Charity Navigator Eases Pressure on Nonprofits to Show Minimal Overhead

starsA back-end change to the rating system metrics used by a watchdog organization for nonprofits may not sound like a big deal, or make for snazzy headlines. But the recent announcement by Charity Navigator that it is “upgrading” the way it evaluates charities and ultimately decides how many “stars” each one merits (one a one to four scale) represents a huge change in attitude, and one that will hopefully trickle down through the entire philanthropic community.

The main change to which I’m referring is in the way Charity Navigator will evaluate a nonprofit’s so-called “administrative expenses” going forward.

Currently, only charities that can claim to have no overhead expenses at all can earn Charity Navigator’s top score for that particular measurement, or ten points. Unless yours is an entirely volunteer-run organization, or never has to actually ask donors for financial support or hire people to handle accounting, development, or other management, that’s almost impossible to achieve.

Under Charity Navigator’s newly announced system, a nonprofit can score ten points if it comes within a given range of overhead expenses, taking into account the type of organization.

It’s a change that seems infinitely more realistic. For years, commentators have noted that, while excessive overhead may mean that someone is lining his or her pockets, some level of overhead is a necessary part of simply running an organization. (What for-profit corporation exists without management?!)

A quote in The York Times sums it up nicely: Elizabeth A.M. Searing, assistant professor at the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs & Policy at the University of Albany and a member of the Charity Navigator task force, explains that the change will make it easier for charities to avoid having to “starve themselves” so as not to appear as if they are spending excessively on overhead.