Don’t villainize overhead costs for charities this Giving Tuesday

It goes without saying 2020 has been an eye-opening year. The proverbial curtain has been pulled back on everything from policing to social media, exposing the man — and in some cases, the monster — behind them.

As we head into the final month of this arduous yet awakening year, there remains one system still hidden behind societal assumptions and misunderstanding: the industry of non-profit and charitable organizations.

With the approach of Giving Tuesday — a charitable “holiday” following the highly commercial faux-holidays Black Friday and Cyber Monday — it is time to reveal the truth: this is an industry starved by good intentions.

On Tuesday, Dec. 1, charities and non-profits across the country will be asking you to shift your focus from saving big on kitchen appliances to helping save the world. And with anywhere from 20 to 30 per cent of all annual donations occurring in this final month of the year, this season of giving can truly make or break the charities we care about.

So, with charities competing harder than ever for your dollar — which was also likely harder to earn than usual — how will you determine which cause gets your support? Statistically speaking, second only to whether a cause is near and dear to your heart, you will likely look at the “efficiency” of an organization: how much of your donation goes directly to the cause, as opposed to being eaten up by marketing budgets or into the pockets of staff.

This is where we begin to peel back the curtain. In the non-profit and charitable industry, efficiency has long been synonymous with effectiveness. Finding metrics that quantify effective social change is challenging and costly. How does one quantify the impact an arts program has on at-risk youth, for example? However, saying “85 cents of every dollar donated will go directly to the cause” is much simpler. Thus, charities cut overhead costs (the costs associated with running an organization) to compete or even qualify for donations.

To be fair, it may seem logical that if you want to help end homelessness, as much money as possible should go into the pockets of people faced with homelessness. However, the concept of “going directly to the cause” is the most insidious in the industry as it implies that all other costs do not support the cause, and in fact, take away from it. As though having an experienced, highly qualified and well-trained team with a reliable internet connection takes away from the cause. As though marketing campaigns advertising charity missions do not bring in more donations. Unfortunately, you get what you pay for, and as a result the industry left in charge of solving our greatest social problems is understaffed, overworked, underpaid, outdated and probably working under a leaky ceiling.

On Cyber Monday, shoppers will not be buying smartphones based on company salary expenditures. Just as the average shopper does not know what it takes to design, produce, and market a smartphone, the average donor does not know what it takes to eradicate poverty. It is not our position as donors to determine how a charity fulfils its mission, but that we support that mission being fulfilled.

And that is exactly what a charity exists to do: to fulfil its social mission. And while we will readily allow corporations to freely invest in themselves to become successful organizations in their mission to generate profit, we need to empower charities to become successful organizations in fulfilling their missions to bring about social change. Being a successful organization requires sufficient staffing, experienced management, training, modern technology, innovation, marketing campaigns, data collection, desks to work at, roofs to work under, and so on — all which come at a cost which we must understand needs to be paid if we want to see these organizations succeed.

This Giving Tuesday, remember that it is not magic behind the curtain, but people and organizations working with as few resources as possible trying to bring about change. Destroy the stigma around overhead expenses, and if you can, donate directly to these wrongfully villainized costs.

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Arianna Hunter is the founder of Before Coffee, a social enterprise which seeks to share the importance of funding charity and non-profit overhead costs.

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