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Nonprofits: Four Signs That Something May Be Awry


Many nonprofit leaders are nervously watching macroeconomic signs — inflation, rising interest rates and the possibility of recession — to predict how their organization will fare in coming months and years. But threats to your nonprofit’s well-being may be closer than you think. Whether you’re an executive or board member, make sure you’re looking out for these four internal warning signs:

1. Unexplained Budget Discrepancies. After a budget has been approved by the board of directors, it should be monitored for variances. Although some variances are to be expected, your 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 watch out for overspending in one program funded by another, dipping into operational reserves, or unplanned borrowing. These, plus the need to raid your nonprofit’s endowment for funding, may mark the beginning of a financially unsustainable cycle.

2. Down-Trending Donations. Let’s say your nonprofit has been receiving fewer and smaller donations lately. Then you start hearing from long-standing supporters that they’re losing confidence in your organization. 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 activities could mean your nonprofit is scrambling for cash.

3. Unreliable Financials. If your financial statements are untimely and inconsistent or aren’t prepared using U.S. Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, 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.

4. Leadership Run Amok. Even the most experienced and knowledgeable nonprofit executive director shouldn’t have absolute power. Your board needs to step in if an executive tries to ignore expense limits or breaks other rules of good fiscal management. The board also should question any executive who attempts to choose a new auditor or who makes strategic decisions without board input.

If you spot any of these signs, don’t ignore them. Ask us to review the situation and help you tackle any problems.