By VonLehman staff
Many nonprofit managers regard budgeting as a necessary evil that must be done to satisfy the board of directors and funders.
In addition to the chore of gathering financial data, there is often an uneasy feeling triggered by forecasting the unknown. What will happen if you don’t achieve the needed revenue figures?
But there is another way to look at the process: try to consider budgeting as an informative process that will help you reach goals, solve problems before they occur and make important decisions.
Learn from the past
Before looking to the future, gather the last three years of profit and loss statements, ideally with budget comparisons. The goal is to discover trends, patterns and problem areas, both in revenue and expense items. Examine each line item. Has it gone up or down over the three years? Of course, some expense categories will likely show a steady increase as prices rise. Those expenses can be easily budgeted with a percentage uptick.
What you’re looking for are the trends and anomalies. For example, are revenues from a certain event declining steadily? Perhaps it’s time to either revamp the fundraiser or stop holding it.
Do payrolls end up higher than budgeted because you’re overly optimistic about workloads and staff capacity? Note that.
An in-depth review will both reveal circumstances affecting your organization and blind-spot areas in your budget process.
Set your course
If there is one step many organizations can benefit from, it’s tying the budgeting process more closely to strategic and action plans.
Many just look at the budget as a whole, a big pot that will somehow cover every department or project, regardless of performance. Ideally, staff should meet before the new fiscal year begins and talk about program and project goals. It’s also important for each staff person to have an understanding of the revenues and costs associated with their areas of responsibility.
Take for example a meal program for children that costs $250 annually per child. The original cost was determined by the accountant, but should be reviewed periodically to ensure that it is accurate. While discussing goals for the meal program, perhaps 100 more needy children have been identified. This will cost the organization an additional $25,000. The manager may say additional children can be handled without adding staff, but enthusiastic growth without considering staff workload is a common pitfall.
Next should come an examination of the revenue sources for the program to determine shortfall or excess. If additional funds are needed, staff should be engaged in ideas on how to make that happen, as well as the likelihood of reaching the goal.
The end result of the planning session should be concrete performance goals and an understanding of the associated costs and revenue needs for each program, project and department.
Staff members who actively participate in setting and managing the budgets under their control do a better job of controlling expenditures. In fact, their input and commitment to reducing the cost of overhead expenses can also help the organization run leaner and more efficiently.
One caveat: Don’t be a paperclip manager. These are managers who are uncomfortable with a hard look at the big items so tell their staff to watch consumption of office supplies in response to financial challenges. Unless you run a printing press, paper and ink costs won’t sink a healthy ship or save a sinking one.
Fine-tune your expenses and plan for the unexpected
The budgeting process is an ideal time to review some of your ongoing costs such as insurance, utility use and other regular vendors. Over time, pricing increases can sneak up on you. This is also an opportunity to review business-as-usual habits, like buying boxes of business cards for employees who rarely meet the public. Marketing materials, too, are frequently expensive. Taking a hard look at what is most effective will help you decide whether or not to print another 5,000 brochures.
In tandem with whittling away discretionary expenses, be sure to budget for a capital reserve fund and emergency funds. What happens if the furnace dies in the middle of winter, for example? It’s no fun scrambling for dollars in an emergency situation.
Create your budget
Now that you’ve set goals, gathered data and gotten new quotes, you’re ready to prepare the budget.
Start with the basis of what you absolutely know – expenses and revenues.
Through the goal-setting process, you identified revenue dollars needed to cover program goals. Now you need to decide where those gap monies will come from.
This is also a good time to discuss if the organization will hold another appeal, create an event or seek grant funding?
It’s a rare nonprofit that has all revenue sources nailed down before the fiscal year starts. Knowing how, when and where you will raise funding is a great start.