Telling The Story Of Your Overhead

Our friends at the Non-Profit Happy Hour Facebook group shared the Furniture Bank’s Charity Overhead Manifesto. In the post, the Furniture Bank talks about how much damage resistance to covering overhead can do to their programs.

We have heard many of these arguments before, but Furniture Bank takes the next necessary step of humanizing and discussing the impact of the work “overhead employees” perform.

The reason this is important is because it takes an abstract concept of overhead and specifically shows how overhead costs are manifested in the organization’s operations. Absent this specificity, it is easy to envision overhead going to senior administrator salaries or unsexy equipment and supplies like filing cabinets and copy paper. While this is inevitably the case to some degree, it isn’t the whole story.

This reminds us how important a compelling story can be. Furniture Bank lists what their overhead helps them accomplish:

  • Maintain, insure and run a fleet of 11 trucks, and a team of movers, picking up furniture from donors and delivering them to clients every day;
  • Employ 25-30 individuals each year who would otherwise face barriers to employment;
  • Pay market rent on a 30,000 Sq Ft client showroom;
  • Sustain an organization with 40 hardworking and big hearted employees who:
    • take orders,
    • track inventory,
    • book client appointments,
    • schedule and complete pickups & deliveries,
    • answer donor inquiries,
    • process donations,
    • ensure we have the right technology to run our operations, and
    • undertake the numerous other tasks that must occur every day to ensure that the community‚Äôs unwanted furniture goes directly to a family transitioning out of homelessness or displacement.

That format can be a little boring though. They also participate in the Charity Defense Council’s “I’m Overhead” campaign that has created images with Furniture Bank employees discussing what they do which end with a line about the impact they make, (you can see examples of the full ads on the Furniture Bank site.)

“My name is Miro Janes-Richardson. I make sure families have a place they can finally call home, and I’m overhead.”

My name is Yuri Hernandez. I make sure clients have the dignity of choice and don’t have to sleep on the floor, and I’m overhead.”

Miro is a truck crew leader and Yuri is a client services coordinator.

It may be difficult for arts organizations that don’t have a strong human services aspect to their operations to tell as compelling a story as these, but there are still opportunities to illustrate that staff help the organization be good stewards of donations.

For example:

“Do you recognize this flat? It has been in some of your favorite performances over the last five years including Dangerous Liaisons, Amadeus, A Raisin in the Sun and Christmas Carol. Here at the theater, we are great recyclers, repainting and repairing set piece dozens of times, extending their useful lives for years. This reduces our need to purchase lumber, which is good for the environment. But to make it happen, we need to store flats like this one and be clever about changing its appearance so you don’t recognize it when it appears again.

I am Steve and I work magic to make fake trees look real so that real trees can live, and I am overhead.

That five minutes of typing may not have resulted in the most compelling argument for theater operations, but you get the idea.

It isn’t just enough to tell people that they shouldn’t use overhead ratio as a measure of effectiveness, it is also necessary to communicate specific examples that illustrate that what they may envision the raw numbers represent isn’t necessarily the reality.

I don’t doubt that there will still be people who want 95-100% of their donation to be devoted exclusively to program beneficiaries, but linking overhead activities with impact outcomes can help combat decision making strictly by the numbers.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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