If you have ever donated to an organization or cause, you may have heard that healthy non-profits “keep their administrative costs low.” In other words, for your contribution to really create the change you wish to see in the world, it must only go to the projects or programs, not to the people running them.
This has long been considered the perspective of a “smart donor,” but in truth, this practice is harmful and destructive.
The most impactful donations don’t just support programs: they are given without strings to support general overhead like buying work computers; paying for health insurance and the salaries of staff members; and paying rent and utilities. Unrestricted funds are what allow organizations to have the time and space to dream, build, and implement new programs that continue to support our communities region-wide.
As an operating foundation, we’ve felt the pressure to try to keep our fundraising and administrative numbers as low as possible, because we know there are donors who believe the flawed narrative and think we are only doing a good job if our overhead is below 20 percent. So yes, it’s a system we’ve participated in. And we are done.
Our expense numbers have changed this year: our management costs increased from 3 to 11 percent of our total spending this year. This is, in large part, because we hired new staff and our work has expanded significantly, plus we are now the stewards of funds that are large enough to be landscape-altering for decades to come. Simply put, the work to support the movement has become more complicated and costly, and it takes more staff and more time to do it.
We are okay with that increase. Administrative expenses should not be kept artificially low because the important work of advocating and caring for our impacted communities can’t also be carried out off their backs. Placing restrictions on grants and donations means we and other nonprofits can’t pay fair wages, can’t care for ourselves and our families, and can’t take the time to build the community relationships that are so crucial to our work. And it forces nonprofits to engage in a perverse race to the bottom that leads to exploited workers, turnover and burnout, and ultimately, ineffective programs. It’s racist, classist, and signals a complete lack of trust.
Put simply, there is no program work without the staff members who carry it out — the staff organizing legal clinics for queer folks (shout out to Trans*Ponder!), or registering people to vote (we see you, Next Up!), or, in our case, supporting our grantees and communities. But there’s also a whole cast of other staff members who support that staff by raising enough money to pay their salaries and healthcare, actually getting the word out about those grant opportunities, and keeping track of financials to make sure everyone — grantees included — are paid on time.
Without a salary or healthcare, that staff member who organizes legal clinics will not be able to survive under capitalism, much less continue organizing clinics. The truth is that all of our work IS interconnected. We are not each discrete systems, we are an ecosystem that needs every other living being to fully thrive, and survive.
Long-lasting, systemic, community-led change — unlike charity — takes time, resources, patience, and above all, vision. It’s also the only thing that will result in a better world for everyone, today, tomorrow, and in years to come.