The seductiveness of overhead rates

As you saw yesterday, I’m partly biased on the issue of overhead rates, because I’m professionally overhead.

However, overhead ratios are not just a suboptimal way of evaluating charities.  If that were the case, you could say stand them being part of the mix as people evaluate nonprofits.  In reality, they are actively negative ways of evaluating nonprofits — to a point, the nonprofits that do the “worst” on overhead are actually better and more effective organizations.  They avoid the starvation cycle outlined in Gregory and Howard’s article and are investing enough to build the infrastructure of a vital, vibrant organization.  

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Credit to DNA Creative Communications

Additionally, consideration of overhead crowds out consideration how much impact a nonprofit is having.  Leaving aside for the moment the obsession with overhead that caused Charity Navigator to rate an active scam of a cancer charity with three starsthere is research to bolster this negative impact of overhead.

The journal Judgement and Decision Making called this the evaluability bias: people look for and want one easy number that tells them how good something is.  They found that when people are presented with a charity, they look for a low overhead rate and value it for its own sake.  However, when presented with two charities and both overhead and effectiveness ratings, they valued effectiveness over overhead ratios.  This means that people actually care more about whether a charity is effective or not at what they are trying to do.

In other words, they look at overhead ratios because they are easy, not because they are good.  

One is reminded of the man who is looking for his car keys under a streetlight.  A policeman comes over and asks what the man is doing.  After the explanation, they both look under the streetlight together. After a few minutes the policeman asks if he is sure he lost them here, and the guy replies “No, I lost them in the park.”

“So why are you searching here?”

“Because this is where the light is.”

Part of the obsession with overhead rates is because Americans believe nonprofits spend far more on overhead than they do.  This is no doubt spurred by news stories about the grossest abuses of nonprofit status and, because we can remember these, the availability bias kicks in.  We forget that the reason that the story is news is that it is the exception and not the rule.

Part of this obsession is self-inflicted.  We nonprofits are the ones who talk about how XX cents out of every dollar goes to the mission and not about how giving to others is life-affirming and one of the most powerful positive things about being human.  We plant trees so that those who come after us can sit in shade.  It’s a beautiful thing with real impacts, cheapened by a discourse of whether you spend 6.2% or 6.7% on administrative costs.

And part of it is that overhead ratings and discussions of CEO compensation are baked into some “charity watchdogs.”  I’ll cover Charity Navigator and their hypocrisy on overhead ratios tomorrow.

The seductiveness of overhead rates

The human face of overhead

I am overhead.  And I have been overhead for over eight years now.

I’ve been in charge of a direct marketing program.  I’ve participated in our board meetings, managed staff, and written fundraising strategies.

If you care whether you accidentally get two of a communication or not, that’s me.  I helped set up the database systems for our organization, set deduplication criteria, and worked to make sure our fundraising and outreach efforts run smoothly.

All of these are overhead.

When someone says they want to fund a mission or a cause, but not the overhead that goes along with it, they think they mean that they want to make sure nonprofit executives don’t fly to Gstaad on their private G6s.  

emirates-executive-lounge-area

Probably not the local homeless shelter’s board meeting. (Image credit)

What they actually mean, whether they realize it or not, is that they prefer that I and thousands of other people who work for nonprofits don’t exist.  No lawyers to sign our leases, defend our copyrights, and review our contracts.  No finance operations to make sure that every donor dollar is spent in accordance with policy and that all of the books balance.  No one on the other end of the phone to take a donation and talk with you about your monthly gift.  And no mail piece to ask you to give; you’ll just come to the Web site and do that on your own, right?  Not really, because Web software to accept and process donations is also overhead.

Not only do we need these, we want these (or, at least, we should).  Stanford Social Innovation Review said that nonprofits aren’t investing enough in these things and, as a result, are getting subpar results.

We transcend lean and mean; we are now emaciated and ticked off.

There are some lights in the wilderness.  The Ford Foundation, realizing that 10% was too little for overhead on its projects, has raised their limit to 20% And the initiative for the Overhead Myth is gaining some steam (although the irony of Charity Navigator being involved will be discussed later in the week).

But this is something we must address together.  As Ben Franklin said, “we must hang together or we will most assuredly hang separately.”

That’s why, even though they may work, I strongly encourage to remove your Charity Navigator four-star rating as a false badge of honor and for you to stop talking about the percent of your dollars that go toward your mission.  All of your dollars go toward your mission.  Some of them just take longer to get there.

The human face of overhead

Influence in direct marketing: authority at work

I debated whether to do this one.  I have a bit of an anti-authority, and a definite anti-authoritarian, streak.  When you read about authority as a form of influence, you can delve into some very dark parts of what it is to be human.  There are famous Milgram experiments, where people generally gave shocks to a test subject to the point that the person would be in severe pain or dead just because they were told to.  And the Stanford prison experiments show “absolute power corrupts absolutely” isn’t just an aphorism to be stitched onto the world’s most off-putting throw pillow.

But authority is a form of influence.  And it’s one that nonprofits can and should wield.  After all, quite frequently, nonprofits are experts within their own realms and those with great expertise serve on their boards and as volunteers.

Testimonials in various forms can help validate your nonprofit in the minds of your supporters.  Some of that, as mentioned earlier in the week, can and should be from individuals who support your individuals as close to your target audience as possible.  But an authority pitch, with external validators, can be helpful as well.

So can burnishing your credentials.  One test to run online is whether an online security badge can increase your donation form activations (sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t).  A seal from the BBB can likewise be tested (just don’t use your Charity Navigator perfect score – that isn’t a badge of honor).

Talking about influential donors can also help.  Dean Karlan and John List did a study that found two things.  The first, no surprise, was that a matching gift increases response rates.  The second was that identifying the matching donor as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (versus an anonymous matching donor) increased response rates by over 20%.  This effect also lasted past the matching period, which is unusual for often ephemeral nonprofit solicitation.

This would tend to indicate that the Gates authority is rubbing off on the nonprofit they are supporting and that their authority is a signifier for other donors.  Celebrities can also be a nice validator for certain audiences.

Finally, a successful authority technique that I’ve seen is to send copies of positive editorials or stories about a nonprofit’s impact to donors.  It’s one thing for a nonprofit to tell you how great they are and how great you are for making their work possible.  It’s another thing for an unbiased external source validating your choice in cause.

So that’s authority.  I hope you’ll join us for the scarcity discussion tomorrow.  It’s the last in the influence series, so you’ll want to be sure to read it.

(Yes, of course I planned the scarcity post as the last one.  Why do you ask?)

Influence in direct marketing: authority at work

Setting your direct marketing budget anti-goals

Yesterday, I argued that the three things that matter in your budget are net revenue, file/program health, and cross channel/multichannel/omnichannel health (how much are you contributing to other fundraising and non-fundraising efforts.

That ignores some key traditional metrics.  And that’s intentional.  Here’s why:

Costs.  Many nonprofits look to minimize their overall costs (and believe you me, I have seen some nonprofits transcend lean and mean and become emaciated and ticked off).  But this is a fallacy in direct marketing.

Let’s picture direct marketing once again as if it were a magic box that you put costs into and got revenue out of.

If an additional $100 in the magic box brings you an additional $150 in revenue today, you should do that.  That’s covered by net revenue.

If an additional $100 in the magic box brings you an extra $200 next year, you should do that (unless you are in a hyperinflationary market).  That’s covered by program health.

If an additional $100 in the magic box brings you an additional .5% chance of a $100,000+ bequest (crosschannel health), you should do that.  That’s covered by crosschannel health.

The problem with overall cost as something you look to minimize is that it could ignore these three investment opportunities.  Don’t do that.

Gross revenue.  If the impacts on file and crosschannel health were the same, would you rather spend $2 million to make $4 million or $3 million to make $5 million?  Clearly the former, as you can getting more return on your investment.

Yet some nonprofits have a goal of “we will increase our revenues to X” instead of “we will increase our revenues to Y, net of direct marketing costs.”  The former gives an incentive to overspend at the expense of net revenue, program health, and crosschannel health.

This is yet another reason why Charity Navigator’s financial rates are so very, very flawed and actively counterproductive.  They have cost of fundraising in their model so that a 10% drop in ROI could cost you 2.5 points (out of 100 (actually 70 because they spot you 30 points)).

However, if that turns your organization into one that is growing substantially in income and program expenses as a result, instead of shrinking, you get an additionally 20 points (because revenue growth and program expense growth are two 10 points categories.  This is why Charity Navigator rated an active cancer charity scam three stars – because it was growing.  If you doubt me, here’s their rating from the handy dandy Internet archive.

Conversely, a charity that has encountered tough times will get zero points out of ten on both of these growth indicators, giving them two stars on financials or less, hurting that struggling charity in its efforts to work its way out of the hole.  I will at some point dedicate a week to the perverse incentives of Charity Navigator, which sets itself up as a watchdog but instead chews up your shoes and poops on your carpet.

Return on investment is important.  But it should be strived for, not budgeted for.  Later this week, you’ll see why, as we look to get to our optimal program.

So tomorrow, I’ll talk about the nuts and bolts of budgeting and some pitfalls to watch out for.

Setting your direct marketing budget anti-goals

Why do people stop giving?

This has, unlike so much in the fundraising realm, been objectively researched and I commend the paper to you.

This paper tested six attributes of connection between people and causes they support.  Guess which ones actually mattered to donor loyalty (I am paraphrasing their points somewhat):

  • The nonprofit shares my beliefs
  • I have a personal link to the cause
  • The nonprofit’s performance is strong
  • I trust the organization
  • I have a deeper knowledge of the organization
  • The quality of the donor services they provide me is high

A hint: four of these matter; two don’t. I’ll pause here why you contemplate.

(pause)

I’m Henry the 8th I am.  Henry the 8th I am I am.  I got married to the widow next door.  She’s been married seven times before and all of them were named Henry – HENRY.  Henry the 8th I am.

Second verse!  Same as the first!  Little bit faster and a little bit worse!

henry the eighth2
Does anyone else find it weird that in this “romantic” movie, he got his first date with his wife by aurally torturing her. Stalker much? (Also, this is Ghost for you young’uns.)

Oh, you’re back.

The four that were important were:

  • The nonprofit shares my beliefs – One of the key drivers of giving and support is the desire to be a part of something bigger than yourself. Knowing the organization is like you and has a similar core system to you is vital.  This is something you can use in your writings – “You know how vital art instruction in elementary school is to raising creative, happy, and well-rounded children and that’s why we…”
  • I have a personal link to the cause – Not surprising. Those impacted by a disease, an injustice, a crime, a whatever, are going to likely be among the strongest to support a cause about these things.  The next step, however, is not done often enough – you often can see a significant retention lift if you can reference this: “You know better than most the heavy toll of…”  Beyond this, if appropriate for your cause, work with those who have a personal link to the cause to celebrate this.  Techniques like anniversary cards (congratulations on three years cancer-free today!) can work well, but more than that, peer-to-peer fundraising can allow a person to celebrate those anniversaries on their own behalf.  You cannot craft a message better than: “I believe in X because of Y. Because you are a person like me, please support X also.”
  • I trust the organization. Trust is, I would argue, a necessary but not sufficient condition of support. No one who does not trust you will support you.  You can borrow trust with social proof techniques like the BBB seal on your donation form, but generally, running a tight ship nonprofit is sufficient.
  • The quality of the donor services they provide me is high. Another necessary but not sufficient condition.  In my experience, a good donor relations person can help turn around a less positive donor experience more easily than trust can be repaired, but it’s important to treat the people who help you serve people well. This starts with customization and if you missed the initial post on this, here it is.  Letting the donor know you know them is critical to quality donor services.

The converse of these is what causes people to lapse: if they no longer trust you, they think you share their values, their link to the cause is diminished or severed, or have a bad donor experience, they are more likely to not give in the future.

What of the two that don’t matter?  Performance of the nonprofit is what the Charity Navigators of the world attempt to quantify, first by pretending that percent of overhead means anything to impact, second by feigning that checkboxes around transparency mean someone is active in their community, and now with Charity Navigator 3.0, which has non-subject-matter experts reviewing the statements of subject matter experts to gauge impact and achieving the same level of impact as me commenting on neurosurgical techniques. It turns that those who can’t don’t teach; they rate.

It’s this type of performance that doesn’t seem to matter as much to loyalty.  People give to something because it feels good to give – to plant the tree whose shade you may never enjoy.  Getting into performance and numbers and such can sap the joy from the process.  Or at least that’s my theory on what that didn’t rate.

As for depth of education, it’s great to educate the people who actively want to learn more about your cause.  Donor telephone town halls, reports back, impact statements and the like are all good ways to do this.  But so much of education from nonprofits comes from the false belief that “if only people really understood the problem, then more of them would give.”  In fact, it’s probably that curse of knowledge I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that makes you speak in buzzwords and feel like you can educate the passion into someone.  A story, told well, means far more.

So now you know a little about why people lapse.  And it should be no surprise that retention is worst after the first gift.  There isn’t a built up trust.  There may or may not be a connection to the nonprofit (and if there is, the nonprofit may not know about it yet).  Communications haven’t been established and you haven’t told the donor the great things they did with that first gift yet.

Increasing that percentage of second gifts is the biggest area for almost any retention effort.  So I’ll cover that tomorrow.

Why do people stop giving?

Your first acquisition mailings

The first thing to know is that mail programs will generally lose money initially. Even if you have great donors and good packages at first, the cost of growing the program will likely outstrip the benefits of running it at first, especially because there are significant fixed costs in the mailing space (e.g., it costs just as much to copywrite a letter than does to 100 people as it does one that goes to 100,000).

Acquisition is where you can get into serious money. Acquisition is designed to lose money for all but the most (absurdly) conservative organization. It’s an investment in bringing new people into the organization and getting them to support you financially. Yet, it’s necessary to start to build your file and lower your marginal costs.

One way to do acquisition on the cheap is with warm and conversion leads. Warm leads are people who have engaged with your organization non-financially (e.g., remember those folks we got to download our white paper last week and give us their contact info?); conversion leads are people who have donated, but not through the mail (e.g., online donors, walkers, gala attendees, etc.). These are inexpensive ways to get new donors, as you don’t have to pay list rental fees.

The other way to get names is, not surprisingly, to pay list rental fees. Try to find organizations like yours to test their lists – often people who support an environmental/cultural/health/etc. charity support many of them. It’s much easier to convince someone to support something very like what they already support.

It also behooves you to put your list up for rental/exchange as well. This will lower your list costs because you will be trading lists with some nonprofits instead of renting theirs.

Charity Navigator will ding you for having a privacy policy that allows this, even if you allow people to opt out of list rental/exchange at any time. Like so many things in the nonprofit world, Charity Navigator is wrong about this. They would recommend, in fact, that you not mail your donors because of the cost involved and because they don’t believe that part of the mailing is a program expense designed to educate your supporters about your issue and promote awareness. That said, if you took the same mail piece and gave it out at a walk instead of putting a stamp on it, it could be considered almost entirely a program expense.

If this doesn’t seem burdened by an overabundance of logic, you would be correct. Generally, you would do well to take a George Costanza approach to Charity Navigator and simply “do the opposite” of their guidance.

In addition to rental and exchange markets, you can also work with cooperatives to get additional names. These coops include Abacus, Dataline, Datalogix, DonorBase, I-Behavior, Target Analytics and Wiland. I think I’ve tried almost all of these at some time or another. These coops share names among them and will build a model of response to get the best possible donor lists for your organization. Think of it as not renting from 10 different lists, but rather getting the best from 20 different lists. Some work better for some organizations than others and it may take a few to get it right.

The downside here is that your best names will start to get mail from a lot of different organizations. On the flipside, you have access to the best quality names from other organizations. Be sure to hold out part of your file to determine the impact of this mailing structure on your file.

After you look at your first bill for an acquisition and regain consciousness, you will rediscover the value of warm leads. Just because you started a paid mail program doesn’t mean that the free tips discussed earlier, especially about working to turn your Web site into a constituent generator, don’t still apply. On the contrary, free is often the best possible price. Adding to the original thoughts, now that you’ve run a program, look at lapsed donors as another source of (re)acquisition. Generally speaking, lapsed donors once renewed will be more loyal to your organization than an outside acquired name and they generally acquire more inexpensively.

So far, I’ve been talking about mailings – online and off – as one size fits all. In reality, if time and money were no objects, each communication you would send out would be handcrafted and uniquely personalized and there would be bespoke artisanal direct mail pieces coming out of Brooklyn and Portland in lavender scented envelopes.

In truth, you aim for something in the middle using customization. That will be the topic for the rest of the week.

Your first acquisition mailings