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A guide to nonprofit overhead

By Jan Masaoka & Steve Zimmerman, Blue Avocado

Calculating overhead rates and managing overhead expense are important staff roles. Board members are not required to know how do staff accounting work, but we do need to bring an informed perspective to oversight: Harvard’s indirect cost rate is 68% while Iowa State’s is 48%. Should the board members of either institution be concerned? As an alumnus of one or the other, should these numbers affect our donations? As a parent of a high school senior, do these numbers influence where we want our child to go? Should they?

Amid the crosstalk about nonprofit overhead, board members and staff do need to understand what the conversation is really about, and how to interpret “what is overhead” for our own organizations. Here are eight key ideas to know about overhead:

  1. Apples, oranges, and alligators: One of the more surprising facts about overhead is that while it seems that everyone is talking about it, everyone is actually talking about the different things. The word “overhead” isn’t an accounting term, so different people define it differently.
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