Documenting Your Way to Success: Lessons Learned in Nonprofit Accounting

nonprofit employee presenting information in a meeting

Key Takeaways

  • A best practice for nonprofits is: If it’s not documented, it did not happen.
  • The finance department stands as the backbone of your nonprofit’s long-term success. Without strong finances and robust documentation, you may risk a loss of funding.
  • Proper documentation ensures that your organization is in compliance with applicable laws and regulations.

Nonprofit organizations require effective financial management to be successful. But limited resources, complex projects, staff turnover, and other pressing projects can push administrative tasks to the backburner. Striking a balance between immediate goals and the long-term benefits of thorough documentation remains a continual challenge for nonprofits.

From documentation protocols, to staff and board alignment, to effective monitoring, here are five lessons our professionals have learned in nonprofit accounting:

Lesson #1: Documentation is a powerful tool if implemented correctly.

In the pursuit of effective nonprofit financial management, investing time in documenting key accounting processes should be seen as a strategic imperative, influencing long-term savings in time and resources.

Comprehensive documentation is pivotal for maintaining financial transparency, fostering trust among stakeholders, and ensuring adherence to regulatory requirements.

Beyond its regulatory role, documentation cultivates accountability, aiding in the effective management of resources, volunteer and employee relations, and overall organizational efficiency. Documentation is like a compass for your nonprofit, guiding you to stay on track and fulfill your mission.

Watch the full video to learn more about the importance of clear documentation.

Lesson #2: Nonprofits must identify which information to document.

Policies and procedures should be created that cover financial and non-financial aspects of operations — but where should you begin?

A best practice for nonprofit organizations is: If it's not documented, it did not happen.

Identifying the most important information to document is crucial for nonprofits to maintain effective record-keeping and ensure compliance.

Although all processes should be documented, start with higher risk areas. You can identify these areas by assessing the likelihood of misstatements resulting from errors or fraud.

This information should be documented in a way that is concise, correct, and current.

Watch the full video to learn more about how to identify the right information to document.

Lesson #3: Documentation helps reduce organizational risk.

Proper documentation acts as a safeguard against potential pitfalls. Whether it's an audit, an internal review, or simply the need to trace the flow of funds, well-documented records reduce the likelihood of errors and help in quickly identifying and addressing any discrepancies.

Nonprofits also operate within a complex web of regulatory requirements. Proper documentation ensures that your organization is in compliance with applicable laws and regulations. This not only minimizes the risk of legal repercussions but also builds trust with donors and stakeholders.

Watch the full video to learn more about the role of documentation in reducing organizational risk.

Lesson #4: Don’t forget documentation fundamentals.

While documenting may seem basic, it is a crucial practice that can help your nonprofit operate more efficiently, reduce risk, and adapt to your evolving needs. But in order for documentation to be effective, it must be clear and organized.

Nonprofits should practice consistency and accessibility when it comes to documentation. Following best practices like creating a table of contents to help organize documents ensures that essential information is easily accessible to all staff. Creating naming conventions for files and folders helps maintain consistency.

If your nonprofit struggles with documentation, we encourage you to create folders by fiscal year, designate a permanent file for essential documents, and gradually build a robust documentation system that organizes files systematically. Although it may seem overwhelming at first, it will prove invaluable in the long term.

Watch the full video to learn more about documentation fundamentals.

Lesson #5: Documentation impacts your entire organization.

Comprehensive documentation promotes smooth internal coordination and collaboration. When everyone has access to clear and well-documented processes and procedures, it streamlines workflows, reduces the likelihood of errors, and enhances overall organizational efficiency.

Beyond meeting external requirements, documentation serves as a valuable tool for internal decision-making. Leaders and board members can rely on accurate financial records to analyze past performance, identify trends, and make informed projections. This insight is crucial for strategic planning, resource allocation, and the overall success of the organization.

The finance department stands as the backbone of your nonprofit’s long-term success. Without strong finances and robust documentation, you may eventually lose funding.

Documentation is also essential for audits, including financial audits, IRS audits, and single audits for federal funding. Proper documentation helps organizations avoid findings that could lead to financial loss or reputation damage.

Watch the full video to learn how documentation impacts financial stability.

Finding a Trusted Advisor to Help Your Nonprofit Succeed

Nonprofits are often driven by a passion for their mission. This may cause leadership to prioritize immediate programmatic needs over administrative tasks , potentially neglecting the crucial role of documentation in ensuring transparency, accountability, and sustained organizational success.

Experienced advisors can help alleviate the stress of documentation within your organization so that you can focus on achieving what matters most.

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