For an organization focused on financial metrics, the American Institute of Philanthropy can be very interesting. I can’t do justice to this excellent article on Smile Train with an excerpt, and I urge you to read it all.
It thoroughly debunks an alleged claim by Smile Train that “100% of your donation goes toward programs — 0% goes toward overhead.” Smile Train currently seems to have backed off this claim at least somewhat, although Steven Levitt of Freakonomics appears to have been sold this story (and to have bought it) in 2006.
If identifying effectiveness with “low overhead” is silly, the idea of “0% overhead” simply seems absurd. As the article shows, it doesn’t (and can’t) mean that there are no operating costs affecting the total costs of the program. Rather, it’s another case of zooming in on “your” money, rather than discussing the true total costs of the program you’re supporting the existence of. It makes no sense in an analytical framework; it’s a feel-good gimmick.
Robin Hood’s financials make the situation look similar to Smile Train’s (minus the questionable reclassification of funds that AIP attributes to the latter). About 11% of Robin Hood’s total expenses are “Administration salaries and overhead” or “Fundraising and Public Information,” but because Board member donations are earmarked to those expenses, everyone else can be told their donations are “overhead-free.”
If your goal were to minimize overhead, the fact that Robin Hood tags funds this way shouldn’t be very relevant to you. Robin Hood could allocate more of those Board donations to programs if it spent less on overhead. If you gave to another organization, you could be scaling up an overall lower-overhead operation.
Bottom line: The “0% overhead” claim is promoting the wrong metric (low overhead) and offering a false way to accomplish it.