I received an emergency call this week from an executive director of a foundation. “We have a question posted on our Facebook page that I’m not sure how to best handle. I mean, this is Facebook so it could really blow up.” With this introduction, I was really curious now to know what question someone could ask in a Facebook post that had the potential to be so influential. “Ok, let’s see what’s up. Tell me about the question.”
The cause had posted a picture of their signature fundraising item and in the comment box below a person asked how much of the donation for the item went to support the mission and how much went to “salaries and spending.”
Have you been faced with this question? Do a million things run through your head like a B horror movie on fast forward? Maybe you see your organization’s multi-year budget detail, the list of online locations for your organization’s 990s, the profiles for your cause on your local community foundation or services like Guidestar and Charity Navigator, budget pages from grant applications, your last annual report. Jeez, even the face of your auditor and the cover page of your last audit swims momentarily before your eyes.
The next second shock sets in and you wonder how the querent could even ask this question. Have they missed the raging discussion that is taking place across the nonprofit sector? Surely they must be one of the several million who has seen Dan Pallotta’s Ted Talk, The way we think about charity is dead wrong? How could they have missed the much heralded Letter to the Donors penned by nonprofit ranking service heavy hitters Guidestar, Charity Navigator, and BBB Wise Giving Alliance? Your bedtime reading includes articles like The Too Sad Truth about the Nonprofit Sector – you totally get it – don’t they?
The last thing that hits you as you contemplate this question is gut wrenching fear. Is it possible that your cause is now standing on the edge of a massive scandal? With your mouth dry and your palms sweating you wonder if you don’t come up with the right answer, will your cause be the next entry on the Tampa Bay Times’ worst charities list? Is there an answer that will even make sense?
Unfortunately no matter how enlightened your cause, no matter how educated your supporters, you are going to come face to face with this question and all the integrity undermining subtext that goes along with it.
Here are some things you can do to address the nonprofit overhead myth in your cause, stay focused on your mission, educate your supporters, and direct the conversation to a constructive outcome.
Preemptive Nonprofit Overhead Myth Strategies
Address the nonprofit overhead myth by answering the question before it’s asked. Communication about the entirety of your cause goes a long way to taking this question off the table. Transparency is the ultimate message, so publish information regularly that reflects all the work your cause is doing together with the impact from small to large. Here’s how:
Publish an Annual Report
Annual reports are terrific communications tools where you can showcase all of your programs, the impact your cause has, and your financials in one place. Have a page on your website for your annual report, and use the information throughout your pages and communications.
Update your Profiles
Let people know when you update your organization’s online profile or add a new one. Share those links. Check out the article New Google Must for Nonprofits for online profile updating strategies.
Showcase Your Impact and Attribute it to Your Supporters
When you distribute funds, hold a conference, have an event, hit a program milestone, let people know what’s happening and that it is due to their support that these things are made possible. Do this through the year and across all your communications channels.
Go “Behind the Scenes” with Your Cause
Show the people and the systems that actually do the work of building the organization in action. This includes your finance department, marketing & communications, fundraising, and administrative staff. Even sharing information about the work your contractors are doing for your cause can help educate people about the complexity and needs of the organization.
Real Time Nonprofit Overhead Myth Strategies
Even if you’ve saturated your channels with all the information about your cause; showcased its qualitative, quantitative and anecdotal impact, this kind of question will get asked. Here are a few things to keep in mind as you respond.
Begin with a Thank You
Acknowledging the question and thanking them for asking allows you to express your belief in transparency. Don’t underestimate the terrific opportunity for you to educate people about the breadth and depth of your cause.
Credit your supporters
Share the recognition that your cause wouldn’t be able to do the work it does without the support you receive. You might say something like “Because of your support these are the amazing things that you have helped us to accomplish…” then…
Summarize your milestones
Hit a few high points that demonstrate the full breadth of your organization. Be sure that you include accomplishments from a range of programs and not just one of your service areas.
Invite them to learn more
Let them know where they can find the details of your financials and see how contributions are helping your cause deliver its mission. This is a great place to link to your annual report, include a copy if you are communicating by post, or review one together if you are speaking face-to-face.
Thank them again for asking and re-mention that your cause wouldn’t be where it is today with out the support and contributions of people like them.
It can be unnerving to be suddenly faced with this kind of question. To keep the adrenaline in check take a deep breath and recognize that it’s a big question that doesn’t have a 140 character, perfect-for-social-media, sound byte answer. Use your best judgment and take the time you need in responding. The more constructive conversations you have will help people understand the complexity of your cause and the impact they can have through their support.
Oh, and if you do need a short and sweet social media answer, take this one out for a spin –
Thanks for asking! Check out our report that shows how contributions from supporters like you help us do great work. [insert your report URL here]
Now, go do great work!