Young Associates is thrilled to be partnering with WorkInCulture to launch Take the Lead: Principles for Administrative Leadership for the Arts, a new two day seminar series for increasing managerial and governance skills in arts administration. Running October 12 & 13, 2017, instructors from Young Associates and WorkInCulture will deliver sessions on understanding financial statements, payroll, WSIB, and HR. Get more details here.
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.
If your organization had no liabilities, then its assets would equal its equity. This may be the case for very tiny organizations, but otherwise rarely happens. Most organizations accrue liabilities in the normal course of day to day operations.
For instance, if you open a credit account with a supplier, they will invoice you for goods or services and allow you a period of time – often a month – in which to pay. For that month, you are officially in debt, although you aren’t in any trouble! Your balance sheet needs to show that the supplier has a claim on a portion of your assets. You own a certain amount of cash, receivables and other assets… but your organization’s residual value is lower by the value of the outstanding debt.
By Heather Young
The person asking the question reported that her not-for-profit agency has an operating budget of about $300,000, but each year secures about $200,000 more in donated goods and services. She’s been struggling for years with how to reflect this appropriately to her donors and funders – particularly given an accountant who doesn’t understand the issues and can’t provide the advice she needs.
That seems like a good place to start. A chartered accountant with not-for-profit expertise is a tremendous resource when it comes to measurement, reporting and disclosure issues such as this. The not-for-profit sector has specific accounting needs, and having the right expertise on board is crucial to getting the best financial advice and reporting.
The reporting – or not – of in-kind donations in your financial statements is a matter of accounting policy. You – with advice from your accountant – need to develop the best policy framework for your organization. Here’s what the Canadian Institute of Chartered Accountants offers as guidance:
“Donations-in-kind also present accounting considerations that require judgment. If the accounting policy is to record donations-in-kind, a contribution of goods or services may be recognized in the financial statements when a fair value can be reasonably estimated and when the donated goods or services would otherwise have been purchased. Fair value would be estimated using market or appraisal values at the date of the donation.”
(From A Guide to Financial Statements of Not-For-Profit Organizations, available online.)
Can you substantiate the fair market value of the donations? That tends to be relatively easy for physical objects, much harder for services/pro bono work/volunteer time. Because of this measurement difficulty, an accountant might steer you away from including in-kind gifts in your financials – or they might agree with reflecting tangible gifts but advise against trying to quantify volunteer time and other services.
If your policy is not to include the value of in-kind donations in your statements, you should be able to find other avenues for conveying the full scope and impact of your organization. For instance, you might discuss with your accountant the appropriateness of a detailed note to your financial statements describing the in-kind support you receive.
You could also look at the different types of financial reports you produce. Your formally prepared audit may not capture in-kind gifts, but you might also present to donors and funders a supplementary statement that adds the value of in-kind items to your formal statements.
An annual report could provide an avenue for describing these resources and what they mean for your organization’s work. Annual reports often contain photos, graphs, charts and other illustrations that add impact to your description.
The area of social accounting tries to get to grips with this issue – an important one for many nonprofits, because cash transactions reflect only a portion of our economic activity. Here are a couple of links to publications that might help by discussing the accounting issues and proposing practical solutions:
- What Counts: Social Accounting for Nonprofits and Cooperatives
- Estimating and Reporting the Value of Volunteer Contributions
On the whole, it’s to your advantage to reflect all the value you can within your organization. However, it’s also important to know the government regulations and generally accepted accounting principles that guide the reporting of this information.
This question came from the Executive Director of a small organization – and she asked it repeatedly, with a great deal of very genuine concern! The issue, it seems – and this is a common concern for non-financial folks – was understanding the nature of accrual accounting.
“Real,” in her terms, meant that money had changed hands. Even in the days of electronic transfers, cash in the bank still feels indisputably legit and tangible! However, non-cash transactions can be just as “real” as those involving money. For example, they may record agreements or management estimates that provide the basis for measuring financial results.
Accounts receivable and grants receivable are amounts owed to you by clients/customers and funders. A state of obligation exists when you have delivered work, and the promised payment is due. This state of obligation felt real to the Executive Director, because she was well aware of the costs her organization had incurred, and the urgency of collecting the receivable amounts.
By the same token, accounts payable were not questioned: the state of obligation between the organization and its suppliers was evident, because the organization had received goods or services for which it hadn’t yet paid, and the invoices were sitting in the “bills to be paid” file.
Prepaid expenses and deferred revenues posed a challenge. In both of these cases, money actually has changed hands – but those transactions are not recorded on the income statement as expenses and revenues; rather, they are recorded on the balance sheet as assets and liabilities (respectively). Eventually, when the obligations are satisfied, these items will be recognized as expenses and revenues. Read on…
A prepaid expense item is an asset – something you own. It arises when you have paid for goods or services ahead of time. A classic example would be a rent deposit. Often, when a lease is signed, the lessee must pay “first and last.” Obviously, you receive the first month of your tenancy right away. However, you have paid up-front for the last month on your lease, and you won’t receive that service for a period of years. You own the right to receive it, because you have prepaid it… and the landlord is effectively in your debt for that month of occupancy.
When the last month rolls around, the landlord provides the month of occupancy. At that point, the organization no longer has an asset, because it has collected on the obligation. In the accounting records, the asset must be removed – and the rent expense can be officially recognized. Note that the last month’s rent eventually does appear as an expense, but not until it’s being used. In that last month, it’s a non-cash expense item; the cash changed hands back when the lease was signed.
A deferred revenue item is a liability – something you owe. It arises when someone else has prepaid you for goods or services that you have not yet delivered. A classic example from the performing arts is a subscription. Many organizations run intensive campaigns during the spring and summer to sell subscription packages for the next fall/winter series of shows. At the point when the subscriber pays, they have a promise from the organization, but they won’t enjoy the concerts or plays for months down the road. The organization owes the subscriber those shows.
When the organization delivers its performances, it discharges its liability. In the accounting records, the liability must be removed – and the ticket sales revenue can be officially recognized. Thus, eventually those subscription packages do turn into revenue, but as a non-cash revenue item; the cash changed hands back when the subscriber made the purchase.
The depreciation of capital assets can also cause confusion. A capital asset is an item of significant value that an organization will own for a period longer than a year, and use in carrying out its operations. Depreciation (or amortization) is the process by which the cost of that asset is spread over the years of ownership. Please look to these further questions and answers that present the process in detail:
- I’m still using a capital asset that has been fully depreciated. Is this ok?
- I discarded my capital asset before it was fully depreciated. Now what?
- How do I estimate the useful life of a capital asset?
- I bought my capital asset part-way through the year. Should I take a full year of depreciation?
- I just bought a computer. Why doesn’t it show up as an expense?
For our purposes here, the important thing to understand is that the asset (usually) must be paid for when it is bought. Each year’s depreciation is a non-cash expense item, representing that year’s estimated share of the cost.
One of the purposes of accounting is to measure the expenses and revenues associated with each year of operations, regardless of when money changes hands. As you can see, items may be paid for either before delivery or afterwards. The exchange of cash does not create the revenue or expense: rather, the usage of the goods or services in the course of operations. Balance sheet accounts are used to “park” or accrue items so that they can be properly recognized in the correct operating year. Non-cash revenues and expenses can be just as real as those paid “cash on the barrel head.”
Donations to a capital campaign (e.g. from individuals and businesses) are treated in the same way as grants (e.g. from foundations and governments).
Your funders and donors have provided money that is intended to benefit your organization over the life of the capital purchases. In the same way that the cost of a capital asset is spread over the years of ownership, the benefits of a capital grant must be spread over the same years, using the same technique.
You should discuss your organization’s capital policies with your accountant, to make sure they are appropriate to your particular situation.