'That's one of the most important skills ...'
From technical expert to coach: In 17 years at Clark Nuber, my role grew from technical expert to communicator and coach, where I provide a broad range of advice to both nonprofit management teams and board members. They're two types of clients—management and board members—that often need different things from the external CPA. Particularly for board members, the external CPA can provide coaching and training on topics like financial assessments and the unique risks and operating environment for nonprofits. I need to talk at a technical level with management but then communicate that information in layman's terms in the boardroom. As accountants, we're not born to be good public speakers. But frankly, that's one of the most important skills to have in the nonprofit world.
Helping not-for-profits face unique challenges: When we look at quality and transparency of financial reporting, one area that's been a long-standing challenge for nonprofits, particularly those receiving grants and contributions from donors, is communicating the liquidity and the financial stability of the organization. FASB's new accounting standards, which nonprofits will adopt soon, should help us better report how the nonprofit is doing, particularly how liquid our balance sheet is.
Strengthening policies: I work with my clients to strengthen their policies and procedures in key areas. A key area of focus for many clients is cash reserves, including ensuring they have enough cash to pay the bills, that they're establishing and maintaining a liquidity or operating reserve, and saving for future investments in the organization's operations. Second, organizations with board-designated reserves often don't have the documentation around how they should be used. The organization should have written documentation detailing the purpose of the reserves, any target balances for those reserves, if applicable, and who is authorized to utilize the reserves (the board or management). And last, the bigger an organization gets, the more varied the type of donations it receives—from cash donations, to stock donations, or land. Some organizations are caught off guard when those types of donations come in, and don't have a policy on when to say yes or no.
Addressing cyber risk: Cybersecurity risk management is a hot topic and very relevant to nonprofits. It's discussed in most audit committee meetings I attend these days. As the external CPA, we can bring practical advice that's right-sized to our clients to help them manage risk. For example, many of my clients are benefiting from moving financial activities to cloud-based systems, so we discuss the due diligence they can and should perform on those third-party service organizations before they work with them, and then on an ongoing basis.
—As told to Lea Hart (firstname.lastname@example.org), a freelance writer in Durham, N.C.