Tag Archives: overhead

The Palotta Problem

uncharitableIf I have a good sense of who reads my blog, you’re likely familiar with Dan Palotta, notable in the nonprofit world for having raised significant amounts of money running the Aids Rides and Breast Cancer walks.  More recently, he’s become a outspoken and controversial crusader for reform in the sector.  He did a much-viewed Ted talk, and he’s written a few books outlining his case that “The way we think about charity is dead wrong”. And he keynoted the recent NTEN conference in Minneapolis.

Palotta’s claim is that nonprofits, in general, are their own worst enemies. By operating from a puritanical, self-sacrificing ethic that says that we can’t pay ourselves as well as for profit companies do, and we can’t invest heavily in marketing and infrastructure, instead prioritizing that every penny go to our program work, we are dramatically ineffective. He is advocating for a revolution against our own operating assumptions and the Charity Navigators, tax codes and foundations that are set up to enforce this status quo.

His message resonates. I watched his Ted talk, and then his NTEN plenary, and tears welled in my eyes on both occasions   They were tears of frustration, with an undercurrent of outrage.  I doubt very seriously that my reaction was very different from that of the other 1500 people in the room.  We are all tired of the constant struggle to do more with much less, while we watch entertainers, athletes and corporate CEOs pocket millions. Or billions.  And this is not about our salaries.  It’s about the dramatic needs of the populations we serve; people who are ransacked by poverty and/or disease. Should reality TV stars be pocketing more than most NPOs put annually toward eradicating colortectal cancer or providing legal assistance to the poor?

But, as I said, Palotta is a controversial figure, and the reactions to him are extreme to the point of visceral.  Even among his most ardent supporters, there’s a bit of criticism.  The key critical threads I heard from my NTEN peers were distrust of the implied argument that the corporate model is good, and frustration that a person who did well financially running charities is up there being so critical of our self-sacrifices.  In fact, since his nonprofit went under amid a storm of criticism about his overhead ratio.  Reports are that it was as much as 57% (depending on how much the reporter dislikes Palotta, apparently). That’s between 17% and 42% more than what nonprofits are told to shoot for, and are assessed against. But the amount of money he raised for his causes was ten times that of any similar efforts, and it does dramatically illustrate his point. How much opportunity to raise money is lost by our requirement that we operate with so little staff and resources?

I’m sold on a lot of Dan Palotta’s arguments. I don’t think that NPO’s have to emulate corporations, but they should have equal opportunity to avail themselves of the business tactics, and be measured by how effective they are, not how stingy. But I still can’t rally behind Dan Palotta as the leader for this cause.  It’s one thing to acknowledge that the nature of the “do-gooder” is one of austerity and self-sacrifice. It’s another to criticize it. Because, while most of us can recognize the disadvantages that our nature tends towards, we’re proud of that nature. It’s not as much a bad business orientation as it is a core ethical life view. The firm belief that relieving the suffering of others is of greater personal satisfaction and value than any financial reward pretty much fuels our sector. So standing on a stage and chastising us for not being more competitive, more greedy, and more self-serving, no matter how correct the hypothesis, primarily offends the audience.

By putting this criticism front and center, rather than acknowledging the good intentions and working with us to balance them with a more aggressive business approach, Palotta is undermining his own efforts. The leader who is going to break these institutional assumptions is one who will appreciate the heart of the charity worker, not one who – despite their good intentions – denigrates us. I applaud Palotta for raising a lot of awareness. But I’m still waiting to meet the people who will represent us in this battle. Palotta has raised the flag, but I’m not convinced that he’s our bannerman.

NPTech Lineup Details

Details have come in for two exciting events in February:

On Thursday, February 4th, at 11:00 am Pacific/2:00 pm Eastern, don’t miss The Overhead Question: The Future of Nonprofit Assessment and Reporting. This panel discussion with represenatives from Charity Navigator and Guidestar will cover all of the questions I’ve been blogging about here. Join me with moderator Sean Stannard-Stockton of Tactical Philanthropy, Bob Ottenhoff of Guidestar, Lucy Bernholtz of Blueprint R & D, Christine Egger of Social Actions, David Geilhufe of NetSuite, and host Holly Ross of NTEN. Free registration is here.

And on Wednesday, February 10th, from 10:00 to 2:00 Pacific (1:00 to 5:00 Eastern), NTEN and the Green IT Consortium are putting on the first Greening Your IT Virtual Conference. With a plenary by Joseph Khunaysir of Jolera Inc. and six tactical sessions explaining how your org can benefit yourselves and the earth, including the one I’m co-presenting with Matt Eshleman of CITIDC on Server Virtualization.  Registration is $120, and it looks well worth it.

Get Ready For A Sea Change In Nonprofit Assessment Metrics

This post was originally published on the Idealware Blog in December of 2009.

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Last week, GuideStar, Charity Navigator, and three other nonprofit assessment and reporting organizations made a huge announcement: the metrics that they track are about to change.  Instead of scoring organizations on an “overhead bad!” scale, they will scrap the traditional metrics and replace them with ones that measure an organization’s effectiveness.

  • The new metrics will assess:
  • Financial health and sustainability;
  • Accountability, governance and transparency; and
  • Outcomes.

This is very good news. That overhead metric has hamstrung serious efforts to do bold things and have higher impact. An assessment that is based solely on annualized budgetary efficiency precludes many options to make long-term investments in major strategies.  For most nonprofits, taking a year to staff up and prepare for a major initiative would generate a poor Charity Navigator score. A poor score that is prominently displayed to potential donors.

Assuming that these new metrics will be more tolerant of varying operational approaches and philosophies, justified by the outcomes, this will give organizations a chance to be recognized for their work, as opposed to their cost-cutting talents.  But it puts a burden on those same organizations to effectively represent that work.  I’ve blogged before (and will blog again) on our need to improve our outcome reporting and benchmark with our peers.  Now, there’s a very real danger that neglecting to represent your success stories with proper data will threaten your ability to muster financial support.  You don’t want to be great at what you do, but have no way to show it.

More to the point, the metrics that value social organizational effectiveness need to be developed by a broad community, not a small group or segment of that community. The move by Charity Navigator and their peers is bold, but it’s also complicated.  Nonprofit effectiveness is a subjective thing. When I worked for a workforce development agency, we had big questions about whether our mission was served by placing a client in a job, or if that wasn’t an outcome as much as an output, and the real metric was tied to the individual’s long-term sustainability and recovery from the conditions that had put them in poverty.

Certainly, a donor, a watchdog, a funder a, nonprofit executive and a nonprofit client are all going to value the work of a nonprofit differently. Whose interests will be represented in these valuations?

So here’s what’s clear to me:

– Developing standardized metrics, with broad input from the entire community, will benefit everyone.

– Determining what those metrics are and should be will require improvements in data management and reporting systems. It’s a bit of a chicken and egg problem, as collecting the data wis a precedent to determining how to assess it, but standardizing the data will assist in developing the data systems.

– We have to share our outcomes and compare them in order to develop actual standards.  And there are real opportunities available to us if we do compare our methodologies and results.

This isn’t easy. This will require that NPO’s who have have never had the wherewith-all to invest in technology systems to assess performance do so.  But, I maintain, if the world is going to start rating your effectiveness on more than the 990, that’s a threat that you need to turn into an opportunity.  You can’t afford not to.

And I look to my nptech community, including Idealware, NTEN, Techsoup, Aspiration and many others — the associations, formal, informal, incorporated or not, who advocate for and support technology in the nonprofit sector — to lead this effort.  We have the data systems expertise and the aligned missions to lead the project of defining shared outcome metrics.  We’re looking into having initial sessions on this topic at the 2010 Nonprofit Technology Conference.

As the world starts holding nonprofits up to higher standards, we need a common language that describes those standards.  It hasn’t been written yet.  Without it, we’ll escape the limited, Form 990 assessments to something that might equally fail to reflect our best efforts and outcomes.