Overhead, referring to nonprofit overhead expenses, (also known as administrative costs or general operating expenses) is a common buzzword in grant writing — in fact, it’s often a bad word in any sort of fundraising, grant writing or otherwise.
General operating expenses: a necessary evil?
But general operating expenses continue to be one of the biggest fundraising challenges in nonprofit grant writing. Nonprofits often desperately need help funding administrative costs. Thus, they seek general operating grants or hold fundraisers and collect donations that help keep the lights on rather than funding direct services like programs. That’s the trouble. Overhead is taboo, but so necessary for the every day operations of any given nonprofit.
So what’s the ideal proportion of general operating expenses, or overhead, to program costs in a nonprofit budget? Everyone is seeking that magic number that will appear reasonable, efficient, and attainable. Nonprofits worry that if their overhead costs are too high, foundations won’t want to give them money. That is changing, slowly, but is still true in a lot of cases.
No magic number
The difficult thing is that there is no magic number across the board. Foundations don’t have a single industry standard percentage for nonprofit overhead. Some foundations, happily, will advertise what they see as an ideal ratio of general operating expenses to overall expenses. Other foundations look to rates set by the Better Business Bureau and Charity Navigator.
That’s unfortunate because every nonprofit operates a little differently. Some are run by volunteers and have little to no overhead expenses. Others may have a lot of general operating expenses for one reason or another. It’s simply impractical to apply a single standard to every single nonprofit out there.
More and more, nonprofits are trying to change the perception of overhead as taboo. Nonprofit employees deserve to be paid well, compensated fairly. They shouldn’t live in poverty because their chosen career is in the charity sector and charities should have tiny overhead budgets with low salaries.
More good news
The other good news is that more and more foundations are open to funding general operating expenses. It’s simply a matter of knowing where to look for these types of grants.
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