The sustainability of many non-profit organizations today largely depends on their abilities to manage their finances effectively and often in new ways. According to the 2013 State of the Nonprofit Sector Survey Results (Nonprofit Finance Fund, 2013), organizations that are successfully weathering the economic storm are changing their business models – among other strategies – in order to achieve increased fiscal stability in an unstable economy.
A review of the current literature in the field yields the following salient points in non-profit organization financial management :
- Plan to increase cash reserves
According to the Nonprofit Finance Fund survey (2013), twenty-four percent of the participating organizations had only one month or no cash reserves on hand. Thirty-two percent of the organizations had two to three months of expenses in cash. Increasing cash reserves needs to be planned and a part of the overall financial projection for the year rather than happenstance that a surplus will be realized at the end of the year. The lower the cash reserve, the greater the greater the difficulty in meeting expenses during periods of low revenue or when revenue is delayed (e.g., grant awards, contract payments).
- Financial planning is a team process
Many non-profits typically use a single-handed approach to preparing the annual budget. Effective financial planning for the next year’s annual budget and beyond requires every level of the organization; for example, program managers, development staff, human resources, the finance department as well as individual board members and committees. These individuals have hands-on experience or oversight perspectives about actual revenues and expenses that may be overlooked by just one or two people.
- Communicate financial needs clearly and often
All too often the financial needs of an organization are discussed primarily among the upper levels of management. In fact, the Nonprofit Finance Fund survey (2013) cites that many non-profit organizations are uncomfortable discussing their financial needs with funders: only 24 percent of participating organizations would discuss their working capital needs, 16 percent would discuss cash flow problems, and 5 percent their debt problems. In the current economic climate, non-profit organizations need to communicate their financial needs clearly and often across all levels of the organization and with other key stakeholders. Once again, in a team process, communicating this financial information to other staff in the organization in terms that are clear to them increases their ability to act on it directly in their positions.
- Utilize program-specific financial reports
The usual practice of non-profit managers and boards is to use budget-to-actual financial reports to gauge the fiscal health of the organization. That is, the annual budget is a road map against which monthly financial reports are compared to determine how “on course” the organization is to realizing its annual budget. In actuality, much of the research indicates that many non-profit organizations do not have a clear understanding of how much their specific programs are costing them (Barr and Bell, 2013; Kotloff and Burd, 2012). Utilizing program-specific analysis goes beyond the current fiscal year and is part of the overall future financial planning.
- Invest in realistic administrative capacity
For many years, non-profit organizations have worked very hard to minimize their actual administrative costs. Likewise, foundations and contractors typically want to fund programs and services to the community rather than administrative overhead. However, those administrative costs are very real and lack of investment in this area often leads to gaps in a non-profit’s capacity to perform efficiently and effectively. According to the Nonprofit Finance Fund survey (2013), 69 percent of the participating organizations reported not having enough staff or time for data collection, 40 percent reported not having the correct staff expertise, and 26 percent did not have the necessary technology. Clearly, the old “let’s-cut-as-much-administrative-cost-as-possible” mentality is not working for many organizations across the United States. Adequate investment in a non-profit organization’s administrative capacity – in particular, finance expertise and technology – is an issue that demands honest dialogue between organizations and their funding sources.
- Determine the need for diversification of revenue
Once considered a key element of financial sustainability, diversification of revenue largely depends on non-profit business models and the type of service the organization provides. Diversification of revenues has some inherent risks in that more streams of income does not necessarily mean greater surpluses at the end of the year. In order to attract new revenue streams, a non-profit needs to develop and sustain new programs or capacities. The reliability and competitiveness of the organization’s revenue streams dictate the degree of diversification that it needs (Barr and Bell, 2013).
Today’s non-profit organizations need to consider a broad array of collaborations and partnerships with other non-profit organizations (merger) to increase the delivery of services available to meet increasing demands from constituents as well as with for-profit businesses (social enterprise) in order to gain new sources of revenue and build their marketing brands as well as increase their financial sustainability.
- Nonprofit Quarterly; “An Executive Director’s Guide to Financial Leadership”, Kate Barr and Jeanne Bell, August, 2013, http://http://www. nonprofit quarterly.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=19126.
- Nonprofit Finance Fund; “2013 State of the Nonprofit Sector Survey Results”, March, 2013, http://http://www.nonprofitquarterly.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=19126.
- Building Stronger Nonprofits Through Better Financial Management: Early Efforts in 26 Youth-Serving Organizations, Lauren J. Kotloff with Nancy Burd, April, 2012, http://http://www.wallacefoundation.org/knowledge-center/after-school/financial-management-for-nonprofits/Documents/Building-Stronger-Nonprofits-Through-Better-Financial-Management.pdf.