Thanksgiving was wonderful and I hope yours was, too. So many things to be thankful for – like making new friends!
We met a lovely couple who are both donors and volunteers at various local nonprofits, so of course the conversation turned to stories from the trenches.
Our new friend spends some time volunteering at a local homeless service agency and went in recently to serve lunch. Here’s how she put it:
I was asked to make sandwiches for bagged lunches they distribute, so I gloved up and headed into the kitchen. In the process of preparing to make sandwiches, I spilled something on the counter. “Where would I find paper towels?” I asked and the response I got was, “We are out of paper towels and they won’t be delivered until next Tuesday, so just use one of these kitchen towels.” And, with that, she handed me a kitchen towel that had clearly been used before and, even with anti-bacterial cleaner, I didn’t think was very sanitary. I was just so shocked they didn’t have paper towels.”
So, instead of making sandwiches, she hopped in her car and went to a bulk supply store and bought paper towels. Great! Thanks to a great volunteer and donor!
When she asked, though, why they didn’t just order more, the response she got was, “We just can’t afford them – it’s not in the budget. We can only get x amount per year and we can only get what’s in our standing bi-weekly shipment.”
What potentially stood between a hungry person and lunch was a lack of paper towels.
Because buying more wasn’t in the budget.
This is the Overhead Myth in action. This is a highly reputable, well-respected, tightly run organization. And yet one of their front-line people knows that sometimes what stands between a hungry person and a meal is a paper towel.
There is no metric in the world that measures Paper Towel ROI (PTROI). There’s no report that indicates the ratio of paper towel to less food insecurity. But I’m willing to bet Paper Towels never show up in any program budget or case statement.
Paper Towels are the Annual Fund. (Which is not Annual and not a Fund, I know, I know.)
Paper Towels are operations, they’re overhead, they’re not sexy, they don’t generate results.
And yet . . . sometimes the lack of a Paper Towel stands between a hungry person and a meal.
And if that isn’t the most powerful case for general operational support, I don’t know what it is. Fundraising is (very often) paper towels.