, fudging. Moreover, administrative costs aren’t the primary measurement of for-profit excellence. Are McDonald’s admin costs lower than Wendy’s? Apple’s lower than Microsoft’s?
But our intuitive thinking system wants an answer now, and because we are intuitively inclined to believe that the nonprofit sector is filled with soft, amateurish executives, we latch on to the pseudo-science of administrative costs as a measure of excellence. It’s hogwash; there is absolutely no way of telling that an organization with 5% administrative costs is superior to one with 20% costs based on that criterion alone. In fact, the exact opposite may be true.
As Shakely notes, it will be hard to get donors and funders to shift to better criteria when the overhead ratio appears to be so clean and rational a measure. But as both he and Edgington comment, no funder is going to use any other measure of evaluation if they aren’t told the criteria is unfair and unrealistic.
Think about what you can do to change assumptions as you make your next pitch or write your next grant proposal.