Nonprofits: Heed these financial danger signs
Many not-for-profits are just starting to emerge from one of the most challenging environments in recent memory due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Even if your organization is in good shape, don’t get too comfortable. Financial obstacles can appear at any time and you need to be vigilant about acting on certain warning signs. Consider the following.
Once your board has signed off on a budget, you should carefully monitor it for unexplained variances. Although some variances are to be expected, staff should be able to provide reasonable explanations — such as funding changes or macroeconomic factors — for significant discrepancies. Where necessary, work to mitigate negative variances by, for example, cutting expenses. Also make sure you don’t:
- Overspend in one program and funding it by another,
- Dip into operational reserves, raid an endowment, or
- Engage in unplanned borrowing.
Such moves might mark the beginning of a financially unsustainable cycle.
If your financial statements are untimely and inconsistent or aren’t prepared using U.S. Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP), you could be heading for trouble. Poor financial statements can lead to poor decision-making and undermine your nonprofit’s reputation. They also can make it difficult to obtain funding or financing. Insist on professionally prepared statements as well as annual audits. Members of your organization’s audit committee should communicate directly with auditors before and during the process, and all board members should have the opportunity to review and question the audit report.
Let’s say you’ve noticed a decline in donations. Then you start hearing from long-standing supporters that they’re losing confidence in your organization’s finances or leadership. Investigate immediately. Ask supporters what they’re seeing or hearing that prompts their concerns. Also note when development staff hits up major donors outside of the usual fundraising cycle. These contacts could mean your nonprofit is scrambling for cash.
Even the most experienced and knowledgeable nonprofit executive director shouldn’t have absolute power. Your board needs to step in if some executive tries to ignore expense limits and breaks other rules of good fiscal management. The board also should question an executive who attempts to choose a new auditor or makes strategic decisions without the board’s input.
Don’t ignore the signs
If one of these danger signs appears, it’s important to act swiftly. Financial problems don’t disappear on their own. Contact us for help evaluating the situation and for advice on how to get your organization back on track.