How Nonprofit Tax Form Helps Management

The nonprofit tax form 990 contains interesting questions and requirements that should be reviewed by the board, not just by the financial people. I highly recommend to download and print the full form, even if the nonprofit doesn’t need to file it.  You can check out the core pages at https://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-pdf/f990.pdf

Take a look at the 990 page 6- “Part VI Governance, Management and Disclosure “section” and what is asked in this page– it may be an eye-opener for many.

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As you can see, this form raises good questions that may be used to improve operations.  According to the instructions on the top, saying “yes’ to lines 2 through 7b requires explanations and management should review these items carefully.

Line 2 is about identifying people who may personally benefit from the organization, a possible private inurement situation, usually a no-no for tax-exempt organizations or a hefty excise tax. The take away here — be careful with business relations involving board members.

Line 5 is about the loss of assets, an intriguing item on the tax return. A “significant diversion of assets” according to the IRS is embezzlement, fraud, theft or other inappropriate use of funds that is the lesser of 5% of current annual gross receipts, 5% of total assets at year-end, or $250,000.  According to a Washington Post report in 2013, more than 1,000 organizations marked “yes” here and most were for embezzlement.  Besides giving details of the problem, it’s a good idea to also disclose any new internal controls used after the problem was disclosed to prevent it from happening again. Note that this is NOT confidential information.

Line 11 specifically asks about top management getting copies of the tax return and how reviews are conducted.  The board must be engaged in this process, even if they are not financial people.  They cannot say that they don’t know or understand the tax returns.

Line 12 asks about conflicts of interest while line 13 is about whistleblowing, and line 14 covers document retention and destruction policy.  These lines underscore the need for written policies, and under the conflict of interest item, the need to monitor those regularly.  The idea is to say “yes” to all of these.  And the take away for management is to make sure these policies are followed up by procedures to make sure they’re not just “lip service.”

Line 18 reminds organizations to make certain forms available for review, as required by law.   Such reminders are all over the tax form, including reminding nonprofits about reporting contractors and gambling winnings.  Management could highlight those items and follow up on them with the finance department.

Also, note that the 990 asks for the nonprofit’s mission statement as the first line, and also on Part III- Statement of Program Services Accomplishments.  The idea here is to match the mission statement to the programs.  If an organization mission is to provide food for the homeless, but programs relate to buying books to schools, the nonprofit may be at risk to lose its tax-exempt status, which can be a major problem.

 

You can check the new edition of the book Nonprofit Finance A Practical Guide at https://goo.gl/M563u9

 

 

 

Another Nonprofit Exec in Jail

Not to be too paranoid here, but I just read an article about the Simi Valley Community Foundation whose former executive director stole over $45,000. According to the news, she forged a second signature on the checks used to pay her own mortgage.  Sadly, this embezzlement cost the organization its reputation as it had to stop operations, at least for now.  A total disaster.

It’s not clear how exactly the theft was discovered, but board members noted something odd, hired a forensic accountant to review the records, and went to the police with evidence of embezzlement. So, I give credit to the board for finding this out, but this theft had been going on for awhile.

So, what can a board do to prevent or identify financial fraud faster?

1- Knowledge –Get people on the board who understand financial matters and can ask the right questions. The board cannot have the obligation to fundraise and provide oversight only. Board members should have different backgrounds with least one person having the education and experience to really understand the information provided and ask good questions. Had this person been on the board of this Simi Valley nonprofit, the fraud may have been identified earlier.

2- Online Access –Have someone from the board check on the bank accounts of the organization online. He or she should review checks and deposits, looking for checks that don’t look right. Just having a policy about this review may deter fraud. Employees may think twice before forging signatures or doing something odd when they know that someone would be looking at the bank transactions regularly.

3- Pay attention –Listen to complaints from staff, donor, and vendors. Oftentimes, information that could be construed as gossip can be useful in pointing you in the right direction. People talk. Even though it’s not clear how the board of the nonprofit became aware of something wrong, my bet is that someone saw something and talked about it. Some nonprofits have started using hotlines for people to report possible fraud anonymously, a very good idea.

4- Variances –Pay attention to the actual vs. budget reports. Looking at this fraud, one may wonder how the $45,000 theft was classified and shown on the financial reports. The amount didn’t show up all at once, but it was likely classified as a budget item. So, if an overage is noted, the board should ask for back up documentations, such as bills.Talk only doesn’t explain financial issues.

5- System reports –Review new vendor/change vendor reports once a month to question any odd new vendor or changes. In this situation, the bank where the mortgage was paid to would have been added at a certain point to the accounting system. Had this report been reviewed, it may have flagged the bank as an odd vendor. Some accounting systems can send an email whenever a new vendor is added or changed, making this task automatic.

6- Bank reconciliations — Check on bank reconciliations, making sure they are done monthly. Keep an eye on deposits that are recognized in the accounting records, but don’t seem to be in the bank.  Also, look at the detailed outstanding checklist. This can be done online using the accounting system and can be emailed to someone at the board. If a check shows up at the bank, but not on the accounting records of the organization, it could be a red flag.

7- Self-reliance –Don’t count on auditors to notice embezzlement. Audits are designed to assure reasonableness of financial statements and they may identify fraud, but not always, especially when done by management. When something seems wrong, not it, and don’t wait for the auditors to figure it out. Insiders are the first people to note things that don’t seem right.

8- Education — Educate all employees on fraud and embezzlement. Nonprofits should have this topic on its policies and procedures documentation and not be embarrassed about it. Fraud happens not just with stealing funds, but in other areas as well, such as equipment theft and overtime pay without authorization. Just showing this awareness and clarity over fraud may prevent it in the first place.

It’s a shame that nonprofit boards must be always on alert for fraud and embezzlement, but that’s the reality of the situation.  Once a scandal happens, it’s hard for the organization to regain the trust and respect of donors, making it hard to move forward.

So, it’s time to talk about this issue openly and set up written policies and procedures with tasks specifically designed to prevent and identify fraud and theft.  The ideas presented here won’t assure boards that they are safe from this issue, but are steps in the right direction.  Each organization is different and I’m sure many will need more control features than the ones presented here.  The crucial point here is that fraud signs cannot be ignored by the board.

Interested on CPE credits regarding nonprofits?  Online Practical CPE Courses

You can also check out my books:

Nonprofit Finance: A Practical Guide — Second Edition 

Nonprofit Finance: A Practical Guide — Nominated for a  2016 McAdam Book Award

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

Donation Details Matter– Some Pointers

Donors want to give, members want to renew memberships, but sometimes they cannot. It can be a real problem for an organization, which may have spent a lot of money and energy in development, but then, somehow it doesn’t receive the funds.  What could be the problem?  It’s on the details…  which some may consider to be a no-brainer, but still, they deserve a second look because they are so common problems.Below are a couple of details to pay attention to:

Detail 1– Links should work

Recently, I received an invoice as an attachment to a nice email. All was well done and professional until I clicked on the link for online payment. Then, I was taken to an error page on the nonprofit website.  Now it’s up to me to figure out how to pay the organization. Do I look around the website for a link? Write a check?  Maybe leave this alone for now…and the organization may never see any donation or membership payment. Some prospective donors may never contact the nonprofit with this issue, and the bad link detail will go on undetected.

*** Pointer —  Check regularly on the invoice or email master text to make sure it’s still valid.  Usually, changing only one invoice or email doesn’t work well, since most systems use a master file that populates all the communications with donors.

Detail 2 – Take information over the phone easily

Have everybody in the organization trained in handling payments over the phone. Not just accounting folks. All the information and forms should be easily accessible and ready to be used, including online forms. When donors or others call to make a payment, get it done, which may be easier said than done. I have seen people transfer donors from one person to another– don’t do that. Don’t frustrate the person on the other end of the line.  Everyone should know how to handle the calls, help and get any payment.

***Pointer — The nonprofit could have a phone setup for people who want to pay so that they can do it so easily. The message could be,  “If you want to make a donation or a payment, please press 1 and someone will get the information right away.”

Detail 3 — Process donations quickly

Money should be in the bank, not sitting in someone’s drawer or safety box. The longer a nonprofit waits to process a donation, the more likely it is for it to have issues with bounced checks or charge backs. Online donations take care of most of these issues, but part of processing donations should also include who, how and when you want to thank donors.  Maybe a donation over a certain amount would receive a different type of acknowledgment than those that give only $10.

***Pointer — Develop policies and procedures regarding donation processing with specific people in charge of sending thank you notes, using autopen and when to actually obtain a real signature.
Nonprofits are competing with other organizations for every cent they get. Sometimes the day-to-day activities cloud the importance of making donations easy and stress-free. Sorry, but if I’m put on hold for a bit too long or get attitude or cluelessness, I hang up and give my money to someone else. So it’s important to make donating an easy, pleasant experience, not one where donors get error messages on the computer or an aggravating phone person. Details matter.
 

 

Check out the book “Nonprofit Finance: A Practical Guide” –– Nominated for the 2016 McAdam Book Award