Behind the storm is an area of devastation from floods that’s hard to comprehend – at least not in the U.S.
And right behind the concern is the usual conversation about what role charities play in disasters.
- Which organization is doing too little?
- Which CEO is paid too much?
- Who can I trust?
It’s a smart conversation for the country to have. And for organizations that jump into high drive when disaster hits, this is their crucible: they’ll either raise lots of money and get lots of work done, or their reputations will suffer… leading to fewer donations and less to work with next time.
One continuing theme I see with each disaster is that nonprofits are different.
And not in a good way.
I see the expectation that nonprofit employees shouldn’t be paid well. That we work with our hearts, so our heads don’t need shelter. Or food.
That paying staff is taking money away from suffering people.
I spent a fair amount of time on social media batting down the idea that nonprofits – especially nonprofit staff – ought to do more with less. “Education”, I thought of it.
But like a zombie, the idea rises. And walks.
Anyone have some spare dragonglass?
Overhead isn’t extra. Overhead is mission
For years, donors were carefully trained to look at one thing when evaluating their charitable giving: what percent of the organization’s spending went to “program” (mission) and what percent went to “overhead” (administration, fundraising, accounting, human resources…)
These donors aren’t at fault. In fact, the ones most likely to depend on this idea are the most thoughtful donors.
They consider. They do their research. They give with heart and head.
But they’ve been so wrong.
Even the big watchdog groups that pushed the overhead myth have stepped back.
But it’s harder to step back than it was to put the idea out there.
Why? Because the idea of a simple ratio – one percentage number – is too attractive.
It’s beautiful in its simplicity.
It’s also dead wrong.
The truth is harder: there is no simple way to judge all nonprofit organizations, at all times. No formula, not a quick report card.
If a donor wants to do the homework, well, they’ve just moved up to college-level work.
We need a way to measure and communicate nonprofit organizations’ impact and effectiveness.
But how do you use the same method to evaluate your community soup kitchen and a regional theater?
How do you judge expenses for a brand-new organization against an established one? An organization with a tiny budget and one with tens of millions?
Or an organization that is stepping up their fundraising efforts (more expensive) versus one that is holding expenses down by cutting fundraising efforts. (Not smart in the long run, looks good by the overhead metric in the short-term.)
The problem is that overhead IS mission.
The people at the home office raising money or managing payroll are every bit as important to the work. The people handling communication in a disaster are as important as the folks wading through flood waters.
Think about it: don’t you need to know where to go for help? Or what shelter is open? Who to call?
It all matters. So we need a good way to judge how well an organization does everything it does. How it fulfills the promises it makes.
Nonprofit workers shouldn’t be martyrs (Or that hair shirt really doesn’t suit you)
Sometimes, we’re our own worst enemies.
Many of the people I heard from felt our sector should expect lower wages. Because otherwise, fewer people would be helped.
We tend to be helpers, all of us in the sector.
We’re used to setting our needs aside to help others. That’s why we’re attracted to this work.
It feeds us. Sort of.
But we can’t live on good feels alone. And we shouldn’t.
We need to stop thinking about “program staff” and “admin staff”. We’re all program staff – some are more front line at times. But the fundraiser going out into the community to spread the message and gain support for the mission is every bit as critical as the person resourcing food for the pantry.
We have different tasks and different skills.
But they’re all pointed at the organization’s mission, aren’t they?
At the same time, we all need to accept that we can be helpful and big-hearted and paid at the same time. That our skills have value and should be compensated.
Leaders need to make staff compensation a given – not the first place to cut the budget.
Employees are a treasured resource – or should be.
If you’re struggling, instead of cutting the budget, go to the board for more money – and invest it in better fundraising.
Look, the spiral is either going up or down.
The money you spend on increased and improved fundraising will pay off. You’ll have more resources to put toward the mission.
Unless you’ve been throwing money out the window, it’s not possible to cut your way to success.
And staffers? Ask for what you deserve.
You need to eat, you need clothing and shelter and heat and transportation. Don’t accept outrageous wages because you love the mission so much.
Trust me, I’ve been there. It burns you right out.
The pie is bigger than you think it is
OK, so that’s all nice. But you still have bills to pay, right?
While the world is arguing about nonprofit salaries, one important factor is always missing: income doesn’t have to be static.
The pie is bigger than you think.
Donors are not a finite resource.
Donors have big hearts. Given a good enough reason, they will dig deeper.
And that may be the part of the argument that is the saddest.
Your resources are not nearly as limited as you think – if you can make a good case, and communicate your mission well.
Donors are wonderful people who want to help. Are we doing a good enough job involving them?
So if your organization isn’t properly resourced, ask yourself why.
- Are you asking enough people to help?
- Are you asking well enough?
- Are you connecting your donors to the work?
- Are you making a great case for why they should give?
- Have you invested enough in reaching donors – and reaching them in a way that works?
If raising money for your work is seen as secondary to your work, then you’re likely struggling.
So remember that overhead is mission. And philanthropy is mission.
Right there beside your particular mission (feeding people or education or protecting the environment) is your OTHER mission.
Philanthropy. It’s bringing people into your particular mission.
You can’t separate the two if you want to succeed.
Fundraising isn’t just bringing in the bucks. Fundraising is bringing in the people.
People who care about your mission, just like you do. People who want to be helpers, too.
They’re out there, just waiting to be asked.
Are you muscling them out of the way?
Photo by Lum3n