Monday, March 17, 2014

The one question that many nonprofits can't answer

That question is…what are your costs?

I do a significant number of business plans and grant applications, and they all require some sort of budget or financial forecasting. For some reason, almost everyone can tell me how much money they think they need for a given program or to start their business. When it comes to filling in the other side, i.e. what costs will that money pay for, less than 50% can provide the information. Added to that is that often they really don't seem to know how to calculate costs. It's almost as though they feel that if they don't think about the costs, they won't have any. If only that were true!

Costs are not just paper plates, postage, and computers. When I ask about things like taxes, the answer is, "We are a nonprofit so we don't pay taxes". Are you sure? What about sales tax, property tax and payroll or self-employment taxes? What about your rent, mortgage and property insurance,  even if your operation is housed in your private home?  If you use your private vehicle in your business or nonprofit, what percentage of its cost of operation can be attributed to business use as transportation costs? Even your internet access fees can be prorated to your operations.

Every single dollar of revenue generates some non-program costs. If you need $5,000 to run a certain program, then you have to know how much of that will truly reach your clients. When you are asked to send in a report on the uses of the funds, it better be accurate.

Donors want to see that you have a grasp on costs and you know where to allocate them. If you don't understand the difference between program costs and administrative costs, there is a good chance that the money the donor thinks is going strictly to programs is actually being used to keep the lights on. Most donors don't like that if they didn't know about it in advance.

Grant applications, loan applications  and business plans always have a section for financial data. Some of them are extremely detailed, while others may just want a total cost figure. Some people try to plug in a number that sounds good, but if pressed for details, they can't provide them. Accurate, detailed financial reporting is important. 

For instance, one grantor followed up on an application with a request for the cost breakdown analysis for a program budget line item. The applicant couldn't provide historical data on the cost to operate a delivery truck, because they had simply never tracked it.

That's why winging it doesn't usually work very well for very long.  More importantly, if you do try to wing it, it is usually pretty obvious to both investors and donors and your funding requests will hit the proverbial round file.

If you aren't sure whether your financial reporting will pass inspection, drop me a line and we'll look it  over together.

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