Setting up an Accounting Dept– Some Pointers

 

Many growing for-profit and nonprofit organizations find themselves with financial reports that make no sense, “forgotten” revenues and slow bill paying processes. They may be at a point where the part-time bookkeeper is over his or her head and flooded in work. So, what can you do? Below are some ideas to get you going.

Identify accounting tasks

You can look at accounting tasks and divide the work within these tasks. For example, a typical accounting department performs the following work:

  • Pay bills – Accounts Payable
  • Recognize revenues – Accounts Receivable
  • Process payroll – Payroll Administrator

Other tasks associated with an accounting department are: Cash management, bank reconciliations, budgets, financial reporting, and taxes. In large businesses, each of these functions is performed by one individual or more. In smaller firms, tasks are shared and the staff is supervised by a manager or a controller, who often is responsible for financial policies and procedures for the organization.

Analyze functions

Many businesses, including nonprofits, organize their accounting department using flowcharts and job descriptions. You don’t want to have the same task be performed twice or three times, but also,  you don’t want to miss an important process. Some nonprofits hire outside consultants to help them in organizing their department for maximum efficiency, while considering risks and controls. Unfortunately, this last option is usually used after a fraud or loss situation, when people are traumatized and willing to pay for professional advice.

Hire people with proper accounting skills

A common mistake is to assume that accounting is easy and can be done by the person who is a receptionist or works in another part of the organization. Without training or education, this person should be able to perform accounting functions of a full-charge bookkeeper. That’s a mistake and is not fair. Hire accounting people who have the proper education and experience. Accounting managers or controllers should have at least a bachelors’ degree in accounting. Someone with a four-year degree in business and a few years of accounting experience may also qualify.

Segregation of duties

As you organize the department, consider segregation of duties. For example, the person who opens the mail or receives money should NOT be the person who books revenues in the accounting system. If the person running accounts payable is also doing bank reconciliations, then a manager or controller should review the reconciliation and look at cashed checks. Why?  To have check-and-balances, internal controls, to prevent and correct mistakes or misappropriations.

Background checks 

Don’t forget to run background checks on all employees and volunteers dealing with accounting and cash functions. Make this a policy within your organization, so that people understand the situation as one of internal controls, not just paranoia.  Actually, many insurance companies require this step before issuing policies against theft and fraud.

Interested on CPE credits regarding nonprofits?  Online Practical CPE Courses

You can also check out my books:

Nonprofit Finance: A Practical Guide – Second Edition— First edition Nominated for a  2016 McAdam Book Award

15 Quick Tips on Becoming a Great Consultant  — Free on Kindle Unlimited

Preventing Fraud in Your Nonprofit– Tips

I don’t know about you, but I’m sick and tired of hearing about nonprofit fraud, especially when done by an in-house, trustworthy person. It’s heartbreaking to see people in stealing from such organizations. In many cases, the theft lasts for a while, until someone stumbles upon it by chance to the shock and dismay of many people. Unfortunately, this is not that rare. So, how can a nonprofit stop such unpleasant incidents and at the same not be overtly suspicious of people who are, in most cases, innocent?

There are a couple of activities that can be used to find errors that may be very innocent, while at the same time identify signs of fraud. These tasks, known as controls within financial circles, can do double-duty in keeping an organization safe and error-free. They are by no means the only controls to prevent or identify fraud, but they are fairly easy to perform and worth a close look.

1- Look at bank accounts online —-Someone from the board could review bank activities online, looking for unusual vendors or checks. This task should be specified in the organization’s policies and procedures and should be known by everyone. The idea here is to let people know that there’s a process established that is part of the day-to-day business of the organization and not a big deal. Having a board member ask questions about checks and deposits should be expected. This is not micro-management, but a way to double check on bank transactions, like unusual vendors or amounts paid out or deposited.

A second pair of eyes looking at online bank data at least once a week can also help to find errors. For example, if the board member knows that someone donated $20,000 recently, but only sees $2,000 deposited in the bank, then the bank should be contacted and asked if this was an error on the part of the bank, which can happen. This discrepancy could also be an error from accounting that can be fixed right away. However, if errors don’t explain the discrepancies, then the situation needs to be further investigated. There’s a chance that someone misappropriated the funds, even if you don’t want to think about it.

2- Contact donors often — Someone outside development dept. or the CEO’s office could contact donors, especially if they haven’t donated as before or as expected. The point is to have someone who usually doesn’t talk to donors to follow up on an informal basis, verifying if any donation or payment was made. Why is this important?

Fraudsters call donors as a follow-up, but when the money arrives instead of depositing the money in the organization’s bank account, they deposit it elsewhere. Sometimes the payment goes to a bank account with similar name or initials, while other times the check is endorsed and deposited elsewhere with a totally different name.  Banks usually don’t look this closely at the check to identify the ruse, unless there is a problem. Accounting staff wouldn’t  know about the donation, and nobody, except for the thief, knows about the payment. This issue may be found when someone different talks to the donors.

Note that issues found are likely to be very innocent as well. Maybe the donor forgot about making the donation. However, if the donor made a payment, but it didn’t make it to the organization’s bank account, it could be because it was lost or the bank deposited it in the wrong account by mistake. These situations usually don’t point to internal fraud, just errors that can be corrected.  The point is to follow the money trail.

These are only a few activities a nonprofit can do to protect itself against theft and fraud.  It’s sad that we have to be a bit paranoid running a nonprofit, but it’s a must in today’s environment. Auditors may come in once a year to double check on financial issues, but they usually don’t find all fraud. By following just these two processes, nonprofits can make fraud harder to happen and that’s always a good thing.

Check out the book “Nonprofit Finance: A Practical Guide- Second Edition” –– First edition was nominated for the 2016 McAdam Book Award.