Give them Structure

Helping nonprofit boards better manage reserves and investments.
Nonprofit organizations run on the tireless, and often selfless, work of staff, volunteers, and board members. United in a common cause, a group of people come together to address issues that affect their communities, giving their time and energy to one mission. The fluid and adaptive nature of nonprofits’ human resources makes for a dynamic atmosphere that, unfortunately, can also contribute to a lack of clarity and direction. As financial advisors to nonprofits, we see this most distinctly in the lack of structure when making financial decisions at the board level.

The Revolving Board Door

According to “Leading with Intent: 2017 National Index of Nonprofit Board Practices“, the average board size in the US is 15 people, and the average term length is three years. This illustrates just how many people are often involved in decision-making over the course of a few years. A changing board is a healthy part of nonprofit governance, helping prevent stagnation by bringing in fresh perspectives. And let’s face it, being on a board can be all-encompassing. New boards members keep the energy level up. It is this cycle of renewed enthusiasm that often sustains nonprofits when time and energy are at a premium.

There is a downside to a revolving board, and that’s continuity. For us, a lack of continuity is evident in the long-term financial decisions that nonprofit boards make, or don’t make, in dealing with their reserves and investments. Without shared institutional knowledge and sometimes without requisite expertise, a board can alter the course of a nonprofit’s reserves and investments. In some cases, this lack of structure can lead to inertia, but in other cases can lead to misaligned decisions that threaten financial stability. There are best practices that can help guide board members in their leadership. For us, there are two critical pieces of documentation that nonprofits need: Reserve policies and investment policy statements.

A reserve policy should be required reading for all executive committee members and rather than be filed away once it’s written, a periodic board review will keep it in alignment with an organization’s mission and financial reality.

A Matter of Policy

The Nonprofit Finance Fund’s ‘2018 Nonprofit Sector Survey‘ finds that 62% of nonprofits see financial stability as a top challenge. This finding comes as no surprise to anyone working in the nonprofit sector.  The ability to build up savings is vital to the ongoing stability of any organization. It is also one of the many reasons that every nonprofit organization needs a reserve policy.

Call it a rainy day fund, call it planning for the unexpected, or call it your financial roadmap, the one you break out when you’re feeling a bit lost. Whatever term you use, a reserve policy provides your organization’s leadership with a set of guidelines on how to steward operating reserves. The framework it creates enables you to determine how much you need to put away for a rainy day (i.e. how many months of operating costs do you need to keep protected). It also outlines the amount you can use to invest (with some additional risk) towards future growth.

A reserve policy should be required reading for all executive committee members and rather than be filed away once it’s written, a periodic board review will keep it in alignment with an organization’s mission and financial reality.

A final word on reserve policies: If your nonprofit doesn’t have one, start one today. If you do have one, when is the last time you reviewed it?

Investment Policies

The second important piece of documentation in financial decision-making for nonprofits is an Investment Policy Statement (IPS). An IPS is not as common as a reserve policy, however, it is vital if an organization has capital invested outside of FDIC insured accounts. Investments can be a powerful tool in providing long-term stability for nonprofits. Investments can also be mismanaged or ignored. We frequently talk to nonprofits that know they have investments (ie, a statement shows up in the mail), but they don’t know what their investments are; who invested in them and why; the amount of risk they are taking; or if their investments are aligned with their mission.

Continuity in investment strategy is the best defense against loss of capital and fosters steady long-term growth.

Investing is a set of decisions based on criteria. It is essential to know what the investment objectives of an organization are. Is capital preservation the most important factor? Are there specific industries that conflict with a nonprofit’s mission? Is liquidity important? An IPS clearly outlines the objectives, tolerances, and institutional values of an organization.

Why is this important? Continuity in investment strategy is the best defense against loss of capital and fosters steady long-term growth. We’ve seen it many times when a new board member takes over the investments of a nonprofit (usually because they have some level of investing experience) and changes the nature of the portfolio. Changes are often based on personal preferences and not on the directives of the organization. There is no ill-intent, but these decisions can have adverse consequences, especially when that board member is no longer there.

Like a reserve policy, an investment policy statement provides clarity and continuity for board members. Decisions arise from a shared understanding, and this leads to better overall choices. If a nonprofit decides to work with a financial professional to help them with their investing, there are clear expectations and a means by which that advisor’s decisions can be gauged.

Important for Any Size Organization

As financial advisors to nonprofits, we’ve seen time and again that a reserve policy and an investment policy statement are crucial for every organization, regardless of size. These documents provide much-needed continuity and structure. They ensure all financial decisions come from an agreed upon, mission-aligned framework.


Matthew Gatt, CFPAbout the Author

Matthew Gatt, CFP® is a lead advisor at North Berkeley Investment Partners. He works closely with nonprofit clients in managing their investments and helping them develop their reserve policies and investment policy statements. He has a passion for socially responsible investing. In the community, he serves as Board Treasurer for Yes. Nature to Neighborhoods.   

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