Is overhead hijacking your impact?

Dan Pallotta
Man on a mission to get us over overhead.

Phil Buchanan, President of the Center for Effective Philanthropy, issued a rather scathing review of Dan Pallotta’s new book, Charity Case.

This is the latest in what is an ongoing debate about overhead.

What is overhead anyway? We throw this term around but are we clear on what it means?

According to Wikipedia, the “term overhead is usually used when grouping expenses that are necessary to the continued functioning of the business but cannot be immediately associated with the products or services being offered (e.g., do not directly generate profits)…Overhead expenses include accounting fees, advertisingdepreciation,insuranceinterest, legal fees, rent, repairs, supplies, taxes, telephone bills, travel expenditures, and utilities.”

You can see why donors really want you to make the case for contributing to boring stuff like insurance and supplies. Who wants their donation going to yawners like that?

We can educate donors until we’re blue in the face about why the lights, staples and post-it notes are all necessary parts of meeting our mission. But why not spend that time talking about impact instead of expenses? Tell a story of impact and then connect that impact back to the light switches, hosting fees, and telephones. Not the other way around.

Overhead is important. It’s necessary. We can’t operate without it. But don’t let it hijack your story. 

Your story is about impact. Not your income statement.



Maximizer: a very important non-word

Maximizer isn't in the dictionary.It turns out that “maximizer” isn’t an official, Old English Dictionary-approved word. This is weird to me.

The people I know in the iSector--or social good space or for cause or whatever else you call it–are full-on, all-out maximizers. If we’re not trying to maximize our impact–our collective shot at making the world a better place–then what are we doing?

Based on a quick Internet search, it appears that a tanning product is the world’s foremost “impact maximizer”. This is more than a little discouraging. You and I are in the presence of people who maximize impact for a living and yet it’s a tanning product that gets all the glory.

I’m pretty sure the world will end up a better place if “maximizer” becomes synonymous with “someone who maximizes impact to make the world a better place” instead of “something that does a good job of tanning my skin.”  So I don’t care that “maximizer” isn’t technically a word. I’m still going to use it.  To seal the deal, I added it to the Claxon Lexicon. (Take that, OED!)


Dreaming of words

A few weeks ago, I wrote about dreaming in action, about how ‘dream’ is both a noun and a verb. I encouraged us all to live our dreams every day. It was lofty, existential stuff.

This week, I’ve been dreaming about words. That’s right. Words. More precisely, I’ve dreaming about a day when the English language would catch up with the awesomeness that is the work being done every day to make the world a better place.

As readers of this blog know, I’ve long dreamed of a day when we in the non-profit world would define ourselves by what we are versus what we are not. That dream turned into an experiment in crowdsourcing an alternative to the word ‘non-profit. (Non-profit meaning non-progress, after all. Ew!)

But I’m also dreaming about other words. We talk about mission and cause and impact and inspiration and that’s all important. The problem is they’ve all been used so much that they’re losing their meaning. They might, gulp, end up on Big Duck’s Words to Avoid List!

It’s not that they’re bad words. It’s that they’ve become blah. Sort of like ‘innovative technology solution’. (What is that anyway?! As opposed to, what, an un-innovative technology solution?) I’m dreaming of infusing those words with vim and vigor so they get your blood pumping and your heart racing. They need to be resuscitated or replaced.

Am I whining? Yeah, a little bit. I admit it. (And as I say to my kids, “I don’t speak whine.”)

So instead of whining, I’ll redirect my energy toward something more positive and productive–scouring the globe for words that do justice to the work of  all the hard-working people who are making the world a better place.

So tell us: what words do your work justice?


The iSector: Are you in?

Non-profit organization - word cloud illustrationDepending on where you live, you may call them non-profits, not-for-profits, or non-governmental organizations (NGOs). These organizations educate kids, fight for justice, feed the hungry, house the homeless, eradicate poverty, protect our planet, fuel the arts, nurture our spirits, find cures for cancer and generally do everything in their power to make our world a better place. And yet, we define them by what they are not.

If you look at the Latin root of the word profit, it means either ‘progress’ or ‘advance’.  At what point did we decide it was okay to be defined as the ‘non-progress’ sector when the whole point of what we do is to make progress?!

And there’s more: the term ‘non-profit’ refers to donor profit, not organizational profit. It is about the individual impact on the person making the gift, i.e. the donor is foregoing personal profit by giving money to a charitable, tax-exempt organization.

At what point did we transfer a reference to impact on individual tax returns and bank accounts to the impact of the sector?

At what point did we confuse one individual foregoing personal benefit with millions of organizations creating community benefit? At what point did we decide it was okay to define ourselves by an erroneous and unrelated marker—profit—instead of by what we are?

What’s in a name?
If individual organizations were to name themselves by the opposite of their intent—e.g. Divided Way, Badwill Industries, Nature Destroyer—we’d think they were crazy.  Yet we refer to an entire sector by the opposite of its intent.

If the sector shouldn’t be named for what it’s not doing and/or for an erroneous reference to individuals deciding to ‘not profit’ from a donation, what should it be named?

As with all else, it should have a name that reflects what makes it truly unique, by what distinguishes it, by what piece of mental real estate it will occupy in people’s brains, by its most compelling attributes.

In this case, we should name it: the iSector.

The iSector’s Five ‘I’s

Why the iSector? The ‘i’ captures its essence and most compelling characteristics, all of which start with an ‘i’.

With its intrepid spirit, the iSector inspires innovation and investment that leads to impact.

Let’s unpack that, shall we?

INTREPID: Honestly, if you look at what the iSector takes on—poverty, sustainability, education, homelessness, health care, arts, athletics, Alzheimer’s, malaria, and polio just to  name a few—it boggles the mind. Only those with “resolute fearlessness, fortitude and endurance” would go there. It is the intrepid spirit of those drawn to the sector that sparks and sustains the work.

INSPIRES:  The volunteer who patiently teaches a six year old to read inspires.  The donor who believes cancer can be conquered inspires.  The board that enthusiastically launches an audacious capital campaign inspires. The organization that believes art is a right not a privilege inspires. The foundation that believes we can eradicate malaria inspires. And it goes without saying, but is worth saying anyway, that this work is inspired by individuals who deserve equal access to a better life, a better future, a better world.

To be clear, I’m not saying the iSector is all rainbows, flowers and unicorns. Solving intractable problems is tough and we don’t always get it right. Sometimes we get it flat out wrong. However, this contributes to the sector’s inspirational nature—there are rarely easy answers, straight-forward solutions or obvious wins. And yet we are undeterred. That’s inspiring.

INNOVATION: This word gets tossed around a lot, so much so that it has almost lost its meaning. The technical definition is “the introduction of something new”. That doesn’t quite seem to do it justice, particularly when you look at it in the context of the iSector where innovation has as much to do with adaptation and experimentation, as creation.  Regardless, “Nobody innovates when they’re fat and sassy, “ as Kenneth Foster, Executive Director of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts put it. And although the iSector might have a little sass, there’s nothing fat about it. Resting on your laurels isn’t acceptable. And so, we innovate. Not on occasion but all the time. It is part of our rhythm. A daily occurrence, rather than a rare occasion. It may not always look or feel innovative in the moment, but when you add it up, it most definitely is. We innovate with purpose whether on purpose or not. That purpose is to create greater impact.

INVESTMENT: To fuel inspiration and innovation that leads to impact, we must invest in organizations and individuals. The organizations need the resources to not just do the work, but to do it well. The iSector—and those who benefit from the work—need the very best that we have to offer, not the bare minimum. Investments of money, time, capital, commitment, passion, energy, connections—this is what we need to do what we need to do.

IMPACT: When you take the intrepid spirit and couple it with the inspiration, innovation and investment, you get impact. Impact that is felt by individuals, organizations, neighborhoods, communities, cities, states, countries, and continents. Across oceans and Internet connections. Much of it you can quantify. Some of it you can’t. However you measure it, the iSector’s impact is undeniable. Is it enough? No. Can we do more? Yes. (This is where you come in.)

The iSector has nothing to do with tax status. It’s not about whether you work for a 501c3, an LLC, or a publicly traded company. It is about a mindset. It is about admitting that how we have been doing things has gotten us far, but not far enough. It is about taking a risk. It is about taking a stand, a stand that says: Now is the time to do more, even if we have to do it with less. Now is the time to take everything we’ve got and apply it in ways that we never thought possible. Now is the time to take our intrepid spirits and inspire innovation and investment that leads to impact—huge, unprecedented, unimaginable impact.

The iSector already exists. The question is: are you part of it?

[Shout-outs: Unlike most of my posts, this one was awhile in the making and has a special place in my heart. I wanted the following people to know how much I appreciate their passion, smarts and support.  (alpha by first name) Alison Carl White, Carrie Zanger, Dana Robinson Slote, Dana Van Nest, Erin Hertel, Gloria Jordan, Heather Hill, Lenora Edwards, Lindsay Bealko,  Peg Giffels, Peter Drury, Scott Allard, Shanon Doolitte, Susan Howlett, and Zan McColloch-Lussier.]

Do you communicate as effectively as you think?


Do you communicate as effectively as you think?