nonprofit fiscal management
I started a new blog series in March about overcoming the many fears that cripple the nonprofit sector, the first one being the fear of investment. Today I want to talk about the nonprofit fear of money. Because the nonprofit sector is focused on mission, as opposed to profit, money is often ignored at best, or feared at worst. Many nonprofit boards and staff find money distasteful, burdensome, and avoidable.
But money can be used as a powerful tool to create more social change. In order to overcome the fear of money and start using it effectively, nonprofit boards and staffs must:
Embrace Its Power
Without money, your compelling, inspiring, world-changing mission is only a sentence on paper. As much as we might like to deny it, nonprofits very much exist in a market economy. So instead of trumping all, mission is merely one of the things nonprofit leaders need to be thinking about as they are working toward social change. Because without a smart strategy for how you will secure and use money you are sunk.
Really, Really Understand It
Of course money is scary if you don’t understand it, and most nonprofit leaders don’t have a finance background. So learn all you can about money. Find an accountant who speaks English and can explain how money flows in and out of your organization. Make sure you are receiving and sharing with your board monthly financial statements that are understandable. Ensure board and key staff all have basic nonprofit financial management training so everyone speaks the same language and understands the key ratios they should be analyzing. This common understanding should serve to generate substantive conversations about the best use of money to further the work of the organization.
Involve Everyone in Raising It
I know I sound like a broken record, but EVERYONE at a nonprofit should be involved in bringing money in the door in a way that fits well with their skills and experience. Every board member should have a money responsibility. Be strategic about putting each individual to their highest and best money-raising use. And every staff member, even program staff, can be enlisted to explain the program to potential donors, gather client stories, or provide data about the program so that you can garner more support. No one at the organization should be allowed to say “I don’t do the money thing.” Money is everyone’s job, because with no money there is no mission, remember?
Budget for Having Too Much of It
It is unseemly for a nonprofit to operate a surplus. Funders don’t like to see an organization too far into the black, and board members become uncomfortable when “too much” money sits idle. But money sitting in a bank account means the organization no longer lives hand to mouth, continually putting out fires, and focusing only on keeping the doors open. Operating reserves allow an organization to think strategically, take some risks, streamline the business model, innovate the solution, and weather economic uncertainty all in the name of delivering bigger, better social impact. So overcome the taboo and budget for a surplus that creates operating reserves.
Talk About It. All. The. Time.
Because money is so central to mission you cannot make decisions about the organization, about programs, about staffing, really about anything without understanding the financial implications of those decisions. Therefore, you must be talking about money all the time. Not just when the finance committee of the board meets, or when you are reviewing the monthly financial statements, or when your latest fundraising event falls flat. Money must be a constant conversation. It must be fully integrated into everything you do.
The key to financial sustainability, and ultimately significant social change, is being smart about managing money. But you cannot be smart with money if you are afraid of it. Money can be a beautiful, powerful tool for creating social change. Embrace it.
Photo Credit: orudorumagi11
If this recession has any silver lining it could be that it’s forcing nonprofits to completely re-evaluate how they use money. There is a tendency in the sector to shy away from, ignore, fear or dismiss money. But when there is less of it, you are forced to learn how to use it more effectively.
And it is up to the board, who has a legally-defined fiduciary duty, to step up to the plate and provide a strategy for how money is used. But because boards are such a bizarre mingling of volunteer strangers it can be difficult for the group as a whole to take a leadership role, especially in the taboo area of money. The solution lies in encouraging a single individual board member to rise up.
Several recent articles have illustrated the need for nonprofit boards to become better financial managers. From Jan Masaoka’s (Blue Avocado) call for boards to use a budget more strategically, to Rick Moyer’s argument in the Chronicle of Philanthropy that boards need to find “crystal clarity about their financial situations,” to Bob Carlson’s warning that poor nonprofit financial management can end up with legal nightmares.
But what all of these articles fail to address is that boards are ineffective fiscal managers largely because of their group dynamics. Countless times have I seen a nonprofit board of directors suffer from group think, head off in tangents, or avoid difficult conversations.
The opportunity lies in getting a single board member to play a leadership role. A nonprofit’s executive director can be instrumental in encouraging this coup d’etat by finding an individual board member who:
- Is passionate about the cause and the organization
- Has the respect of the majority of the other board members
- Understands, or is willing to be educated about, the basics of financial management
- Is confident enough not to be easily dismissed or swayed
And what does it look like when an individual board member takes a stand to move the board towards better financial management?
- Interrupting the annual rubber-stamping budget approval meeting to ask how the budget fully finances the overall strategic plan of the organization
- Asking for, and ensuring creation of, monthly financial statements that are understandable
- Ensuring basic nonprofit financial management training for board and key staff so everyone speaks the same language and understands the key ratios they should be analyzing
- Standing up to board members and staff who dismiss or discourage deeper conversations about how the nonprofit budgets, uses financial vehicles, handles financial reporting
- Interjecting, cajoling, persuading, and inspiring fellow board members to USE money to strengthen the work of the organization
As David Bornstein said, social change is often driven by “one obsessive individual who sees a problem and envisions a new solution.” So, too, in the world of the sometimes intractable nonprofit board. It may require a single board member to stand up and demand that financial business as usual doesn’t work anymore. If it takes a recession to make money a true tool for social change, so be it.
Photo Credit: faungg
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