Board Role in Asset Protection
Bob Harris, CAE
In a meeting of the components of a national association, odds are good you will hear the whispers, “Did you know about the embezzlement at XYZ association?”
The amounts are sometimes staggering, exceeding $1 million. Equally surprising is how the board was oblivious to the losses occurring over multiple years.
The responsibility is shared between the board of directors and professional staff. As partners and fiduciaries on behalf of the membership they are charged with protecting resources.
When asked about the budget, directors may stutter. Or say, “Staff watch the budget for us.” I asked a treasurer about the size of the organization’s budget and she responded, “I haven’t looked at it recently, I don’t really know.” (It was a million dollar association.)
Some directors hone in on the smaller line items (“What’s this $75 expense?”). Many don’t know the size of the annual budget, the largest line items and the value of assets. These three numbers would be the start for protecting resources.
Reporting a loss of funds is a requirement of the IRS on Form 990. The agency describes a diversion as any unauthorized conversion or use of assets other than for the organization’s authorized purposes, including but not limited to embezzlement or theft.
Form 990 requires reporting diversions by officers, directors, trustees, employees, volunteers, independent contractors or any other person. Most are attributed to theft or embezzlement, sometimes leading to the loss of tens of millions of dollars to a single organization.
A Washington Post article in 2008 highlighted the “thefts, scams and phantom purchases” in nonprofits. The analysis identified more than 1,000 nonprofit organizations reporting a “significant diversion” of assets on Form 990. The article reports the IRS said that 285 diversions totaling $170 million had been disclosed in one year alone.
There are many tools and processes available for a board to protect resources.
• Form 990 – This is the annual information report to the IRS required of nearly all exempt organizations. Averaging 25 pages, board members can glean a lot about income, expenses, assets and programs. Give it a good read. It is expected that the governing body reviews it before submission.
• Audit – An audit is generally defined as a review of the organization’s financial situation by an independent outside professional. Look for the organization’s policy on the frequency and type of audit required. If it does not exist, inquire why not. When an audit is completed and presented to the board, review it carefully and ask questions of the auditor.
• Budget Approval – The budget is a projection of income and expenses for the year, approved by the board. The elected treasurer has a duty to keep the board informed of discrepancies in the budget. Directors should be articulate about aspects such as the size of the budget and the major income and expense items. The budget is a year-round tool of the board.
• Financial Reports – Directors should receive a financial report at every board meeting. Review it carefully, ready to ask questions about trends and performance. If the report is missing, ask why and get assurance it will be provided shortly after the meeting. Let the minutes reflect that the board received, reviewed and accepted the report.
• Oversight – Directors must accept that they have responsibility for financial management and asset oversight. Don’t assume that a committee, treasurer or staff are taking care of matters.
• Policies – There should be numerous policies regarding finances. For example, check signatories, credit card use, and requirement of receipts for reimbursement. Be sure the policies are in place and followed.
• Access to a CPA – If directors need more information to better understand financial matters ask a CPA to address the board. Topics might include IRS requirements, policy safeguards, audit options and Generally Accepted Accounting Principles.
• Big Picture – Directors sometimes micromanage by inquiring about the smallest line items. The attention should be on the big picture.
• Dashboards – Graphics reduce the time spent on listening or reading reports. Improve financial understanding with dashboards designed as pie charts and graphs comparing dues to non-dues income, savings to budget, dues renewals and membership growth.
• Internal Controls – Practices should be in place that protect assets. From secured check books, separation of duties, to limiting petty cash, be sure safeguards exist.
• Finance Committee – Spread the responsibility from the sole treasurer to a broader group of directors serving on a committee. Having several eyes on the books and financial matters is advantageous.
Avoid stories of diversions and embezzlement with a board that understands the responsibility and tools for financial oversight.