What Goes Where: 4 Common Nonprofit Ratios

When it comes to charitable donations, donors often wonder, where does my donation go? Ratios are a commonly used to answer this question

Here are 4 common ratios that can be used to understand how a charity is utilizing your donations.

Overhead Ratio

This is the most used ratio in the nonprofit industry. It compares the total administrative expenses to the total income and determines the charities ability to provide for its programs. This ratio can also give the wrong impression to donors who expect their donation to solely support the charities programs.

However, keep in mind that a charity cannot operate without the overhead. A charity is able to make an impact because regular people have made it their mission to make it happen. This can include:

Developing and maintaining programs


Raising public awareness

Accounting and taxes

Following local, state, federal, and international laws

Operating Reserve

How long can the charity operate if there was no new income? A month or two? A year? That’s what this ratio measures. CBIZ, a leader in

Fundraising Efficiency

For every dollar raised, how much is spent? The Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance recommends no more than 35% of each dollar raised should be spent on raising it.

Program Efficiency

In addition, to find out how much a charity spends on their programs, compare the total program expenses to the total expenses. Every year, Forbes compiles the top 100 charities and publishes a program efficiency ratio. For example, in 2017, every organization was over 70%.

Program Growth

Occasionally, an increase of program expenses isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The program is growing! While growth is every charities goal, sustainable growth is key. Charity Navigator measures this by comparing a charities program expense growth over the past 3 years.

In the End

All things considered, when comparing the ratios for multiple charitable organizations, do so with a grain of salt. Keep in mind that the size, scope, and mission of an organization impacts the ratios. For example, overhead ratios will vary wildly for a long-standing charitable hospital in an affluent area vs. a newly formed food pantry in a low-income area. Regardless, it is a charities duty to be conscientious stewards of the precious resources they are given.


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