Dealing with your non-profit organization's cash flow crisis

A few times every year I get a phone call from a non-profit friend who is experiencing a cash flow issue. The conversation always starts off with a tinge of embarrassment and then quickly morphs into finger pointing and finally ends with a sense of resignation and desperation. I received another one of these phone calls the other day, which reminded me that I’ve been meaning to blog about this subject for quiet some time. The following are a few quick tips on how to handle your non-profit organization’s cash flow crisis.
Remain calm and confident
kevin baconOne of my favorite movie scenes is at the end of Animal House when Kevin Bacon’s character is trying to keep the peace in the middle of the parade-turned-riot when he is shouting, “Remain calm! All is well.”
During a cash flow crunch, it is important for you to remain calm and encourage everyone else in the organization (e.g. board volunteers, staff, donors, etc) to do the same.
Why? Simply because . . .

  • People don’t follow leaders who aren’t confident and composed
  • Panic and fear spread quicker than the flu
  • People don’t typically make good decisions when they are panicked and fearful

Develop a 90 day plan
planningYou have lots of short-term options that will help bridge your organization through a cash flow crisis. The following is a short list of some of those options:

  • Secure a loan (this can be a traditional short-term loan from the bank or a promissory note from a donor)
  • Search your donor database for LYBUNTs (e.g. lapsed, former donors) and ask them to renew their support
  • Meet with your largest donors and ask them to make another contribution
  • Look at your accounts receivable list and ask those donors if they would consider making a pledge payment sooner than they had indicated on their pledge card
  • Ask board members to make another contribution
  • Prioritize which outstanding invoices need to be paid now and which ones can wait
  • Work with your Finance Committee (or key board volunteers) to develop a new budget plan for your new realities (or develop multiple budgets for a variety of revenue scenarios)
  • Use unpaid furlough days with some staff to temporarily reduce payroll expenses (be cognizant of what this will do to morale and possible employee turnover)

I wrote a blog post titled “So, your non-profit cannot make its payroll obligation” a few years ago about some of these options. You might want to click-through to read more.
Understand what caused the problem
assessmentIf I’ve seen it once, I’ve seen it a number of times . . . board volunteers want to hold someone accountable after the crisis passes. In my opinion, the best way to survive this dynamic is to be able to point to:

  1. Your calm leadership during the crisis
  2. Your role in developing the short-term plan
  3. Your understanding of what caused the problem
  4. Your commitment to fixing the things that cause the problem

There is a fine line between assessment and finger pointing in these situations. Whatever you do, avoid finger pointing because your board of directors will interpret it as “not taking responsibility“.
There isn’t a right or wrong way to undertake an assessment, but my suggestion is that you do it with many people sitting around the table. The more eyes you have looking at this situation, the more likely you will be to see all sides of the problem. Consider involving staff who play some role in financial management, board volunteers with a background in finance, and possibly even an external consultant who can come at this with fresh eyes.
Develop a long-term plan
planningNow that you’ve made it through the crisis and have a firm understanding of what caused it, it is important have a new long-term plan that keeps you from ending up back from where you just came.
As with the last section, I strongly suggest you don’t do this alone. Your plan will have more credibility if many participated in its creation. Remember, the board will look skeptically at any plan that is developed by the same people who they perceive as having played a role in creating the original crisis. Involving fresh faces with lots of credibility helps address this dynamic.
Your plan will be unique to your organization and your situation; however, the following are just a few “fixes” I’ve personally seen embraced more often than not:

  • Making revisions to the resource development plan (e.g. adding more to the fundraising plan)
  • Making process changes to the budget construction process
  • Making process changes to billing/invoicing donors and grant providers
  • Changing how the board monitors/oversees the finances
  • Undertaking a re-organization of the company focused on staff/payroll reduction

Well, good luck with your cash flow crisis. Hopefully, these big picture suggestions are helpful and get you pointed in the right direction. If you have any ideas or experiences that you wish to share, please do so in the comment box below. We can all learn from each other.
Here’s to your health!
Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847

How much money should your non-profit have in reserve?

operating reservesIdentifying blog topics can be hard. Sometimes you find a comfort zone and ideas flow freely. Other times, it is next to impossible and the writers block is crippling. So, I love it when readers sometimes email me on the side and suggest topics.

Yesterday, a reader did exactly that when she emailed me with the following request:

“Do you take requests?  If so,  I would love to hear your take on social service agencies that have more than 6 months of money on hand and the impact of that on fundraising.”

When I first read that email, I planned on squirreling the topic away for one of those days when topic ideas are difficult to come by. However, there was something about this topic that possessed me. I opened up a few Google searches, read a few white papers and blog posts, and found myself whipping out this post.

First, let me start with a very direct response to the question posed by the reader.

I have worked with a disproportionately large number of small non-profit organizations. Organizational capacity for these agencies is always an issue and the amount of cash on hand is typically very small. So, I’ve always advocated to CEOs and their boards that they put plans in place to build operating reserves equal to three to six months.

Only one client to my recollection every worked with more than a six month operating reserve, and I don’t think it impacted their fundraising efforts. If I were to speculate as to why that was, I think the explanation is simple . . . that agency did an excellent job with donor communications and made their case as to why operating reserves of that size were important.

uncharitableSetting this one example aside, I do generally believe that building large operating reserves larger than 6 months or one year causes problems with donors. I say this because of everything Dan Pallotta writes in his book Uncharitable and how donors hold the non-profit sector to a different standard than the for-profit sector.

In his book, Pallotta talks eloquently about how for-profit corporations are rewarded by investors for generating profits, banking cash and growing organizational capacity. He contrasts this point with how donors punish non-profit organizations for doing the same thing.

For actual examples and a better explanation, I encourage you to read his book. I promise that it will be an eye opening experience. Additionally, you’ll likely walk away from the exercise and find yourself muttering the words: “Damn Puritans!”

In my clicking around and Googling, I found a number of interesting facts including:

  • Charity Navigator reserves its top ratings for organizations with 12 or more months of working capital.
  • The Nonprofit Finance Fund reported in its 2012 State of the Sector Survey that only one-fifth of survey respondents said they felt their donors were comfortable talking about operating reserves.
  • In 2011, more than three-quarters of non-profit organizations had less than 4 months of expenses in operating reserves (60% reported less than 4 months and 28% reported one month or less).

I strongly urge you to click-through and read more startling statistics on this and similar subjects at:

I want to thank the reader who suggested this blog topic because they have caused me to change my thinking on this topic. From now on, when agencies ask my advice on what they should strive towards with regards to building an operating reserve, I plan on telling them . . .

12 months or more! ! ! !

With this Big Harry Audacious Goal (BHAG), the next words out of my mouth will be . . .

“Create a strong case for support or prepare to incur the wrath of donors.”

For those of you who don’t think this is possible, please take a moment to think about why that much cash on hand is important to your organization.

  • Many agencies are using their operating reserves as cash flow cushions as they wait for their accounts receivable from government grants. (Believe it or not some states are six to 12 months late in paying their bills.)
  • It is a sign of financial health to have operating reserves of this size.
  • One of the lessons learned from the recent economic recession is that larger rainy day funds are a necessity and not a luxury.
  • Stuff breaks and your organization needs to be in a position to fix the roof or replace a HVAC unit without running off to donors with an urgent case for support that sounds like a crisis or fire drill.

My advice to anyone who cares to hear it is:

  1. Set a goal to increase your operating reserves to 12+ months
  2. Work with the Finance Committee to develop a plan to achieve this goal (Yes, it will likely be a plan that spans many years). Perhaps, include in your plans to use a portion of your operating reserves to invest in organizational capacity building once certain targets are achieved.
  3. Work with the Resource Development Committee to write a case for support that supports these actions.
  4. Don’t hide from donors. Get out there and start talking to them. Weave the talking points from this new case for support focused on increasing reserve levels into your stewardship efforts. Donor engagement and education is the key to success.

So, I’m curious how many of you think I’m crazy? How big are your reserves? How big would you like them? What do your donors say about your reserves? Please use the comment box below to weigh-in on this discussion.

Here’s to your health!

Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847

Tips from the unemployment line for struggling non-profits

My local United Way published a brochure titled “Help for Hard Times Guide” as a way to help people with their financial decisions during tough economic times. Yesterday, I came across a copy of that document and the following quote on the inside panel grabbed my attention:

“Reduced income is going to require expert money management. This checklist will help you get started.”

While this is as obvious as the nose on your face, it struck me that this is also the case for non-profit organizations who are dealing with falling revenue. So, just out of curiosity, I decided to scan the checklist and see if there was any good advice that might also apply to non-profits.

The bolded text is the United Way’s advice, and the italics text were the thought I had while reading:

  • Determine your financial resourcesWhat a great idea. Make a list of all the agency’s “resources” and determine what can be maximized and leveraged. Even more important might be to review all revenue streams and circle back around to those donors and funders for personal conversations about their support and if they can do more to help.
  • Plan a realistic budget. While this is always a good idea, I’ve seen too many non-profit budgets with “plug numbers”. During tough times, an extra special dose of reality is probably sound advice. Real numbers with real strategies behind those revenue numbers.
  • Stop all use of credit. This might be difficult to do, but it is still sound advice. How many times have you seen a non-profit dig itself into a hole that it can’t crawl out of all in the name of “tough times”.
  • Alert your mortgage holder or landlord. Yes, engaging the bank or landlord might open up unforeseen opportunities. It might engage a stakeholder in a fruitful, solution-oriented discussion and you might see things that weren’t obvious to you.
  • Alert your utilities. Same thought as the previous bullet point. There might be some payment plan options that you weren’t aware of. They might even be able to help you better understand how to reduce your agency’s usage and save money.
  • Alert creditors. Ditto . . . same as the last two thoughts.
  • Set priorities. Sometimes there are more accounts payable than there are accounts receivable. Right? Well, if and when this happens, it is probably smart to know what gets paid first.
  • Cancel unnecessary purchases/services. We all have things that we can live without (e.g. cable service, newspaper subscriptions, etc). Surely, the same is true for your agency. However, when we get used to things, we tend to forget that they aren’t essential. Engaging volunteers and an outside set of eyes might be a very valuable exercise for a non-profit executive director.
  • Consider refinancing. Restructuring loans and stretching payments over a longer period of time might free up some working capital during lean years.
  • Sell unnecessary items. Determining which assets are essential to the mission today versus what you might be sitting on for tomorrow (e.g. vacant land, old office furniture, etc), might create some working capital and make your cash flow situation a little easier.

Impressive . . . nice job United Way! Not only did you create a good resource for people in the unemployment line, but you also created a nice checklist for struggling non-profit agencies.

Of course, these are all temporary fixes because it is difficult to live forever with inadequate resources. Once these adjustments are made for survival, it is advisable to quickly pivot to engage your agency’s donors, board members, and volunteer supports in creating a resource development plan. This ensures that your focus isn’t just on managing what’s left and instead is on developing goals and strategies to secure the necessary funding and get back to a place where you’re thriving and mission-focused.

What additional tips would you add to the United Way’s punch list that I shared with you? Please scroll down and use the comment box below to share some best practices because we can all learn from each other.

Here’s to your health!

Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847