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A Guide to Standing Committees for Nonprofits — The Investment Committee

Last week we discussed the role of the Finance Committee for nonprofit organizations. Now we’d like to take a quick look at the Investment Committee, which generally has responsibility for overseeing the invested assets of an organization.

An Investment Committee can provide a good check and balance to ensure that restricted or reserved assets are properly stewarded for their intended purpose. The most common type of assets in this category would be your endowment, whether it’s a true endowment or a board restricted fund. An endowment is meant to have some degree of permanence, so it’s important to make sure the assets aren’t depleted just to balance the budget or cover routine expenses. In addition to an endowment, organizations sometimes have an investment account with less formal restrictions, but that operates more like a savings account may to an individual.

The Investment Committee:

  • Creates an investment policy to reflect the risk tolerance of the organization and provide guidance on the general portfolio makeup of the account
  • Creates a spending policy to clarify how much of the account can be drawn each year and how that amount is determined
  • Monitors the performance of the organization’s investments
  • Helps moderate the conflicting desires to create a large reserve fund that can provide consistent support to the operating budget through the yearly draws, and the desire to spend the money to balance budgets and expand programming

The following is a sample description of the Investment Committee:

The Investment Committee shall: (a) recommend policies to the Board concerning the management and use of the Corporation’s assets, including its endowment funds; (b) review and assure compliance with such policies that are adopted by the Board; (c) select a professional investment advisor to assist the Committee with periodic evaluations of the investment performance of assets, asset allocation, selection and monitoring of investment managers, and the execution of its responsibilities; (d) select and monitor the performance of investment managers and custodians; (e) for planning and budgeting purposes, recommend a policy for determining the annual transfer of funds from the any endowment funds to the operating or program budget; (f) report to the Board at least annually on the management and performance of endowment assets versus relevant benchmarks; and (g) if authorized by the Board, develop policies and guidelines for, and monitor the performance of, investments in any retirement or pension plan for the benefit of the Corporation’s employees.

The Investment Committee can be a good place for non-board volunteers to serve in an advisory capacity, even as voting members. As part of your board’s overall duty to manage the organization’s finances, though, it is important that any policies created by the Investment Committee be recommended to and approved by the full board.

The Investment Committee can be chaired by a vice chair of the board, or the assistant treasurer, or another officer or board member. However, if your treasurer chairs your Finance Committee, make sure he/she does not also chair the Investment Committee, in order to preserve the value of the checks and balances this committee is meant to create.

If you’re managing a smaller organization and have been reading this blog series, you may have begun to feel that I have suggested more standing committees than you have members of your board. Certainly there is room for overlap in the committee membership, and as I mentioned above, the Investment Committee is a place where non-board member volunteers can be effective. If you do have invested assets, though, I strongly recommend against operating with a combined Finance and Investment Committee. It may be possible to combine the duties of the Investment Committee with the Executive Committee. You may also want to make the Investment Committee a “committee of the whole”, which means your full board would take on these responsibilities.

Creating your investment and spending policies is very important work, and in a future post, we’ll take a look at some of the big questions to be considered when establishing these guidelines for your organization.

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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.

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A Guide to Standing Committees for Nonprofits — The Executive Committee

The Executive Committee of a nonprofit board can have many different forms and functions, often depending on the size or engagement of the board. Today we’ll look at several options and their advantages. First, though, let’s look at some rather universal concepts.

The Executive Committee is generally the body that directly oversees an organization’s highest paid staff member. Hiring, compensation, performance evaluation, and firing decisions are nearly always made by this group, which then informs the board of their decisions or recommendations. Housing these sensitive personnel matters in the Executive Committee provides important perspective and check and balances for your board president, and also confines the discussion of potentially sensitive personal information to a small, trusted group of board members, as opposed to presenting these discussions in the more open setting of a full board meeting.

In addition, the Executive Committee should have a strong voice regarding the agenda of meetings of the full board. In this role, the committee should ensure all important information and items for discussion and decision are included on your board agenda at the appropriate time to meet target dates in the strategic timeline or legal/regulatory deadlines. The Executive Committee should also ensure that any matter presented to your board for decision has been fully investigated and vetted, thereby ensuring your board members have all the information they need to make a decision for the organization.

If your organization has a large board, the Executive Committee can play a very important role in communicating information to and from your organization’s leadership. In this scenario, the chairpersons of each committee of the board, along with the board’s officers, generally comprise the membership of the Executive Committee. These members take decisions about the organization’s strategic direction to the various committees, which then work to implement those decisions in more detail. The members of the Executive Committee also report on their committees’ progress, to ensure continued alignment and to prevent duplication of efforts.

For a smaller board, the Executive Committee may only include the officers of the board, who may occupy a more hands on role in assisting your Executive Director.

Whichever structure makes sense for your organization, think of your Executive Committee as the body that helps coordinate the work of the board to maximize board engagement and effectiveness.

And because the Executive Committee plays such a central and often sensitive role, I recommend all members of this committee be members of your board currently in office. We’ll look at other committees where non-board members can appropriately serve, but the Executive Committee isn’t one of them.

With these concepts in mind, let’s look at another common function of the Executive Committee. Most state laws permit the Executive Committee to act between meetings of the full board, provided their actions are reported to and ratified by the full board at its next meeting. While this power certainly allows decisions to be made quickly and permits the scheduling of less frequent meetings of the full board (which, admittedly, means less work for staff), it may also contribute to less board engagement. There is a danger that, since the Executive Committee is easier to assemble and often consists of the Executive Director’s and board president’s closest colleagues, more and more decision making will be shifted over time to the committee, instead of allowing the full board the opportunity to consider important issues and feel engaged in the work of the organization. I generally recommend that the power of the Executive Committee to act between meetings of the full board be limited to emergency situations.

The following is a sample description of the Executive Committee’s responsibilities:

Membership of the Executive Committee shall be comprised of the officers of the Corporation, the chairpersons of each of the Corporation’s standing committees, and such other individuals as may be appointed by the Chair of the Board, provided that all members of the Executive Committee shall be Directors of the Corporation currently in office. The Executive Committee will serve as the compensation committee and is responsible for hiring and determining compensation for the President of the Corporation.  The Executive Committee, if necessary to meet legal deadlines or obligations or in emergency situations where action is required immediately, may have and exercise all of the authority of the Board of Directors in the management of the Corporation except as such authority is limited by the Articles of Incorporation, the Regulations, or by statute, or as may be limited by the resolution relating to the Committee.  All action taken by the Executive Committee shall be reported at the next full Board meeting.  The Executive Committee may act by a majority of the members of the Executive Committee at a meeting or in a writing or writings signed by all Executive Committee members.

One final comment for smaller organizations — if a board lacks sufficient members to staff all of the standing committees you might like to have, it is possible to have the Executive Committee assume the typical duties of the Board Development Committee, especially when an organization is in its formative years.

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A Guide to Standing Committees for Nonprofits — General Principles

No matter how big or small your organization is, having a solid structure for your volunteer board and committees is one of the best ways to make sure your board is efficient, engaged, and adding value to your management team. While there are templates and guidelines galore for committee descriptions, not every organization will need (or be able to support) the same committee structure. This blog series will look at the most common standing committees, what they can do, what they really should do, and how to integrate them within your larger board structure.

First, let’s outline some basic concepts. Your committee structure should be outlined in your organization’s By Laws or, as they’re called in Ohio, Code of Regulations. I’ll be speaking to Ohio’s nonprofit corporation law, but in terms of committee powers, most states are very similar. If you’re not in Ohio, though, be sure to check you state laws to make sure there are no conflicting provisions.

The theory behind any committee structure, no matter how simple or robust, is that many hands make light work. While the whole board should be involved in certain activities, and should always be the final decision making authority for the organization, the detail work of researching, investigating and advising management to recommend actions should be done by smaller groups of volunteers. That way when you present a strategy to your board, you’ve really run down all the pros and cons and can put a viable plan in front of them to discuss and, hopefully, adopt.

Committees are also the place to pull in expertise from people who don’t sit on your board. Accountants, lawyers, industry experts, consultants, service providers, and others with specific experience in your service area often have much to offer in vetting possible strategies. These people are often not the best choice for board members, though, because they may not be willing or able to engage in the kind of fundraising, outreach or advocacy that your whole board really needs to do. (We’ll dive in to that more our post about development committees.)

Remember, most importantly, that committees are supposed to help management, not add to their work load. If you’re a nonprofit manager and you routinely worry about creating an agenda for committee meetings because you don’t know what they’re supposed to do, don’t feel like you have work for them, or don’t want to have to manage the less than helpful suggestions that come out of your committee meetings, then I’d like to suggest you don’t have the right committee structure. Your board and your committee structure are not the place to steward and engage your biggest donors. Any organization’s committee structure must be a reflection of the organization’s mission and work plans, and help your staff work most effectively.

Next up we’ll look at the Board Development Committee. Until then, practice removing the phrase “nominating committee” from your vocabulary!

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Why you need a great accountant on your nonprofit team

We’ve talked about the benefits of the advice of a savvy accountant for a for profit business, but nonprofits need a great accountant on their team, too. Why would a nonprofit need an accountant if they don’t need to pay taxes? Why, to keep you from needing to pay taxes, of course!

Nonprofits are exempt from taxes in general, but there are some exceptions. Nonprofits can also be subject to penalties from noncompliance with various IRS rules and pronouncements. Here are some things you should be thinking about:

  • Are you conducting any activities that could generate unrelated business income, which is taxable even to a nonprofit (think gift shops and snack bars, depending on the type of organization you have)
  • Are you following all the IRS rules about acknowledging contributions correctly
  • Are you accepting gifts of art work, cars, boats or other unusual property
  • Are any of the gifts you receive restricted by your donors for a specific project or purpose
  • Have you classified your employees properly as either employee or independent contractor, and can you tweak the way any staff members work to reduce your employer tax responsibility
  • Do any of the fringe benefits you offer your employees end up creating taxable income to you (yes, that actually can happen)
  • Has anyone given you an interest in a partnership as a gift
  • Are you making grants directly to individuals, or grants to individuals or entities outside the US

These are just some of the things that can cause a nonprofit to be subject to tax or penalties if not dealt with properly, and not all of them are common sense. Whether or not you’re required to produce audited financial statements, make sure you have an accountant on your team that can help you review these and other financial practices outside of the routine context of completing your 990.