Fund accounting

Eliminating the Nonprofit Board’s Addiction to Micromanaging

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Eliminating the Nonprofit Board’s Addiction to Micromanaging

By: Eugene Fram

Micromanaging is the DNA of many nonprofit boards. It all starts with the community model culture of start-up periods. Board members have to assume staff roles to drive the nonprofit operations. But it often continues long after an adequate staff is in place. By habit, the board still focuses on operational details—also known as “reviewing the weeds.”  I recently observed a board that was making a policy decision about the change in timing of an annual development event.   Once the decision was made, the directors continued a “weed type” discussion about about table locations, invitations and other issues that were in the job of management to implement. The nonprofit is about 50 years old and has a budget of $10 Million with a 100 person staff. (more…)

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The Outside Advisory Board: Boon or Bother to Nonprofit CEOs?

The Outside Advisory Board: Boon or Bother to Nonprofit CEOs?

By: Eugene Fram

I have established or served on a number of nonprofit outside advisory boards. As a result I strongly recommend their usefulness to nonprofit CEOs. The counsel provided by a group of unaffiliated members of the community or industry will, in my opinion, complement the existing board, helping to deliver services or products to clients with greater effect. The objective of assembling such a body would be to seek advice and expertise regarding a current major project or issue and/or to provide ongoing support and guidance to the CEO. Advisory board members have no legal responsibilities, nor have authority to require the elected board or staff to act on its advice. However, when advice is not followed, the CEO has a professional responsibility to show how the suggestions were seriously considered and to carefully report on what had transpired in making the decision process. Too many useful volunteers become disillusioned with advisory committees when this step is omitted. (more…)

Mismanagement Causes Huge Agency Failure—A Word To The Wise Nonprofit?

Mismanagement Causes Huge Agency Failure—A Word To The Wise Nonprofit?

By Eugene Fram

Rarely do failed for-profit or nonprofit organizations get a posthumous review of what actually went wrong. The collapse of one of the largest nonprofits in the US, the Federal Employment Guidance Service (FEGS) of New York City, is a noteworthy exception. Details of the causes that led to the human service’s demise were aired widely throughout NY media. * This organization had a $250 million budget, with 1900 employees who served 120,000 households covering a range of mental health and disability services, housing, home care and employment services.

Following are my interpretations of what its board should have done to avoid such a tragedy.

Failure of nonprofits: Failure of small nonprofits is rampant for a wide variety of known reasons. For example, “Nonprofits tend to be more trusting of their employees and have less stringent financial controls than their for-profit counterparts.” **

Outside of fraud being involved, the FEGS failure demonstrates that no nonprofit is too big to fail, probably because of a lack of board due care. Boards have to be acutely aware of the professional financial competencies of their CFO and CEO or well-meaning people who naively believed that loans could be easily repaid. There should have been a well-documented financial l strategy. The nonprofit closed with $47 million in loans/liabilities/debts.

Symptoms of impending collapse: Clearly with $47 million being owed, common financial ratios should have alerted knowledgeable board members to the coming catastrophe. But in the nonprofit environment, it is not unusual to that find directors, even business executives, are unfamiliar with the fund accounting approach used by nonprofit organizations.

In addition, contracting city and state agencies failed in their reviews of the organization’s finances. However, some nonprofits, either intentionally on unintentionally, can saddle contract reviewers and directors with so much information that even the most conscientious can’t spot problems. (Humorously, directors in this category are referred to as “mushroom directors” because like growing mushrooms, they are kept in the dark an covered with excrement. But this type of tactic was successfully used against IRS auditors in the Madoff debacle.)

Government or Foundation Contracts: In accepting these contracts, nonprofits must be realistic about whether or not there is enough money to cover full costs. They can’t be blinded by what the contract can do for the organization’s client. If adequate overhead funding is not attached to one or more of these agreements, they eventually can cause bankruptcy, because the nonprofit eventually will have to borrow or seek additional donations to cover them.

How Nonprofit Boards Can Avoid Problems

Review Financials: Current financials need to be given to directors monthly, or at least quarterly if the board meets less often. The very detailed budget data can often be difficult for those without budget experience. At the least, everybody on the finance committee needs to be able to intelligently review the income statement and balance sheet. Also they need to be aware that funding accounting permits some unusual twists—food donations, for example, can be included in revenues, based on an estimate of their value. Consequently, cash revenues and expenditures need to be a focus for directors’ analysis.

Make certain that financials are delivered on timely and complete bases. Problem Example: One CFO didn’t submit accounts receivable reports for nine months because he said he was too busy to compile it. Neither the board nor the CEO demanded issuance of the report. When finally delivered, it was clear that the CFO was listing a substantial number of noncollectable accounts as active ones. Both the CFO and CEO were fired, and the nonprofit had to hired expensive forensic accountants to review the impact.

Gaps Between Revenues and Expenditures: This is the ultimate red flag, if not followed carefully. It may vary from period-to-period in a predictable pattern that everybody understands, but if the gap continues, say for four to six months, strong board action is necessary.

Adopt written financial policies: These are necessary to make sure all concerned with finances are on the same page. Since interpretation is often required in financial decisions, nothing should be left open to broad interpretation.

Contracts with governments, foundations and others: Make certain that reimbursements for indirect costs are included. If not included, have a benefactor ready to step in to cover the costs.

An old Chinese proverb, “A wise man (or woman) learns from his/h own experience. The wiser man (or woman) learns from the experiences of others.” One hundred twenty thousands households and individuals lost services from an 80 year old human service nonprofit. There is much to learn from the collapse of FEGS.

* https://www.councilofnonprofits.org/thought-leadership/what-we-learn-when-nonprofit-closes-its-doors

**https://www.blog.abila.com/nonprofit-fraud-facts-2016-global-fraud-study/

Nonprofit Board Members—Are They Aware of Their Independent Director Duties?

Nonprofit Board Members—Are They Aware of Their Independent Director Duties?

By Eugene Fram     Free Digital Image

The vast majority of nonprofit board members serve as independent directors. They are not members of management, have other occupations as their major focus, but have some significant responsibilities to a community, profession, government or professional/trade association. Mary Jo White, Former Chair, U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission, outlined the responsibilities of fund board members who also are independent directors to overview the investment dollars made by 53 million U.S. households. Many of her comments, in 2016, easily apply to nonprofit board members and their responsibilities as Independent directors. Note: The italicized materials following are White’s direct quotations. * (more…)

Can Nonprofit Management Usurp Board Responsibilities?

Can Nonprofit Management Usurp Board Responsibilities?

By Eugene H. Fram     Free Digital Image

On balance management will always have more information about the organization than volunteer board members. As a result, board members must be proactive in seeking information from management and a variety of other sources, even if they must involve employees other than senior management. Following are three field examples showing what has happened when boards failed to be proactive (more…)

Common Practices Nonprofit Boards Need To Avoid

Common Practices Nonprofit Boards Need To Avoid

By:Eugene Fram       Free Digital Image

Peter Rinn, Breakthrough Solutions Group,* published a list of weak nonprofit board practices. Following are some of the items listed and my estimation of what can be done about them, based on my experiences as a nonprofit board director, board chair and consultant.

Dumbing down board recruitmenttrumpeting the benefits and not stressing the responsibilities of board membership.
Board position offers frequently may be accepted without the candidate doing sufficient due diligence. At the least, the candidate should have a personal meeting with the executive director and board chair. Issues that need to be clarified are meeting schedules, “give/get” policies and time expectations. In addition, the candidate, if seriously interested, should ask for copies of the board meeting minutes for one year, the latest financials, and the latest IRS form 990.

Overlooking the continued absence of board members at board meetings, strategic and planning meetings.
Many bylaws have provisions dropping board members who do not meet meeting attendance criteria established by the bylaws. However, such actions are difficult to execute because of the interpersonal conflicts that can arise. For example, one organization with which I am familiar had a director who did not attend any meetings, but did make a financial contribution to the organization. When his resignation was requested, he refused. Not wanting to create conflict, the board simply kept him on the board roster until his term expired and then sent him a note acknowledging the end of his term. The board chair, not the CEO, has a responsibility to have a personal conversation with the recalcitrant director. He/s needs to offer a “tough love” message in the name of the board.

Taking a board action without conducting enough due diligence to determine whether the transaction is in the nonprofit’s best interest.
Although each board member should sign conflict of interest statement each year, my impression is that this is rarely done. Board members should understand the potential personal liabilities that might be accrued as a result of violation of the federal Intermediate Sanctions Act (IRS Section 4958) and other statues. For example, under IRS 4958, a board member can have his or her personal taxes increased if involved in giving an excess benefit, such as selling property to the wife of a board member for less than the market rate. Some boards and their members need to be frequently reminded about their “due-care” responsibilities.

Allowing board members to be re-elected to the board, despite bylaw term limitations.
This often occurs when the board has given little thought to a succession plan, and the only person who seems qualified is currently in place. It also happens when the board has significant problems and nobody on the board wants to take the time to hold a time consuming position. Some boards however, have a bylaw exception that allows a board chair, if scheduled for rotation, an extra year or two to be chairperson. Succession planning needs to be a yearly routine for top managers and for the board itself.

Allowing board members to ignore their financial obligations to the nonprofit.
To assess board interest in a nonprofit, foundations and other funders like to know that every board member makes a financial contribution within their means or participates in the organization’s “give/get” program. This topic should be discussed at the outset of recruitment so it can be full understood by all directors.

Overselling the protection of D&O insurance and laws limiting the liability of directors.
The importance of a nonprofit having a D&O policy, even a small one, can’t be over stated. I recently encountered a nonprofit that had operated for seventeen years without a D&O policy, although its annual budget was $500,000, and it was responsible for real estate valued at least $24 million. Each director should be knowledgeable about the potential personal liabilities involved with the board position. Frequently, directors assume that a D&O insurance policy covers too wide a range of situations.

Allowing ignorance and poor practices to exist keeps leadership in control.
Changing leadership and practice is difficult for both for-profit and nonprofit organizations. However, in the nonprofit environment it is more difficult because poor leadership and practices can continue for a long time period, as long as current revenues meet expenditures. They can even become part of the organization’s culture. In some situations, this state of affairs continues because the board has low expectations of management and staff. It’s critical that the leadership needs to be thoroughly evaluated annually.

There is much that nonprofit boards can do about avoiding common practices that weaken the effectiveness of the board.

* aka The Nonprofit Entrepreneur, Placitas, New Mexico

 

Can Only Three Nonprofit Board Committees Engage Directors Meaningfully?

 

Can Only Three Nonprofit Board Committees Engage Directors Meaningfully?

By: Eugene Fram

Current research shows that the average nonprofit board has an average of 4.5 standing  committees, down from 6.6 in 1994. * I suggest three standing committees. ** This three-standing committee configuration is flexible. Its strength is that it generates a coordinated robust review of the past board experiences to drive an emphasis on policy development and strategic planning. Organizations know where they have been, are thinking about the future but are not mired in micromanagement

    A Policy/Strategy Focused Board

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