By Heather Young
I often teach and consult for artists and arts managers who have limited background in accounting and finance, and who therefore are reluctant (or even fearful) to step into this arena.
The bad news is that, like all relationships, it’s a package deal - once you take on a management role, you must accept decision-making responsibility, even in areas that aren’t your greatest strength. The good news is that there are some simple techniques that will help you feel more comfortable in the driver’s seat, whereas failing to make the attempt (no head for this sort of thing, terrible with numbers… you’ve heard the excuses) can set you on course for disaster.
Case in point: a certain executive director was meticulous in the artistic/programming side of their role; not a detail escaped their attention. And yet, with no apparent irony, the ED declared their inability to do math and therefore complete dependence on the part-time bookkeeper to deal with day to day finances. Financial statements? That’s what the accountant prepared for the government. The ED complained about receiving terrible service, but had trouble articulating the problems or what improvements were needed.
This didn’t stop them from blundering ahead with ill-conceived financial decisions, often based on phone advice from a couple of more economically successful artistic colleagues, and at odds with the advice they were paying for. Later, they would turn to the accountant or bookkeeper to clean up the mess… while making it clear they didn’t want to hear the mechanics of what went wrong. In their view, poor results arose from poor execution by the contractors: “Not my job; just fix it.”
No wonder they felt angry and mistrustful: they didn’t know how to collaborate with accounting staff, let alone tell whether they were doing a reasonable job. And staff heard the unspoken message: there’s no point getting into it with the boss.
Don’t be that guy!
Henry Ford got it right: "One of the greatest discoveries a man makes, one of his great surprises, is to find he can do what he was afraid he couldn't do."
Sit down with your bookkeeper or accountant and review your statements together. Ask them to walk you through the important points. Do it every month. You know your organization; financials are just another way of telling its story. You’ll soon start to recognize features that indicate whether you’re on track financially. If your staff member can’t explain the numbers with confidence – well, maybe it’s time to get a second opinion on the quality of their work.
Expand the conversation with a few good questions, such as:
Are we compliant with the CRA? Can you walk me through our latest remittances or returns? (Your bookkeeper should be able to explain how amounts are calculated and reported to the government.)
When was our most recent bank reconciliation, and can I see the list of outstanding items? (Bank recs prove that cash is stated accurately, and they normally happen monthly. It’s unusual for online or ATM transactions to be outstanding, and uncleared cheques should be recent. In Canada, cheques are stale-dated after six months.)
Are there any particular areas of concern? (This depends on your situation, but you should have a sense of whether the explanation matches your observations.)
You can be a capable financial manager without being an accountant. Some “due diligence” with the financial statements will strengthen your working relationship with accounting staff, and generate that priceless reward, ease of mind.