Donors Think What?!!!

I’m still shaking my head. I recently read the summary of findings by Grey Matter Research that reported on its research into Americans’ beliefs about overhead costs at nonprofits.

The findings were released a few months ago, but it’s very timely to think about them today as we are on the cusp of the final month of the year — a key fundraising time for most nonprofits.

If, as the findings indicate, the average donor thinks we spend 37 cents of every dollar on overhead, donors may think twice before making gifts to nonprofits they aren’t completely convinced are better than the rest. After all, donors like to believe that the charities they give to squeeze every last penny out of their donations to carry out their good work.

But clearly, donors aren’t reading our information closely enough to get the message. While many nonprofits spend 10, 15 or 20 cents of every dollar on overhead, this fact just isn’t being heard. So for the next four-and-a-half weeks, we have to work even harder to get the word out.

Whispering isn’t working; shout it out
Many e-mails tout great overhead rates but confine this information to the footer. And when was the last time you really read the footer of an e-mail? I know some of you do, but in this age of scanning instead of reading, it’s the big and bold messages that get read.

If you are testing e-mails and landing pages, test the prominence of your overhead rate. Try putting your great overhead rate in bold letters in a prominent spot. Move your pie chart up to the right of the opening paragraph. Position your fiscal responsibility as a benefit to your donors. See if making your fiscal thriftiness more obvious helps donors feel confident enough to give their gifts to you.

Pamela consults with nonprofits in the United States and internationally, helping them develop their fundraising strategy and writing copy to achieve their goals. Additionally she teaches fundraising at two universities, hoping to inspire the next generation of fundraisers to be passionate about the profession. Previously, Pamela led the fundraising programs for nonprofit organizations, getting hands-on experience in everything from direct mail to DRTV, and major gift solicitation to event management. Pamela is a CFRE, a graduate of Wheaton College (IL) and Dominican University, and has a Doctorate in Business Administration from California Southern University. Contact Pamela at or follow her on Twitter at @pjbarden.

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  • Tom Hurlley

    Playing the "low ovehead" card is dangerous. First, it begs the naive question of, "Why shouldn’t it be zero? I want ALL my money to save the children, etc etc." Second, because overhead is a term that many people just don’t understand, those who wish to do harm to non-profits always drag it out as a weapon. Just bringing up the subject raises suspicion, and we certainly don’t want to do that in a fundraising appeal. Finally, more sopisticated donors know that it is a game played among self-appointed watchdogs, regulators and creative accountants.
    The effectiveness of a chairity is what matters and it’s only peripherally linked to low overhead, making it a weak giving argument at best.