The Overhead Myth and the Bridge to Nowhere

26 Jun

The AICPA (American Institute of Certified Public Accountants) held its annual National Not-for-Profit Industry Conference last week in Washington, DC.  About 2,000 accountants from around the country selected from among approximately 60 sessions during the two-day conference.

In the afternoon of the second day there was a 75 minute session titled “What the Watchdogs are Watching.”  The featured speakers were Ken Berger from Charity Navigator and Art Taylor from BBB Wise Giving.

The timing of this session and the appearance of Berger and Taylor was fortuitous as it came just days after the release of their already infamous joint letter, written with Guidestar, entitled “The Overhead Myth.”  This letter is the latest salvo in the war against so-called overhead ratios to determine the effectiveness of nonprofit organizations.

There is much wrong with overhead ratios that I am not going to get into here.  Readers of my blog already know where I stand on this issue.  By chance, I posted my blog entitled “WHEN COMMON SENSE IS NOT SO COMMON: How misusing accounting data can lead one astray” just one day before The Overhead Myth letter was released.

In terms of full disclosure I should say that Dan Pallotta’s book, “Uncharitable,” is required reading for our staff and a copy is given to every new hire.  The book is also required reading for a class I teach at the Fels Institute of Government at the University of Pennsylvania.

What I found particularly interesting at the AICPA conference was not anything that Berger and Taylor had to say in their session (I don’t think they said anything that was not already in the public domain).  What was striking to me was the dearth of discussion during the rest of the two-day AICPA conference about what the overhead myth implies for the accounting community and the relevance of accounting standards for the nonprofit world.

To be clear, several of the conference sessions I attended during the conference mentioned The Overhead Myth letter.  I would say that the accounting community, or at least the session presenters, was by and large very familiar with the letter’s release.

But while the letter was mentioned and briefly discussed at several sessions, what was missing was any recognition (at least in the sessions I attended) of what the letter implies for the accounting world.

Specifically:  if overhead percentages are, in the words of the overhead myth letter, “a poor measure of a charity’s performance,” what does this imply about the countless hours of work spent by accountants at nonprofits everywhere, every day, developing the functional expense numbers that the ratios are based on?

If the information is a poor measure of a charity’s performance, are we all wasting our time developing poor information?

Are GAAP and IRS rules that require the reporting of functional expense information (i.e. program, fundraising, and management expenses)  irrelevant at best, and, at worst, not only a waste of time, but a misleading means by which to allocate scarce public resources among nonprofit organizations?

To put it another way, if accountants are building a bridge to nowhere, what does this imply about the time, money, and effort spent to build the bridge, and what does it portend for the travelers forced onto the bridge only to find it is leading them astray?

Comments welcome.

Eric Fraint, President and Founder
Your Part-Time Controller, LLC

2 Responses to “The Overhead Myth and the Bridge to Nowhere”

  1. Aileen Boyce June 26, 2013 at 12:08 PM #

    Dear Eric,

    As a Business Manager/ Accountant for a nonprofit organization, I read the letter and had a different “take” on it. The functional expense percentages are a helpful analytical tool, however they do not measure the effectiveness of the nonprofit. In my opinion the authors pointed to the fact that the overhead percentage, while not irrelevant, does not measure effectiveness. Additional analytical tools are needed to measure outcomes.

    Thank you,

    Aileen Boyce


    • Eric Fraint June 26, 2013 at 1:40 PM #

      Thank you Aileen. I appreciate your comment.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: