Posted on Leave a comment

A Guide to Standing Committees for Nonprofits — The Finance Committee

The next three standing committees we’ll examine are very closely related. These are the Finance Committee, the Audit Committee, and the Investment Committee. Sometimes the names of these committees are interchanged or combined, so as we move forward, make sure to focus on the function of the committees, not the names, to sort out the structure that will be best for your organization.

The Finance Committee is the group that has principal responsibility for your organization’s budget and financial performance. It is generally chaired by the organization’s Treasurer. The budget process will be the focus of the committee toward the end of the fiscal year. In close consultation with staff, the organization’s Treasurer and the committee will look at last year’s performance and determine new targets for income and expenses. The process isn’t really any different for a nonprofit organization than it is for any for profit business, and should produce a well reasoned, well supported projection of the next fiscal year’s full financial picture based on past financial and performance history.

I always recommend that the whole organization have a deep involvement in the budgeting process. Staff in your program areas will have the best information on the need for your organization’s services, be they social services, education, performing arts events, or anything else. The budget process is time for them to examine what resources they need to to their jobs, what the need is in your community for those services, and what the community can and will pay for them. Understanding this information will help them engage in meaningful discussions of what expenses will be needed, and what earned or contributed income is likely for the next year. Your organization’s development staff will also have an important role in the discussion, as they will be able to assess the extent to which the philanthropic community will support the services your program staff suggests.

In large organizations, this staff budgeting process will likely be coordinated by the executive director. However, when staff has made their initial budget recommendations, a robust discussion with senior staff and the Finance Committee should follow to balance not only the organization’s priorities but also the budget.

Once the Finance Committee is satisfied with the budget, a recommendation is made to the full Board for approval, since establishing and monitoring the budget is one of the primary duties of a board of directors. If possible, keep the Board updated on challenges during the budgeting process. When you present the final recommended budget to the board, I strongly recommend you include a narrative description with your spreadsheets, describing why each line item, or at least each group of line items, is increasing, decreasing, or staying the same compared to prior years. I find most boards want to see at least 3 years of past performance, meaning budgets and actual performance for each year, in order to understand the trajectory of the organization.

I understand this all sounds very formal and cumbersome, and if you’re leading a smaller nonprofit, you may not think it’s really necessary. However, I’d like to suggest that the process of establishing a budget really is the same, no matter the size or type of organization. For smaller budgets or organizations focused on a single line of business, the process may not take as long, but staff involvement is very important, and having a board committee dig into budget and performance is crucial for sustainability and success.

Remember, a budget is only an aspirational expression of your organization’s financial situation at the beginning of a fiscal year. Equally important is regular monitoring of actual performance compared to budget. This monitoring, along with regular reporting to the full board, is the second primary responsibility of the Finance Committee. In my experience, board members like to see regular, monthly updates, along with same time last year benchmarking to judge progress. To the extent possible, regular monthly or quarterly projections of where you’ll be at fiscal year end relative to budget are also extremely important, and allow you to communicate both good news (perhaps a new, large gift or grant or contract for services), and bad news (a loss of regular or anticipated funding) to the full board in a timely and meaningful way.

A caution for staff: Board and committee members who are unfamiliar or uncomfortable with formal financial reporting often request staff to prepare budgets and updates in many different formats, I believe in an effort to help them understand the reports they’re reviewing. Some want more information, some less. Some what spreadsheets, some want graphs. Some want dashboard style reporting, others just want the P&L. Listen to their concerns, adopt a standard form of reporting, and try to stick to it. Spend some time, or have your committee chair spend the time, teaching board members how to read the reports you are generating, to avoid spending time reformatting your reporting every month. (Yes, I have seen that happen.)

I’m often asked what kind of volunteers will make good Finance Committee members. Accounting expertise is helpful, but often your business office or outsourced CPA can advise on these technical issues. I like to see savvy business people who are used to the budgeting and financial monitoring process in their own business as members of this committee. I also strongly recommend a member of the development committee sit on the Finance Committee. Without that voice, it’s just too tempting for the contributed income line item to be whatever number is needed to balance the budget.

Another frequent question is whether non-board members can serve on the Finance Committee. In general, I recommend against this. I feel it is very important that the individuals setting and monitoring the organization’s finances be members of the board with the fiduciary duties of care and loyalty. That said, it is quite appropriate to use non-board volunteers for advice and counsel if your board does not have sufficient expertise in financial matters. These volunteers should not, however, be voting members of the Finance Committee.

The following is a sample job description for the functions of a typical Finance Committee:

Finance Committee

The Finance Committee shall: (a) review and make recommendations to the Board concerning the Corporation’s annual operating budget; (b) review and make recommendations to the Board concerning the Corporation’s annual capital budget; (c) monitor compliance with and variances from the budgets during the course of each year; (d) ensure that the Corporation’s financial reports provide accurate and timely information to the Board; (e) review proposed financings and borrowings, and make recommendations to the Board with respect thereto; (f) review the Corporation’s risk management and  insurance needs and policies, and make recommendations with respect thereto; (g) assist the Corporation’s Chief Financial Officer with long-term financial planning; and (h) review and approve fiscal policies, including those relating to check signing authority, accounts receivable collection, and management of accounts payable.

You’ll see this job description includes risk management, which we have not discussed in this blog. Some organizations make risk management a staff responsibility, which is quite appropriate. Including this activity in the responsibilities of your Finance Committee may depend on the expertise you have on your board.

You’ll also see that this job description does not include investment management, which I recommend, for organizations with investable funds, be housed in an Investment Committee, the subject of our next blog installment.