Anti-overhead is anti-charity

Captain Tom Moore (no relation) wanted to raise money for the National Health Service in the UK during the COVID-19 crisis.  He said he would walk the 25 meters around his garden a hundred times before his birthday.

His 100th birthday.  Captain Tom Moore was a captain in World War II.

His goal was to raise 1000 pounds.  The story took off and his personal fundraising page on JustGiving and he ended up raising 39 million pounds ($48 million)For his birthday, he got a personal birthday card from the Queen, a video message from the Prime Minister, and a record that may not be broken (he sang a song that made it to the UK charts, the oldest person to do so).

A feel-good story that inspired a nation.  So, of course, the tabloid press had to come in and pitch a wicked googly. (I should confess up front my knowledge of British English comes largely from Potter, Python, Poirot, and Psherlock Holmes, so please excuse anything being lost in translation.)

The Sun newspaper, being a real spotted dick, blared on its cover “Give It Back,” calling on JustGiving to give back the money it made from facilitating the transactions.  All in all, this totaled a bit over 300,000 pounds for Captain Tom’s donations. 

In the UK, JustGiving charges 1.9% + 20 pence to cover credit card fees and an optional 5% reclaim and processing fee for each donation (which is waived if the charity does its own processing).  Probably pretty close to what you are paying for your online transactions, no?  This is what had The Sun’s knickers in a twist.

This is despite JustGiving giving 100,000 pounds to the fundraiser themselves and 97% of donated funds going to the charity. 

So we need to ask some questions.  Could Captain Tom have raised 39 million pounds without JustGiving?  Unlikely that distributing paper donation forms and envelopes could have gone viral in this way.  I’d argue he wouldn’t have made the initial 1000-pound goal.  The platform made this possible.

Was what the platform asked rubbish?  Covering their costs and getting five percent of donations to cover their business’s overhead doesn’t seem like they are hoovering up funds unjustifiably.

And clearly, if the NHS had a magic box where they could put in 300K and get out 39 million, their only question would be how many times they could use it.  Charities would be queuing up.

But, I’m a bloody Yank.  Maybe The Sun is a paper that would never take a dime from a charity to try to get a donation.  So I went to their home page to see what their nonprofit ad rate was.  And there was a charity banner ad above the virtual fold on the home page.

– The Sun is clearly OK taking money from nonprofits to get donations.
– The Sun is not OK with other people taking a much smaller amount to get donations.

What a bunch of right tossers spewing rubbish.

For the record, I’m not arguing against nonprofits advertising here or The Sun taking their advertising.  But that’s because I think charities spending money to make money is the bee’s knees.  We are competing for our donor dollar with for-profits who (gasp) invest in marketing.  So should we, lest we be forced to fight in the octagon with Marquis of Queensbury rules.

This anti-fundraising, anti-overhead story is an all-too-common one in the charity sector.  In November, I wrote: “Why are these warning bells? Because this can and will happen in the United States.

Try as we might to lay out our issues and solutions in as fair and non-partisan way as possible, we are entering an election year where people will likely further entrench themselves in their own filter bubbles, believing their subjective truths. Since each of our organizations is working to solve a problem, our very existence threatens anyone who wants to say there is no problem or that they have already solved the program.

If you think your organization is too apolitical to attract attention, remember that Special Olympics was on the chopping block earlier this year. Vaccines that have saved 10 million lives in the past five years are a political hot potato. If you are more universally loved that Special Olympics and more effective than lifesaving medicine, you have a chance of escaping unscathed. If not, buckle up.

And these media hit pieces are all too easy to write. As with RNLI, include the CEO’s pay to dissuade those who think all nonprofit employees must take a vow of poverty. Say nonprofits should be run more like business but include the overhead percentages to shame any money spent on HR, legal, marketing, fundraising, research, and the other essentials. Make any experiment look like a waste of resources. Get a quote from a politico who never liked you anyway and is happy to fan the “controversy.” It’s the playbook used against Wounded Warrior Project a couple years ago, at the cost of tens of millions of dollars in donations that could have helped our veterans.”

So when you see one of these stories, let’s make absobloodylutely sure to have each other’s backs.  The anti-overhead people will come for us all.  And as Ben Franklin said when fighting the British, “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”

Sign up for Moore updates