At the 2011 International Fundraising Congress in the Netherlands, Dan Pallotta – author of Uncharitable – conducted a thought-provoking closing plenary which led to delegates penning notices stating “I am overhead” and attaching it to their lanyards.

I am overhead. Confidently. Cautiously? I am overhead. Such a simple fact, so plainly stated and yet overhead is the collective line item which the non-profit sector is made to believe it should be operating in the absence of or at such reduced levels so as to render its operations ineffective.

Pallotta’s Uncharitable questions the expectation we have of non-profit organisations, i.e. to achieve their goals without being able to employ resources and initiatives that are implemented, without question, in the for-profit space. He asks us to question why considerations of money – compensation and capital, advertising, risk and time horizons are so vastly different for the charitable sector vis a’ vis the private sector?

During his presentation, he calls out a percentage which grantseekers and grantmakers alike have come to use as a measure of performance excellence. He questions why the percentage of donation to the cause has become the critical ratio by which to measure an organisation’s effectiveness. Shouldn’t it be the work itself? He argues that the answer to this question can provide misleading information and disadvantage organisations that are in fact doing good work with realistic overheads.

A bold plenary questioning a paradigm we have come to work within without question. For to even consider these questions, what would that say about us? For our values as a sector?

Given the realities around financial and broader organisational sustainability, isn’t it time we had this conversation? What are the realities we are facing? What are the overheads we aren’t discussing with our donors and supporters for fear of their critique?

Pallotta then showed the audience visuals of the “I am Overhead” campaign, putting a face to what and who constitutes overhead. An International Charity Defence Council is to be established and it will act as an anti-defamation league for the third sector. Its goal is to advocate for equal economic rights for the non-profit sector.

This has given us food for thought. How about you?

Read more about Uncharitable on

Lizel Shepherd is Programme Co-ordinator: Advancement Training and Support Unit