How to talk about “overhead” in fundraising

Like just about everyone else in our industry, I stood up and cheered when I saw Dan Pallotta’s TED Talk The way we think about charity is dead wrong.

I’ve watched again and again as effective organizations capped the amount of good they could do by under-spending on fundraising and other forms of investment. It’s like watching a trained sprinter put on cement shoes before every race. They do that because watchdogs, boards, and many others sustain a belief that spending on “overhead” is bad, wasteful, and undesirable. It’s a crime, really.

The question is, what should we as fundraisers do about this, especially now that the issue is more in the open?

First, let me tell you what we should not do: You should not use your fundraising to fight anti-overhead prejudice. That would be irresponsible.

Your fundraising program is not your platform for fighting political or social fights. It’s your platform for raising funds.

Many donors have the wrong attitude about overhead. And your direct mail piece or email is not going to change their attitude. You might as well send a letter to a bunch of libertarians and tell them Ayn Rand was a foolish clown. You won’t change their minds. You’ll just annoy them.

Many more donors don’t really care or think about overhead. With them, you’ll just be raising a confusing issue.

And in the process, you’ll get much worse fundraising results. Any time a fundraising tries to raise funds plus do something else — it hurts response, often dramatically. Every time.

Using your fundraising as a platform to fight the overhead misconception will only do these things:


  • You’ll raise less money for your cause, which is dereliction of duty for a fundraiser.
  • You won’t help improve the situation by changing minds. You might even make it worse.

If you have good watchdog ratings, trumpet that. Even if you understand their criteria to be bogus. If you have low overhead, brag about it. A significant number of donors want that — right or wrong.

The right way to fight the overhead battle is as a citizen, not as a fundraiser. That means:


  • Every time you see one of those bogus stories in the media about overhead, write a letter to the editor and set ’em straight.
  • If harmful overhead-related legislation is rising in your state, fight it politically.
  • With your institutional donors — foundations, corporations, even high-end individuals you have a strong relationship with — have that nuanced, complex conversation. Tell them they need to embrace and support overhead! (In fact, you could make the case that donating to support overhead is the best “deal” of all.)
  • Same with your board. They have no business destroying the organization they’re supposed to be promoting.

(This post first appeared on June 25, 2013.)

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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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Jeff BrooksJeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 35 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com. More.


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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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Jeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 30 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com.

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