It is a question that comes up often enough: Operating support, how do you sell it?
Short answer: Don't bother trying.
.... A reader inquires ....
A veteran fundraiser newly hired by a chapter of CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) was writing for advice.
CASA stumped her from a messaging standpoint: "We use all our donated money to support staff. But supporting staff is a hard sell to the public."
Let's return to the original lament: "We use all our donated money to support staff. But supporting staff is a hard sell to the public."
Absolutely true. And absolutely beside the point.
.... Blind justice ....
Your overhead doesn't deeply interest donors. They care about the mission. Overhead makes the mission possible. End of story.
Overhead does interest "evaluators" like Charity Navigator, of course.
And due kudos: Charity Navigator has shined light on some pretty dark behavior.
It peeled the paint from common scams like "friends of the police" associations where very little good is done and professional telephone fundraisers pocket most of the money.
It regularly flogs "Highly Paid CEOs at Low-Rated Charities."
But evaluators have also been guilty of throwing the baby out with the bath water. Charity Navigator measures an indicator, a ratio (overhead expense vs. program expense); and implies it's the whole truth.
It's not. The ratio says nothing conclusive about "mission effectiveness." A ratio-obsessed evaluation methodology is like trying to shell peanuts with a sledge hammer. Expect collateral damage.
Let's face it: doing business well can sometimes require lots of overhead. In that regard, charities are no different than for-profits.
A large, sophisticated, global organization needs a top-notch human resources department, for instance. That's overhead.
A forward-looking organization aimed at rapid growth hires well ... and pays accordingly ... for talent, knowledge, and experience. That's overhead, too.
I know a fundraising specialist who makes a $300,000 annual salary. Is he worth that much to his charity? Absolutely: the unique program he set up and continues to manage brings in tens of millions in gifts every year.
Yet his fat paycheck violates a core prejudice lurking in many minds: People who work for nonprofits shouldn't get rich. If you serve the poor, the "thinking" goes, shouldn't you be poor as well? Abjectly poor, if possible?
Talent, experience, and good performance are - and bloody well should be - expensive.
And a chronically underfunded infrastructure just holds your mission back. For a full articulation of the case for a more capitalist approach to charity work, read Dan Pallotta's head-turning book, Uncharitable.
.... Bottom line: R U good at what U do? ....
When donors make gifts to CASA, they hope to help down-on-their-luck foster kids survive a miserable, confusing, traumatic experience.
Donors want to relieve pain. They want to fight injustice. They want to heal and help and cure.
CASA employees make that possible. They are part of the machinery. But donors don't care about the machinery. They care about what comes out of the machine.