Donors' reliance on accounting measures of efficiency and the frustration it creates among nonprofit leaders seem to permeate most discussions about how to improve the nonprofit sector. Now over a year old, the Overhead Myth campaign continues to provide hope to those in the sector seeking to convince donors to happily fund administrative and fundraising costs. Despite the optimism, recent evidence seems to confirm that the attention donors pay to so-called "overhead" costs isn't going anywhere.
Notably, a study recently published in Science showed that a simple way of increasing donations is to ensure and communicate that overhead costs have already been paid by another donor so that any donations the solicitation recipient makes are "overhead-free". In fact, the study showed that this approach boosts giving even more than securing a matching gift. The study underscores the emphasis that donors place on assurances that they are funding programs, not overhead. Yet, many have viewed this study as painting a picture of donors being driven by the heart instead of the head, showing that donors don't care about how much overhead a charity has but rather only care about a feeling that their donation counts. As examples, Vox reports the study as providing evidence donors don't view overhead as inefficient but just want want the "warm, fuzzy feeling" that their donation went to services, and Brady Josephson's Huffington Post blog post declares it as evidence that donors "care more about how they feel when they give than how organizations spend their money."
To me, the evidence is not necessarily that donors are irrationally following their heart, but rather could indicate donors are being particularly rational. To elaborate, if one thinks in terms of costs of making a new product or product line, Econ 101 tells us that that the relevant cost to pay attention to is the marginal cost of production, not the average cost. It is no secret that accounting reports provide average cost information, not marginal cost, so a savvy decision-maker needs to consider if and how those numbers may differ. The same holds with nonprofit accounting. Accounting estimates of the percentage of expenses going toward programs may give donors a sense of the average use of donations, but again the relevant calculation to a savvy donor is instead one of the marginal use of a donation. In this case, the fact that donors highly value a nonprofit who can ensure that the marginal use of a donation is 100% on programs may simply indicate that donors who find overhead distasteful are being entirely rational.
In other words, while it seems to have become the norm to assume that donors make poor and irrational decisions based on accounting reports, perhaps it is worth considering the possibility that donors are more savvy than many are willing to admit.