Ending the “overhead myth” is everywhere

overhead mythFor the last few years, I’ve come across snippets and whispers from non-profit thought-leaders about how we need to help donors change their views about evaluating a non-profit organization based on how little it spends on administrative and fundraising costs. It was mentioned in polite conversations. A few bloggers were chattering about. I even saw it on a website owned by a charity watchdog group.

Then a few years ago, Dan Pallotta published a book titled “Uncharitable,” and this discussion emerged from the shadows of the non-profit sector. For the last few years, everyone I know has been engaged in this discussion or pieces of it such as:

  • Executive compensation
  • Marketing & advertising
  • Risk aversion
  • Return on investment for donors
  • Spending on today versus tomorrow

The overhead myth has been building momentum for a few years now. I even jumped on this bandwagon a year ago with the following series of blog posts:


A few weeks ago I received an email from a dear friend of mine with a link to “Letter to the Donors of America” from the BBB Wise Giving Alliance, Guidestar and Charity Navigator. The letter was simple and straightforward. It asked donors to please stop looking at overhead when making charitable contributions. It was a case for support document. Pure and simple!

After this first email from a friend, I received another and then another. I started to see bloggers tackle the subject, and then non-profit agencies started talking about it on their websites. Before long, it was all over social media and everyone in my circles was talking about “the overhead myth“.

For the record, I’ve always thought that the idea of using overhead to evaluate a non-profit organization’s worthiness was silly for two reasons:

  1. Through the magic of accounting, every smart executive director keeps at least one eye on what donors consider the “percentage of overhead” and tweaks their allocation formulas to keep that percentage where it needs to be. So, this number really means nothing. It never has and never will.
  2. When I am purchasing goods and services, I never hold for-profit companies to this standard. When I hired a marketing firm to help me during the start-up phase for The Healthy Non-Profit LLC, I didn’t look at how much money they spent on administration, executive compensation or their advertising budget. Heck no! I looked at the quality of their work. As a donor, I like to invest in organizations whose programs are having impact regardless of how much they pay their executive director.

I’ve been asked by some readers of this blog to write something about the “overhead myth“. As flattering and tempting it is to weigh-in on a compelling subject like this, I’m going to use some self-restraint and decline. (Surprising? I know!)


Have you see how much has already been written out there? OMG!!! Everyone with a blog, website, Facebook page, and Twitter account has jumped on this bandwagon.

I’m will use the remainder of my space to post links to those other blogs, websites, etc. If you are very interested in this topic, please click your heart away.

Your thoughts?

Let’s start a discussion using the comment box attached to this DonorDreams blog post.

I personally don’t think anything is going to change as a result of this “overhead myth” campaign push.

I think donors are set in their ways. I believe Dan Pallotta was right about the Puritan influence on our culture. I don’t think “culture” and “values” and “habits” are easy to change. AND I think talk is cheap.

In the comment box below, please tell me why you think I am right or why I am wrong.

Here’s to your health!

Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC

Do we need a death penalty for non-profit organizations?

Have you ever watched something on television that made you so angry that you stewed about it for hours on end? For me, this happened last night while channel surfing, and I caught a news story on The Rachel Maddow Show on MSMBC titled “A Special Place In Hell“. This 17 minute story talked about people who use non-profit organizations as a front to scam donors out of their money

If you didn’t catch Rachel’s report and you have a few minutes to burn today, then click here to watch her report or click the graphic below.

rachel maddow

Every non-profit professional should be fuming this morning because all of our brands get damaged when atrocities like this are perpetrated against donors.  This story should also prompt a lot of questions. For example, I find myself scratching my head and asking:

  • Is there a watchdog keeping and eye out for things like this?
  • If you think the IRS, Guidestar and Charity Navigator are those watchdogs, then are your expectations of those organizations unrealistic?
  • Should there be a watchdog?
  • Does the IRS need to get more involved in compliance and monitoring issues? If so, who pays for THAT?
  • Should the non-profit sector get more serious about policing itself? If so, what does that look like?
  • Should Congress enact legislation that focuses on improving transparency and accountability for non-profit corporations (a la Sarbanes Oxley post-Enron)?
  • Should Congress pass a Donor’s Bill of Rights? (After all, there is similar legislation protecting people who fly on airplanes)
  • Should there be a death penalty for non-profit organizations that violate certain laws and perpetrate fraud against donors?

I could go on and on and on with the questions buzzing through my head this morning, but I think I will stop and invite you to share some of the questions you might have. Please use the comment box below to share your question. Or please feel free to use the comment box to share an opinion on one of the questions I’ve posed.

Here’s to your health!

Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC