Info You Can Use: Figuring Out True Program Cost

After reading my post yesterday about how the federal government is requiring that non-profits receive at least 10% of grant/contract funding to cover indirect costs, you may be wondering how to accurately determine direct and indirect costs for your programs.

Getting an accurate picture of program costs is not only important for making sure you get proper allocations from government funded programs, but also for working toward a larger goal of providing boards of directors, funders and the general public with an accurate picture of the true costs of programs.

Providing an accurate picture is key in the campaign to diminish the use of overhead ratio as a measure of non-profit effectiveness.

In a piece on Social Velocity, Nell Edgington, emphasizes the need to present an accurate picture of costs and “break out of the nonprofit starvation cycle

She also notes that it can help decide what programs really needs to be cut.

But don’t stop there. Turn this new knowledge about the financial impact of each of your programs into a strategic tool. Once you figure out what each individual program fully costs, you can compare the financial and social impact (how well it contributes to your mission) of each program to each other, like this in order to understand how well your entire program portfolio contributes to the money and mission of your nonprofit. Through this analysis you can determine what programs you should expand, which you should continue, and which you may need to cut.

She provides links to a rather detailed guide to determining the true costs of programs published by Bridgespan.

It isn’t an easy process. The estimated timeline in the guide is at least a month. Smaller organizations with fewer programs will take less time.

The guide discusses each stage of the process in detail, suggesting what staff roles need to be involved. It also provides some clear definitions and examples for what needs to be considered.

For instance, indirect costs:

Indirect costs can include general administration and management expenses (e.g. management staff salaries and benefits), infrastructure costs (e.g. rent and utilities, transportation, equipment depreciation, technical licenses), and other costs that are incurred for the benefit of all the programs within the organization (e.g. marketing costs, advocacy expenses).

It addresses questions about determining whether some salaries like those of the executive director and human resource personnel should be allocated across different programs or not.

(Just a note – The guide is about six years old and some of the internal links to templates and examples no longer work, but don’t be discouraged, most of them may be found in the appendix.)

Since there seems to be a slowly developing trend toward removing the stigma of overhead costs (that may evolve into a demand for a high level of transparency), nonprofits may want to start to invest in practices that will allow them to evaluate the true costs of their activities.

Basic Intro To Finance Options

When I was at the Ohio Arts Council conference yesterday, I attended a session on finance for arts and culture. This is unknown territory for me because I am familiar with grants and fundraising, but don’t really have any significant experience with finance.

One of the things I learned were the differences between Community Development Finance Institutions (CDFI) and Community Development Corporations (CDC). (Which is to say, I know slightly more than the textbook definition, but enough to start paying attention and learning more.)

There were representatives of each of these type of organizations as well as banks and venture capital firms talking about somewhat familiar financing options like bonds. There were also tools that I had no idea a non-profit organization might consider like the EB5 program which provides foreign investors with a fast track visa process.

While I had a sense that a non-profit might get funding from a revolving loan fund, I had no idea that a non-profit might actually run one. One option mentioned during the panel was possibly partnering with people to run your fund and coming in as a second layer on a loan that a bank was underwriting.

The panel made us aware of New Market Tax Credits which CDFIs sell to banks to encourage them to fund/invest in projects in low-income, high-poverty, high-unemployment communities at a lower rate. They encouraged us to Google the terms “New Market Tax Credit Arts Culture” to see what sort of projects popped up in order to get a sense of what was possible.

There were some main points the panel wanted those seeking financing to walk away from the session knowing about:

• Investors want to know how your project fits into the overall vision of: your city, foundations providing support, other funders, the community and your own organization.

• Even if they don’t explicitly say it, economic developers are looking for how the project provides cohesion in terms of issues like market change, safety and stability in the community. Economic developers don’t concern themselves about the health of an arts and cultural organization except as an attractor of new business and enhancer of quality of life. They noted one of the reasons businesses are starting to orient back toward downtowns is because the density of activity provides for connectivity and innovation.

• They emphasized that no one source will provide 100% of the funding. It is going to have to come from a mix of economic development entities, banks, public and private grants and donations.

• As a result, you need to have all parties at the table, even ones that you won’t necessarily need immediately. You don’t want to be in position where you realize you will need extra funding and go to someone at the last minute saying you need money, trying to explain your project to them and get them connected to your story.

• The panel explicitly said, if you start talking to these entities when you have a project in mind, it is already too late. You need to be telling your story and have people aware of it years in advance of soliciting support for a project.

Ultimately, it seems like you have to be telling your story every day, all the time to your immediate community in order to gain short term support for your projects and to anyone else who may ever remotely be of any use to you for a hypothetical project.

To heck with “Always Be Closing,” you need to be “Always Be Charming” (Yeah, that stinks. Anyone has a catchy phrase, let me know.)

An interesting suggestion about bolstering confidence in your organizational story was to devote part of your annual budget to enriching your endowment in order to show potential investors that you are investing in yourself.

It was notable that the first question asked after the presentation was about the shame directed at non-profits for overhead and the fact they might try to pay people a living wage. One of the panelists said people shouldn’t be ashamed and that foundations should know better.

However, I felt like he was sort of hedging when he said to break down administrative cost by task rather than by roles and titles. For example- assessment,  program administration, engineering, capacity building.

I didn’t feel that overhead cost was of particular concern to the people on the panel. Their criteria for good governance and success seemed more aligned with the for-profit sector. So the fact this came up immediately may be a sign that the subject of judging an non-profit organization by overhead costs will become a more prevalent topic in the next couple years.