Streetsmart Financial Basics for Nonprofit Managers

Streetsmart Financial Basics for Nonprofit Managers

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by Thomas A. McLaughlin

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Explains, in plain English, how to use financial information to effectively run nonprofit organizations. Concentrates on how to read, interpret and use financial data from bookkeepers and accountants to make management decisions that ensure the ongoing financial future of your organization. The book is organized into four distinct parts--analysis, accounting,


Explains, in plain English, how to use financial information to effectively run nonprofit organizations. Concentrates on how to read, interpret and use financial data from bookkeepers and accountants to make management decisions that ensure the ongoing financial future of your organization. The book is organized into four distinct parts--analysis, accounting, operations and control--and features more than 50 easy-to-read charts, tables, checklists and instructive sidebars. Includes a diskette with handy financial templates to copy, modify and use.

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Streetsmart Financial Basics for Nonprofit Managers

By Thomas A. McLaughlin

John Wiley & Sons

ISBN: 0-471-20570-2

Chapter One

Organizational Structure: Programs and Corporations

The nonprofit industry is enormous. Tens of thousands of such organizations are created every year. Exhibit 1.1 shows the growth curve for the last several years. Nonprofit organizations in the United States spend over $340 billion each year. They employ nearly 7 percent of the total workforce and are responsible for 6 percent of the Gross Domestic Product. Universities, research centers, religious institutions, and museums produce priceless accomplishments. Nonprofit hospitals are major elements of our health care system and in many communities are the largest employer. Social service agencies provide a wide variety of services to those less fortunate citizens. Other nonprofits educate people of all ages and at all levels. Still others develop communities and support our social lives.

There are many ways to categorize this industry. The IRS's way is discussed later in this chapter. The traditional way is by the service provided and, to a lesser extent, the size of the nonprofit organization. This approach may not be particularly useful from a financial management perspective since services and even size alone do not necessarily say much about the nature of the financial management challenge.


For financial purposes, a better way of looking atthis industry is to sort it into categories according to the primary economic function the organizations perform. Six distinct types of nonprofit corporations can be defined:

1. Direct service providers

2. Information managers

3. Resource distributors

4. Support and development providers

5. Grant makers or funders

6. Social organizations

Note that these groupings are chiefly for analytical purposes, and that the activities of many organizations can span several categories.

Direct Service Providers

These organizations are the classic nonprofits. Usually public charities, they are the hospitals, clinics, social service providers, and the like that provide some sort of direct and recognizable service to some or all of the public at large. Often major employers of professionals, these corporations provide a "hands-on" service.

Financial issues in direct service providers vary according to size and funding source. One characteristic that many share is the need to assemble a workable mix of funders, and to be careful about managing the relationships between funders' requirements. Complexities abound in their financial management profile because governmental and quasi-governmental entities are often major funding sources. One study from Johns Hopkins University found that 29 percent of all U.S. nonprofits' funding comes from government sources. Due to the limitations of government funding, philanthropy must also often play a role in direct service providers' management, and the stakes are high if money is accounted for inaccurately.

Payment in this field is moving from the traditional reimbursement for costs incurred to a defined price for a defined service such as one finds in health maintenance organizations. Level funding for many years has been the norm.

Information Managers

Another large category of nonprofits are the information managers-universities, museums, advocacy groups, trade associations, and a variety of similar organizations. Their role is to accumulate information of a predefined sort and share it with selected users, often in the role of broker. A university, for example, can be viewed as a broker between professors and students, or between researchers and consumers of research. Information management agencies range widely in size from the very smallest advocacy group to multibillion-dollar universities with international branches.

Consumers of information management services are multiple and naturally quite independent of each other; their financial systems must be capable of handling unusually massive quantities of information. These types of organizations tend to have memberships; therefore, the financial systems must store information about the same people for retrieval and usage over a period of years. In effect, membership records are the financial data.

In practice this scenario dictates a financial system, especially the revenue tracking component, that is capable of handling large numbers of small or large transactions. Frequently, the financial task is paralleled by the program manager's need to communicate with hundreds or even thousands of people, members and nonmembers. Fast and effective data management often becomes the only thing distinguishing one information manager from another, laying a heavy burden on the administrative infrastructure of each organization.

Resource Distributors

Resource distribution agencies reached their zenith during the Great Society days of the 1960s. For a variety of political, psychological, and logistical reasons, the federal government did a lot of business directly with local nonprofit agencies, positioning them as the last stop before direct contact with eligible clients.

No doubt it was politically useful for these local players to wield ultimate distribution responsibility, thereby shielding the federal government from criticism. It was also smart to graft onto the organizations' existing formal or informal support systems rather than re-creating them from scratch. Community action programs from the 1960s such as antipoverty programs are a good example of resource distribution nonprofits.

The premiere financial demand of resource distribution nonprofits is strict accountability. In many ways, they serve as the social equivalent of general contractors, assembling a team of benefit or service providers in order to accomplish a coordinated job. In other cases, they act mainly as a final distribution point for transfer payments, usually as part of an entitlement program. Their work typically involves outreach, evaluation, and servicing of eligible clients. From the funders' perspective, however, their real value comes after the client transaction has occurred and they make their reports to the payments' source.

Owing to the demand for accountability, resource distribution nonprofits' financial systems will tend to be shaped by individual transactions and the funding source's rules. Most programs of this sort are expected to track the flow of money, not the effectiveness of the programs. Accountability in this context means careful accounting, not managerial success. Perhaps not surprisingly given their role as intelligent conduits, many resource distribution nonprofits end up looking a lot like the governmental unit that funds them.

Support and Development Providers

The fourth category of nonprofit corporations refers to support and development groups. These organizations are limited in number but play a major role in areas of the health and social welfare sector. In size and focus they are not unlike resource distribution nonprofits, except that they concentrate on leveraging resources rather than simply marshaling them.

Financial management for support and development groups will be unremarkable except when ownership or financing of capital projects is involved. The task in these cases often relates to properly valuing assets, estimating the percentage of a project completed, and properly accounting for and reporting on funds received. The difficult aspect of financial management in the property acquisition or rehabilitation environment is dealing with irregular flows of cash in and out of the corporation, and keeping track of what are expenses of the current period versus what expenses should be considered part of the capital project.

Grant Makers or Funders

One of the most common of all types of nonprofits, grant makers or funders can range from the very smallest fund-raising agencies to massive private foundations. Their task is to raise money and decide who should get it, and, in the case of private foundations, raising the money may consist chiefly of effectively managing a portfolio of equities.

One of the things that makes the funder's financial management job at least theoretically easier than many in the nonprofit field-foundation CFOs, block your ears-is that things like revenue management may have to be done by outsiders such as investment managers. No financial officer can be expected to have the skills to manage a major chunk of investments, nor would the responsible board expect it. Moreover, there are arguments for accountability that favor separating investment management from operational tasks.

On a broader level, to do the grant-making job correctly, the funder needs to operate in a planned, disciplined fashion. Happily, good financial management can thrive under the same conditions. In effect, a funder is engaged in the business of shaping and directing streams of money over a period of years. This is a profoundly different dynamic than most other nonprofit categories, and it should not be underestimated in the context of designing a financial management system.

For all practical purposes, funders are accountable to no one. While the technical aspects of fund-raising and grant-making must be handled properly, it is relatively easy to hire skilled staff to see to that. Beyond the minimal level of legal compliance in both the public charity and the private foundation worlds, no significant person or authority is in a position to routinely challenge the workings of a funder. Ironically, this can be as much a hindrance to good financial management as anything else, since there is the possibility that complacency will crowd out effectiveness.

Social Organizations

The final entry in the list of major nonprofit types is social clubs and organizations. Whether fraternities, lodges, sporting clubs, quilting associations, or any of a vast array of other entities, they share the common theme that they exist in order to further the social interests of their members. Funding comes almost entirely from members' dues and from business transacted with members (such as restaurant and bar sales at clubs), and occasionally from rents or investments.

Typically, the financial stakes are low in a social club. Members usually have little interest in the details of financial management beyond seeing that the dues are collected and the bills paid on time. As a result, two of the greatest threats to a club's financial health are sloppy record keeping and fraud. The need for fiscal accountability is just as strong as in other categories, but much of the focus is likely to be on cash. One thing that tends to be true for social clubs is that their financial prowess is never any greater than what the membership demands.



Programs are the most visible and best understood aspect of the nonprofit form of business organization, and its chief means of carrying out its mission. Also called services, projects, clinics, divisions, departments, floors, or any one of a thousand other names, programs are the activities of the nonprofit organization.

Coming up with a fair and workable definition of a program is difficult. Here's an attempt: A program is a coherently packaged group of activities, usually associated with a specific physical location, designed to accomplish a stated result.

Nonprofit organizations run all kinds of programs, and often more than one. Day care centers offer infant care programs, environmental groups operate recycling systems, museums run art appreciation courses, and so forth. The two keys to understanding programs are that they generally have some coherent internal structure, and that they appear as distinct choices to potential users.

In most nonprofit organizations, programs are like little businesses, with a structure reinforced by nonprofit accounting rules and one that has immense if largely unnoticed consequences for everything from compensation to organizational effectiveness. They represent a delegation of responsibility from the chief executive officer, and so they are the engines of mission. It is at the program level where the organization's goals are accomplished or not, and therefore those in charge of programs carry heavy moral pressure to get the job done.

Notice the use of the word "moral" in the preceding sentence. Typically, the motivations of those who run nonprofit organizations are different from those who do the same thing in the for-profit world, and the motivations of program managers everywhere are often different still from their bosses. We'll explore some of those differing interests later. For the moment, we'll use the program as the smallest management unit of the nonprofit corporation.


The next major level of nonprofit management is the corporation that "owns" or runs the programs. The corporation is a statutory entity established by the legally sanctioned actions of one or more individuals. As a legally approved entity separate from its constituent individuals, the corporation has its own continuing existence. In legal theory, corporations are treated as distinct entities just like individual people, and corporations have their own collection of responsibilities, liabilities, and powers.

Why a corporation? The answer is disarmingly simple: because it's easier for the rest of us. Corporations can be mentioned in the same legal breath as the individuals who use their services, work in them, or simply exist in the same state with them. All are on the same legal footing, in that respect. The complicated and narrower answer to the question has to do with such practical considerations as revenue source regulations and liability strategies.

Revenue source regulations and political realities often nudge nonprofits in the direction of a specific type of organizational structure. Programs such as battered women's shelters almost of necessity start out as single-service corporations, while older and more established social service and health care groups may have developed a multiple corporate structure.

There are also liability laws to consider when operating different types of businesses. Nonprofit public charities traditionally have been granted generous protection from state liability laws, although that tendency is beginning to change. It's a tradition growing out of English Common Law that has been codified in many places around the country. Often there will be either an explicit limitation on suits or a prohibition altogether on the grounds that agencies funded by the public at large ought not to be siphoning resources into private hands via lawsuits. Liability considerations alone are not normally strong enough to determine a corporate structure, but the more favorable liability climate for public charities is clear.


Excerpted from Streetsmart Financial Basics for Nonprofit Managers by Thomas A. McLaughlin Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

THOMAS A. MCLAUGHLIN is the founder of McLaughlin & Associates, a nonprofit consulting firm. He is a contributing editor for the NonProfit Times, and he taught financial management and strategic management to mission-based MBA and international students at Boston University and Brandeis University for 28 years.

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Streetsmart Financial Basics for Nonprofit Managers 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am currently using this book for a class called "Issues in Nonprofit Management." This book does not read like an average textbook, which at first threw me off. The author may use casual language, but to truly understand the lessons of each chapter, I suggest either reading it twice or creating a detailed outline. After that, understanding and applying the lessons is easy!
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago