B.J. Rogers: Overhead-motivated cliche insulting to nonprofits

Editor’s note: This commentary is by B.J. Rogers, of Austin, Texas, formerly of Colchester. He is the former director of the Humane Society of Chittenden County.

Bill Schubart makes several compelling points in his piece about the need for nonprofit organizations to adapt and adjust to the conditions created by the pandemic. I take issue, however, with several tired talking points that only further the challenges faced by groups working hard to provide social good and spur social change. 

The piece highlights well the ways organizations might work to increase impact and address the age-old battle for limited resources (namely, funding). What gets missed are the meaningful distinctions between — and distinct needs for — both organizations pursuing social good and those working for social change. A food pantry provides social good — critical resources for people who are experiencing food insecurity. An economic justice or anti-poverty organization works to address root causes that lead to conditions like food insecurity. That’s social change. Are those efforts related? Absolutely. Are they the same and could they/should they be under one organizational “roof”? Maybe — but also maybe not. Both are critical to creating a more just and livable world. While one meets an immediate need — and one that can be met — right now (as too many children and families are going hungry), the other is playing a longer game, tackling policy issues, transforming hearts and minds, and bringing awareness and action to inequity and disparity. I’ve encountered more than a few organizations attempting to deliver on both direct service and social change. I’ve seen few do these very different types of work equally well. 

Twice in the piece, the old “overhead” chestnut rears its head. In one case suggesting, “Vermont’s best nonprofits are mission-driven, not ego- or overhead-driven.” I agree with two-thirds of the assertion … sort of. First, I’d argue that organizations should actually be purpose driven. A mission is WHAT an organization exists to do — a purpose is WHY they exist to do it (i.e. what they believe). If your why is clearly articulated and shared, your what can adapt and change with the times. You could call this semantics, but I think words matter and, from what I know of Schubart’s work, I know he does too. 

I agree that nonprofits shouldn’t be ego-driven (though more in the private sector would do well to consider the same mandate). I’m confused though by what “overhead-driven” means. And I take offense to the latter assertion that “more organizational resources [should] fund mission rather than simply the human and physical overhead.” Simply? What are these organizations if not the humans — the hearts, minds, and hands — who power them? The persistent anti-overhead drumbeat is insulting to our country’s millions of dedicated — and oft underpaid — nonprofit professionals providing the very safety net our communities rely on. It also misrepresents the genuine needs organizations have for safe and productive work spaces and for the pens, paper, computers, internet service, and other necessities that make work (and change) possible — not to mention health insurance, modest time off, nor … dare I suggest … retirement plans. We expect nonprofits to be increasingly innovative, adaptable, and results-based/research-informed. We should; they must earn and maintain social and community trust and convincingly make their case for support. But this outdated and over-simplified chant of lower overhead puts leaders in positions of cutting things like professional development, employee benefits, and even more essential components that make the work impactful — as well as rewarding, fulfilling, and economically viable for those doing it. Find me an executive director who says they’ve never felt pressure to tuck expenses into “program” to lower their “overhead” percentage and I’ll find you a pair of fingers crossed behind their back to protect from their fib. 

Lastly, I lament the equally tired notion that “the goal of a social-service nonprofit should be to put itself out of business.” Arts organizations provide social services. As do nonprofit hospitals and educational organizations. And those clean water organizations. Do we really want the Flynn Center to put itself out of business? Do we want reliable resources for people in need — like a humane society or LGBTQ youth-organization — to disappear? Do we want the dying and their families — because people will always die — to lose the care hospice provides? I get the assertion — our work should be to make such measurable and sustainable change as to eliminate the necessity for food pantries, homeless shelters, anti-discrimination efforts and environmental cleanup. Everyone should have food to eat, a safe place to lay their head, and access to clean water. We should aspire to that day and fight for those things. Urgency matters, AND the idea that these organizations should be relevant only until the world is perfect sits on a flawed premise — that perfect is possible. And that’s just what the “out-of-business” mindset does. 

I’ve spent my adult life in the nonprofit sector, as an executive director, a fundraiser, and an educator — almost all in Vermont. I’ve lacked access to employer-sponsored retirement plans, had costly health care “benefits,” and have been mostly underpaid. Today I’m grateful to be well-paid. But my health insurance is expensive, I have no access to a 401(k) or other retirement plan, and I had to look for out-of-state work to grow in my field. I’ve been asked — repeatedly — when explaining to people what I do (whether in LGBTQ advocacy, child/family services, or animal welfare) if my work was full time. Or even paid. People have been astounded that I might make a living doing such work. In fairness, sometimes I barely have. Still, I’m deeply grateful to each organization I’ve had the privilege of working for — and to the donors who’ve made that work possible and the people who power the cause and engage the services. As long as we continue, though, to perpetuate the idea of rampant out-of-control overhead and the mandate of self-extinction, nonprofit professionals and the organizations and causes they serve, will continue to be under-resourced and unable to rise to the very challenges Schubart details.


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