Balancing the Mission Checkbook

Hear ye, hear ye – Overhead is over

There was a breakthrough last week for nonprofits. In a joint announcement, Guidestar and other major charity “watchdogs” made a very strong case that overhead ratios are meaningless. The phrase used in the opening paragraph says the ratio is “useless for evaluating a charity’s impact.” Read the full release The Worst (and Best) Way to Pick a Charity This Year and then copy it to share far and wide. Some of the reasons for de-emphasizing this ratio cited in the announcement will be familiar to nonprofit leaders:

  • It tells you nothing about the impact the charity has on the people it’s trying to help.
  • It discourages charities from investing in tools and expertise that would make them more effective.
  • The rules for determining overhead costs are vague and every charity interprets them differently.

Hooray! I’ve been one of many voices speaking out on this problem for a long time, most recently in the post Donors and Overhead: Maybe They Don’t Care. This step by some of the most prominent national watchdogs, especially Charity Navigator, is huge. Ken Berger, CEO of Charity Navigator, elaborated on his own blog:

We do concur with the fundamental truth that the most critical dimension in evaluating a nonprofit has to do with achieving meaningful results.

Charity Navigator has been criticized for relying too heavily on the overhead ratio and other simplistic measures for their rating system. Berger has been blogging about their plans to shift to a more comprehensive approach, and this announcement is a breakthrough.

This feels like a gamechanger because now we can stop arguing about whether overhead is an accurate measure of charity performance. It’s not. Clearing that hurdle doesn’t get us to the finish line, though. Everyone in the nonprofit sector should cheer that the watchdogs are encouraging donors to review the impact and effectiveness of nonprofits – but how? There is not a single, simple alternative method to evaluate the effectiveness of all nonprofits. It’s essential for nonprofits to invest some time and brainpower to figure this out.

The organizations behind the press release have their own approaches:

  • Consumer reviews: The personal experience approach of Great Nonprofits relies on a broad network of people who are involved with nonprofits to submit comments and ratings. Users of the website can search and browse for stories that interest or inspire them. Think of this as the Amazon reader reviews or TripAdvisor comments equivalent for nonprofits.
  • Experts: Philanthropedia, on the other hand, relies on panels of experts in four different fields to pool their knowledge and assessment of which nonprofits are the “top” in effectiveness. Their “mutual funds” of nonprofits can become your vehicle for giving. In some ways this is a global, scaled up version of how we’ve used the local United Way.

Whatever approach you trust or endorse, get to it now. It will take us a long time reverse course for all the donors, advisers, and institutions that have used the program cost ratio as a stand-in for value. You’re going to have to offer some other data to replace it. Make it mean something. Ken Berger of Charity Navigator issued this call to action:

The nonprofit sector must get its act together and make sure it is really helping provide meaningful change in communities and peoples lives. It is life or death for many of those we serve whether we are effective or not. So let’s work together to measure, manage and deliver what is really important to make our world a better place.


Kate Barr believes that every nonprofit financial question relates to strategy, structure and mission impact. She enjoys interpreting financial information to find stories numbers can tell. She loves writing, teaching, and talking with interesting people.