charity:water and other mega-charities, we need to talk about your harmful, archaic views on overhead

[Image description: A greyish-brownish squirrel, standing on a stump, looking directly at the camera, their hands touching and resting on their chest. This squirrel is not happy about the messaging around overhead. Image by Yannick Menard on Unsplash]

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:

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Why raising funds should not be the primary goal of fundraising

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Hi everyone. Happy November. Quick reminder to vote in your local elections. And to get your flu shot if you can and haven’t. 

Last week, I talked with a fundraising colleague from a large, well-established organization that has grown significantly over the past several years. He had some questions and concerns about the Community-Centric Fundraising (CCF) movement. “I’m afraid that if we do CCF, we’ll have less revenues and people may lose their jobs.” As the movement grows, this is a dilemma that’s on a lot of people’s minds. And this is a constant argument against CCF, that it doesn’t “work” to bring in funding the way traditional fundraising practices have been proven to. Although I can point to evidence that CCF-aligned practices do bring in funding, I think it is crucial that all of us in this sector, but especially fundraisers, reexamine our fundamental belief that fundraising is primarily about raising money. 

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Why pitch-based funding competitions are harmful and we need to stop having them

[Image description: A dog and a pony facing each other yet looking downward sadly. They appear to be outside on a mountain, with a pine forest in the background. What are they contemplating? Who knows. Image by Maninderjeet Singh Sidhu on Unsplash].

Last week, I was on Clubhouse in a conversation called “If Nonprofits Were Brutally Honest with Funders” (with colleagues Dr. Rahsaan Harris, Kris Putnam-Walkerly, and Julie Morris). After my remarks about power dynamics, the injustices upon which much of philanthropy is based, and how so little funding goes to organizations led by marginalized communities, listeners were invited to join in. The first person said something about how people of color should learn to “pitch” better so that funders and donors could understand their ideas. (Another person said being nice and getting people to empathize and bringing them ice cream to eat and puppies to snuggle with would work better in soliciting funding than my “angry complaints,” but that’s for another post).

The idea of “pitching” is not new. We have been trained to do “elevator pitches” that are supposed to be pithy yet moving, sincere yet polished, inspiring yet grounded, all in 20 seconds. We pitch to donors, funders, politicians, partner orgs, volunteers. Grants, meanwhile, are basically just long pitches. We do a lot of pitching.

The most extreme manifestation of this idea of “pitching” are the “Shark Tank”-style funding opportunities where leaders go on stage to give short presentations about their organizations’ work to a live audience, after which, depending on how they do and how the “judges” and people watching their presentations react, they could walk away with one of several small grant prizes.

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Stop saying that 80% of nonprofit funding comes from individual donors. It’s misleading.

[Image description: A grey striped cap, lying on red velvet, wearing a tiny red and golden crown, covered in Canadian dollar bills of different denominations. They are wearing a necklace with a gold dollar sign pendant. They are looking to the left, surrounded by an aural of feline regality. Image by Allange on Pixabay]

Hi everyone. Quick reminder: Please get flu shots for you and your family, if you are able to. Hospitals and healthcare workers are overwhelmed by COVID, so in addition to getting your COVID shots, get your flu shot. And then buy yourself a new house plant or some chocolate as a reward.

Every time I criticize foundations, someone steps in with “well, 80% of philanthropic dollars come from individual donors.” Usually it is a well-meaning statement, designed to give hope to those of us who are frustrated with foundations and their various archaic and ridiculous practices. And taken as a whole, it may be true. This report, for example, shows that in 2019, 69% of giving comes from individuals, 10% from bequests, 17% from foundations, and 5% from corporations.

If 17% of our revenues come from foundations and 5% from corporations, why should we spend so much time and energy bashing our heads against the walls, screaming in anguish at the foundations and corporations that require quarterly reports, make us use their own budget templates, or, worst of all, force us to remove Oxford Commas to stay within character limits? If they account for only a fraction of total philanthropic dollars, maybe we’re wasting time trying to get foundations and corporations to change and should focus more time rallying individual donors?

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We need to have a serious talk about character limits on grant applications

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Hi everyone, with the collapse of the Afghanistan government, the devastating earthquake in Haiti, and the worsening pandemic, you might be thinking there are more important things to talk about than something as insignificant as character limits on grant proposals. I am writing about it because I need something concrete that I can focus on. But also, because minor things like character limits are symptomatic of some serious issues in philanthropy.

Describe the program for which you are applying and how it helps to fight racial disparities in health care or food insecurity. Share whether this is a new or existing program. Provide specific data-driven information that shows a clear understanding of what the need in your community is. (700 characters).”

I wish I had made that up. But no, a colleague sent that to me just a couple of weeks ago, an excerpt from a grant application. 700 characters is fewer than 3 tweets. Here are some common problems around character limits:

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