An experience that could change your mind and world


Commentary by Joan Isaac

Indianapolis recently hosted a United Way Worldwide conference, attracting 1,600 people who all wanted to learn from each other about how to drive change in their local communities. Author Dan Pallotta’s keynote about how restraints on nonprofits undermine their potential really hit home. Pallotta argues that the public only asks for low overhead because it’s what they’ve been taught. Consequently, often overhead costs have become the most important factor for too many people considering philanthropic giving.

It takes money to run an agency and to achieve its mission, not just passion, Pallotta stressed. To drive home the point that overhead costs alone can be misleading, he shared a story about two soup kitchens. Soup kitchen A touted that 100 percent of donated dollars goes back into the community and Soup kitchen B’s record was 75 cents out of a dollar.

Using every penny of every dollar you give to feed the hungry sounds great. But after Pallotta toured both soup kitchens, that feel-good moment was short lived. Soup Kitchen A had numerous health citations, high employee turnover, poor management, unreliable food service and served only 200 meals a day. Soup Kitchen B had stellar health inspections, low employee turnover, high employee morale, rave reviews from clients and served more than 3,000 meals a day.

Soup Kitchen A seemed like the best investment. But when you take a closer look as Pallotta did, the two didn’t compare. Unfortunately, judging overhead costs alone is how many people are trained to evaluate giving decisions. Instead, what we should all seek is information about which choice is most effective when it comes to addressing social challenges.

How can you get that level of information? The good news is, United Way can take you “inside the kitchen.” To see with your own eyes how United Way of Central Indiana’s 90 plus partner agencies are accountable, we have a volunteer opportunity that’s ideal.

We need volunteers to conduct site visits and review the governance, management, finances, board diversity, community impact, inclusion and best practice standards of partner agencies.

Volunteers recommend scores to United Way’s Human Services Committee (comprised of other volunteers) which are then factored into agency funding decisions.

This experience is ideal for people who:

  • seek a service opportunity with great impact
  • are considering or currently serving a nonprofit agency
  • want to learn more about their community
  • have limited discretionary time – volunteers choose opportunities that best fit their schedule

Training is offered on May 20, from 9 to 11 a.m. at United Way’s Hamilton County office, 650 E. Carmel Dr., Suite 340. To participate, please email me at by May 15. More details are available at under the volunteer section.

Pallotta’s closing words bear repeating. “Our generation does not want its epitaph to read, ‘We kept charity overhead low.’ We want it to read that we changed the world.” If you want to help change the world, please volunteer to join a United Way agency review team.


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