Every year at about this time, as people become more inclined to donate to charity for the holidays, memes start floating around regarding nonprofit overhead rates. “Don’t give to these orgs! Only 4 cents of every dollar you donate go to helping people! The other 96 cents go to mansions and truffles for their well-paid executives!” Which is quite ridiculous; most nonprofit executives only have at most two mansions, and consume no more than 100 grams of Périgord black truffles each week. Sadly, the public is pretty clueless regarding our work and are quick to latch on to nonsense regarding overhead. I wrote about it here in How to deal with uninformed nonprofit-watchdogs around the holidays.
Unfortunately, one of the biggest drivers of the narrative around overhead being no-good-very-bad are nonprofits themselves. Specifically, large international organizations with significant brand recognition. They usually do vital, life-saving and life-changing work, so I am not here to question their programs and services. However, in their quest to raise funds, they continue to use archaic messaging around overhead that are toxic for the entire sector. Here are a few examples:
charity:water has a “100% model”: As written on their website: “When charity: water began, we made a bold promise: 100% of public donations would go directly to fund clean water projects. We’d even pay back credit card fees, meaning if a donor gave $100 with a credit card and we got only $97, we’d make up the $3 and send the full $100 to provide clean water for people in need. So, how do we pay our overhead? From day one, we’ve relied on a small group of generous private donors to fund all of our operating expenses. It’s not always easy, but it’s an approach we believe in deeply.”
OK, charity:water. Your work around access to safe drinking water, education opportunities, conservation, and other vital issues is important and requires money to sustain, so I understand the need to constantly raise funds in the way that you think would be most effective.
But messaging like “100% of your donations go to programming because we found some private donors who will pay for operations” is ridiculous and nonsensical. It’s like me, a parent, saying “100% of the food I give my kids is nutritious. How is that possible? I got their grandmother to buy them chips and candies!” Besides being nonsensical, manipulative, and insulting to people whose work is considered “overhead,” your views and messaging are outdated and harmful to the entire sector.
Read the full article about nonprofit overhead by Vu Le at Nonprofit AF.
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