What’s Behind the Numbers?

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on June 1st, 2012 in Thoughts & Commentary

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Numbers tell a lot.  On Monday of this week, as members of the military read the names of the dead from each war going back to WWI, I stood and counted each from this small, suburban Philadelphia community, noting that this community lost as many soldiers in Vietnam as it has, thus far, in the war on terror.

On Tuesday, on NPR’s Morning Edition, the First Lady cited two telltale statistics: an American child spends an average of 7.5 hours a day looking at a screen (TV or video game) and only 2% of American public high schools still offer physical education classes.

So, I’d like to use numbers to tell three tales. Let’s start with some interesting numbers from the foundation world—and I’m not referring to the 5% one.  According to the Council on Foundations, in 2010, foundation program officers had held their position for a median (that’s 50% are below this median figure and 50% are above) of three years.  This was a record low since 2002. There are, clearly, pros and cons to this.

Pro:  if one program officer doesn’t like your organization, wait a couple of years and see if the next one does.  Con:  building relationships with program officers is not an overnight thing; it takes time.  To wit, a local nonprofit here in the greater Philadelphia area that spent 18 months working with one program officer to get him to understand the organization and craft just the right program that won his support; two months ago, that foundation started a major restructuring and that program officer is no longer there.

Pro:  if program officers use their departure from a foundation to return to the world of direct service for a few years, they will be better as program officers their next time around.

Con:  the 50% who are there longer than that three years—much, much longer than that three years—can get stale, into ruts, lose sight of the purpose. And con:  switching program officers can be a nerve-wracking thing.

It isn’t really the length of time someone has been in his/her position—be it program officer or any other position—that matters.  It is the way a person executes that position that matters.  It is the way a person refreshes him/herself, keeps that edge, fends off complacency, etc., that matters.  And that has little to nothing to do with time in position.  It has to do with individuals and organizational cultures.  Some organizational cultures, such as The Ford Foundation and William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, mandate six and eight years tenure, respectively, before it is time to move on and out.  Others spend some of that 5% sending program officers to continual professional development.  And some program officers, do their own research, professional development, site visits, and more.

What concerns me most about long tenures in program officer seats is the loss of understanding of doing the work on the ground.  The world in which nonprofits work changes, for some more rapidly than others.  The realities of feeding the homeless, providing arts and culture to the wealthy, the poor and everyone in between, educating our youth and building their self-confidence and sense of civic responsibility has not, nor will it ever stay static.  Too long out of that seat, or worse, never having been in that seat, and your sense of what’s possible becomes unrealistic, if not absurd.

Moving on, to other numbers:  earlier this year, the Global Alliance for Banking on Values (I did not make up that name!) announced that a 2007 and 2010 comparison of 17 values-based banks and 29 other banks showed that values-based banks outperformed those other banks on such key items as returns on assets, growth in deposits and loans and general “capital strength.”  Seems those values-based banks have a “need to transform lives and deliver sustainable development for unserved people, communities and the environment.”  Almost sounds like nonprofits!  Yet on the flip side, 70 CEOs of the Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy reported that while employees and consumers may care about contributing to causes that improve the public good, their shareholders do not!  They just care about the bottom lime!  Sounds like for-profits.

And to my last set of numbers that tell tales—and in this case, quite tall tales!  Last month’s Scripps News Service study of the 2008, 2009 and 2010 Form 990s of 37,987 nonprofits that brought in at least $1 million, found that 41% had absolutely not one penny of fundraising costs while managing to raise almost $117 billion dollars.  Truth is, this comes as no surprise.  I’ve long said that the public’s and funders’ expectations that a nonprofit, simply because it is a nonprofit, should spend a ridiculously small amount of its dollars on administrative and fundraising costs creates liars out of too many nonprofits.  It is simply not possible to spend only 10% or 12% or even 25% (a maximum that United Way urges) on non-programmatic expenses, year after year, and still maintain a respectable staff (I won’t even go to exceptional), high quality services, decent (safe, clean, no health risks) physical space, and relatively modern technology.  Just ask anyone in the for-profit world if s/he could sustain the corporation spending only $.20 of every dollar on running the business; then stand back as s/he guffaws wildly! I know; I ask regularly!  But this unrealistic expectation is out there, constraining every nonprofit and forcing each and everyone to make a tough decision:  to lie, or what some people less direct than I would say is fudging, or tell the truth and risk a donor taking her/his money elsewhere.  So to those who say numbers don’t lie, I’d suggest reading some 990s.

To those who say numbers don’t lie, I suggest you rethink that stance.  A simple number can tell an incredible story, be it true or false.  We must be savvy enough to look behind the number to determine whether the moral is a good one or not.


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