Not For Profit Red Flags

When I was considering a Controller’s position with a charity, a friend warned me that it would limit my career. “Once you move to a charity, you can never go back to a real business,” he said.

The Not For Profit (NFP) sector used to be viewed as a backwater, not serious business. The reality is the opposite, particularly from an accounting perspective. Charities and NFP systems have unique challenges. You ignore these red flags at your peril!

First of all, every dollar received by an NFP needs to have a flag attached to it so you can say what happened to that particular dollar. Whether it is a donation, a government grant or membership dues, the person who gave the dollar wants to know what happened to it. Contrast that with your typical business, where once the product or service has been delivered, the owners are free to do whatever they want with the cash.

Secondly, actually delivering a zero bottom line where revenues consistently equal expenses requires smart financial planning. The expenses can be relatively easy to forecast, but revenue is often tricky, particularly when a large portion may come on December 31 when many donors scramble to make their contributions before the year end deadline.

Thirdly, many NFP’s are a microcosm of larger Canadian issues, such as west vs. east, rural vs. urban, English vs. French, individual vs. large corporation, and you have to ensure that all of the constituents are fairly represented. Financial reporting can be critical in demonstrating that the organization’s resources are being deployed in an even handed manner.

If you understand the red flags, however, working for an NFP can be a rewarding career highlight.

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