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News You Can Use

News You Can Use
Issue 135 / March 2014
Is “Overhead” a Valid Way to Evaluate Your Nonprofit?

Continuing the Dialogue about “The Overhead Myth” 

Jeffrey D. Byrne

Jeffrey D. Byrne
President + CEO    

Editor’s Note:

This article is the first in a series aimed at continuing objective analysis and hearty dialogue regarding the appropriate role “Overhead” should play when assessing the value of nonprofits.  

While this issue is not a new topic in the nonprofit industry, it was certainly catapulted into the spotlight last summer through a very public and unified plea from the leaders of GuideStar, Charity Navigator and BBB Wise Giving Alliance.  

Firm President + CEO Jeffrey Byrne is part of a Task Force** (see members of Task Force listed below) working with Nonprofit Connect to present this stimulating series, during which national “thought leaders” will be discussing aspects of operating and managing effective organizations within the philanthropic sector.  Jeffrey Byrne + Associates is proud to be the lead sponsor in bringing Jacob Harold – President and CEO of GuideStar, Dr. Patrick Rooney – Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Research at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, Ken Berger – President and CEO of Charity Navigator and Jon Derek Croteau of Witt/Kieffer to Kansas City as part of the 501 (c) Success National Speaker Series.

We believe it is necessary to have an open conversation about overhead because of the significance it plays – not just in decision-making for funding, but in the overall operations of effective and efficient nonprofits. We know overhead is not always wisely or efficiently utilized. The antithesis of this is that highly effective organizations can be so cautious about overhead that they neglect other aspects and opportunities to serve their mission.  

Last June (2013), three of the nation’s most highly-respected thought leaders in the nonprofit world asked donors in America to look beyond overhead and help dispel the “Overhead Myth.”  

Jacob Harold, President and CEO of GuideStar, Ken Berger, President and CEO of Charity Navigator, and Art Taylor, President and CEO of BBB Wise Giving Alliance, launched an initiative to help donors make better decisions about their giving: by eradicating what they believe is a common misconception that, on its own, “overhead” is a valid and appropriate way to evaluate a nonprofit.

In an open letter to the donors of America, the most trusted and reputable organizations that provide information about nonprofits in America denounced the overhead ratio and asked for help in ending the “overhead myth.” Donors were asked to take into account additional factors of a nonprofit’s performance – such as transparency, governance, leadership and results – when evaluating charities and making their charitable giving decisions. 

More than 2,800 have signed the pledge to “end the Overhead Myth and help support nonprofits to invest in their mission, sustainability and success.” But after an initial flurry of reaction and commentary, the “movement” seems to have quieted a bit.  

We all understand the overhead ratio (more commonly referred to as “overhead”) is the common term used to describe the percentage of a charity’s overall expenses allocated to administration and fundraising costs. We also know it is a commonly-accepted and often-used metric to assess a nonprofit’s performance and worth. But many times, it is misinterpreted by foundations, major donors and corporations when used as the key tool in evaluating a nonprofit’s organizational efficiency. Maintaining low overhead may also inhibit organizations from making investments necessary to achieve success.  To make matters worse, feeling pressure to present low (or in some instances, practically nonexistent) overhead, many nonprofits misrepresent or underreport this number – especially when it comes to fundraising expenses.  

Is this behavior truly in the best interests of either side – let alone the causes they each hope to support?  

The Overhead Myth Letter acknowledges that while overhead does have a role in evaluating charities, focusing on overhead as the sole or primary determinant of a nonprofit’s effectiveness can have negative repercussions: if charities don’t direct resources toward sustaining and strengthening themselves, they will ultimately not be able to fulfill their missions or effectively help those they are trying to serve.  

Another concern is the way donors, funders and watchdog agencies utilize audited financial statements and publicly available IRS Forms 990 as part of their assessments: the proportion of total expenditures for administration and fundraising often receive particular scrutiny. But how accurate are the numbers reported?  If there are errors, what are the sources of the inaccuracies?    

Dr. Patrick Rooney, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Research at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy and one of the lead researchers in the Nonprofit Overhead Cost Project conducted in 2004* offers the caveat that obvious functional expense reporting errors occur even when the documents are prepared by auditors and CPAs. For example: reporting all salaries as program expenses and reporting no fundraising expenses despite the existence of fundraising staff; or not including the cost of the time top executives and senior program managers devote to securing government grants. Responding to pressure (both real and perceived), nonprofits have changed their behavior to keep real and reported administrative and fundraising costs low. 

The authors of the Overhead Myth Letter back up both their claim and their call to action with statistics and research from several experts, including Indiana University, the Urban Institute and the Bridgespan Group. Dr. Gene Tempel, Founding Dean of the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, supported the Overhead Myth movement through his own open letter to the authors. Dr. Tempel expressed gratitude for their efforts and stressed the importance of continuing to educate donors and nonprofit executives about the best ways to evaluate nonprofit efficacy, instead of relying on one, over-simplified measure. Dr. Tempel also pointed out that overhead costs are “essential investments for effective, high-performing organizations.”

As Dr. Tempel says, “Donors and funders today want nonprofit organizations to do thoughtful planning, deliver effective programs through excellent management, and conduct effective fundraising and thorough evaluation . . . we have an ethical responsibility to get organizations to focus on accountability, transparency, and trust building.”

I encourage you to look at the Overhead Myth website, read the letter and read Dr. Tempel’s response. Then let us know how you feel you feel about the matter, and if you would consider joining the movement: take our brief survey by clicking here.

 Visit the Overhead Myth website by clicking here.

Read the Open Letter to the Donors of America by clicking here.

To view Dr. Gene Tempel’s open letter response to the Overhead Myth movement as posted on Bloomerang’s Blog, click here.

*The Nonprofit Overhead Cost Project was a collaborative study conducted by the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University (now the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy) and the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy at the Urban Institute, published in 2004.


Including and Counting Planned Gifts in a Capital Campaign

John Marshall

John F. Marshall
Senior Vice President   

Our firm has partnered with many, many clients in planning and conducting capital campaigns of all shapes and sizes and with incredible arrays of objectives. What has interested me in the campaigns I have been involved with is the question of “should we include planned gifts as a giving option; if we do, how should we count them?”

Unless there is truly a compelling reason otherwise, I always advise our client that planned gifts should be a component of a capital campaign. (By the way, I struggle in coming up with a compelling reason that they should not be.)

There does seem to exist a myth – a formidable one -that planned giving takes dollars off the table. My response to those who believe the myth is that they are being shortsighted and forgetting about the best interests for the donor and the organization. Consider this – by including planned gifts:  

(1) there will be an increase in the number of gifts to the campaign

(2) planned gifts can help to leverage new money

(3) planned giving can often get donors to think about making gifts from assets rather than from income.

Just how to count a planned gift in a capital campaign has, in the past, been all over the place. Too often planned gifts were included within the campaign but their role was limited by strict guidelines or were not clearly defined by campaign planners. That is why I believe that it is so essential to take the time to strategically define the role of these unique giving opportunities. In doing so, you will be taking an important step towards ensuring a successful effort.

The NCPG is a highly reputable organization and the aforementioned guidelines have been fully endorsed by no less than the Association of Philanthropic Counsel and the National Capital Campaign Counting Guidelines Committee.

Incorporating planned giving into your capital campaign will most likely make greater gifts possible. Remember this: 90% – 95% of all planned gifts are bequests, so when creating policies on how to promote and count planned gifts in your campaign, don’t get caught up in complexities….keep is simple. Donors will appreciate the clarity….and will respond generously if properly and strategically approached..

If you would like to discuss this topic further or if you have questions relating to capital campaigns in general, please don’t hesitate to contact us here at JB+A (816-237-1999) or contact me directly at

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