Learn how a focus on the right priorities can help you manage and overcome three of the greatest challenges facing those who work in nonprofit accounting and leadership.
Published by LTBD, P.C. | December 12, 2017
As the owner, president, CEO or executive director of a business, nonprofit or association, you are responsible for overseeing the leadership and execution of each core function of the enterprise.
The accounting and financial function of the organization is one of the most critical day-to-day operating components, and yet many CEOs lack a full understanding of the key roles and responsibilities that are essential to a smoothly operating accounting & finance team or department. This not only hampers current operations but presents a magnified strain on the organization that is trying to grow or scale. The key is not just adding personnel as you grow but adding the right personnel at the right levels.
Specifically, the right personnel need to join the team at the right times, and in the right positions, in order for the operation to grow successfully and fully support the organization’s needs as it grows.
The capabilities of a full-service accounting department consist of five roles and positions, which can then be scaled into an even larger team model as the organization grows. Understanding these five core functions is essential for CEOs to successfully plan and implement a growth strategy that will support the organization over time.
For the purposes of understanding each of the five roles, we’ll start at the entry level and move from there up to executive leadership, in order:
This individual focuses on managing the collection, data entry, coding and management of accurate accounting records and related processes. In many organizations, this position will be titled as “Bookkeeper,” although the more comprehensive title we are using better represents the value of the position since the work that they deliver sets the foundation for the success of the overall accounting operation. Key responsibilities in this role typically include:
It is important to note that a person in this position is not sufficiently trained or experienced to manage an accounting operation on his or her own. Rather, this role can only successfully operate as part of a larger team.
The Staff Accountant is responsible for day-to-day accounting activity. Those duties often include review of Accounts Payable and Accounts Receivable entries for accuracy, preparation of customer invoices and posting of payroll activity. In an organization with no accounting support personnel or bookkeepers, the staff accountant may be responsible for performing those duties as well.
Small organizations that generate more than $1M in revenue annually might have an accountant on staff or hire the services of a professional accountant from an accounting firm. Typically, a solo internal accounting role will be held by a person qualified to operate as a Staff Accountant or an Accounting Support Professional.
In addition, a Staff Accountant should possess a four-year degree in accounting or business (or equivalent experience), whereas an Accounting Support Professional or bookkeeping associate does not require one and/or may not possess formal training in the accounting function.
In a team setting, the Staff Accountant will work with the Accounting Support Professional, but the Staff Accountant will also oversee or perform billing, make general ledger entries, review accounts payable activity completed by support staff, or process payroll. While these functions are generally similar in nature to those executed by support staff, they typically require deeper knowledge of the intricacies of accounting or a more in-depth technical skill set to ensure accuracy on an ongoing basis.
The Accounting Manager works closely with the Staff Accountant and the Accounting Support Professional to review, evaluate and approve work as well as run reports, perform analysis, and supervise the overall accounting activities. The primary responsibility of the Accounting Manager is supervision of the day-to-day tasks of the department.
A person in this position generally holds a four-year degree in accounting and may have also performed advanced studies or post-graduate coursework sufficient to be eligible for the CPA exam in his or her state. In many cases, an Accounting Manager may hold a CPA license and considers himself or herself a fully invested member of the accounting profession. The Accounting Manager will generally possess 5+ years of experience and within larger organizations may serve in a specific role, such as focusing on grant management and administration for a large nonprofit or overseeing the accounting needs of a single location or division within a business enterprise.
The Controller is the person responsible for basic reporting as well as accounting accuracy, timeliness and compliance across the entire organization. This individual works with the other team members to protect the organization’s cash flow, maintain accurate account balances and ensure that funds are moving consistently each month, quarter and year to support the needs of the business.
The controller position is ultimately accountable for the accounting operations of the organization. These elements include the production of periodic financial reports, maintenance of the accounting records and systems, and implementing and ensuring a comprehensive set of control designed to mitigate risk, enhance the accuracy of the company’s reported financial results and ensure that reported results comply with generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP). In short, ‘the buck stops’ at the Controller’s desk when it comes to the accuracy and quality of the accounting operation within the organization.
Many CEOs confuse the roles of the Controller and Chief Financial Officer (CFO), often equating the two (or elevating a person to the CFO title when in fact their experience and/or responsibilities are clearly applicable to the Controller role instead).
The CFO is the senior member of the accounting and finance team, charged with interpreting and presenting accounting information and findings to the CEO and working proactively to identify, recommend and support execution of growth financing and operational support activities involving the accounting and financial functions.
It is essential that a CFO possess not only extensive experience in accounting and finance, but also executive leadership experience managing multiple aspects of an organization’s operations. For example, a CFO is typically also responsible for cash management as well as risk management, the latter requiring an understanding of risk evaluation and exposure as well as insurance, risk mitigation and compliance considerations.
Managing the selection, acquisition and management of capital assets are often a key element of the CFO role, so in many cases a CFO needs to understand hard asset financing, real estate management and equipment maintenance in order to protect and ensure the ongoing value of capital assets to the organization.
In addition, CFOs often work closely with the human capital function of the enterprise, and therefore they must be comfortable and experienced managing personnel and processes associated with talent, recruiting, human resource management and related activities.
Finally, a CFO is often called upon to advise the CEO on investor or donor strategy, traditional and nontraditional financing options, and other aspects essential to the growth and financing of the enterprise in a healthy and compliant manner.
Typically, the person holding a CFO position will possess an undergraduate finance or business degree and often a Master of Business Administration (MBA), while also possessing 15+ years of progressive experience including management responsibilities for a variety of finance, accounting and operational functions. In many cases, a CFO will also possess knowledge specific to the type of entity (such as nonprofit finance or the responsibilities associated with SEC reporting and compliance for a publicly-traded company).
What we clearly see when we evaluate the full range of core accounting positions is that each job plays an essential and distinct role in the support and ultimate success of the accounting operations within an organization. Furthermore, it also becomes clear that in many (if not most) cases, a single-staffer accounting department will face myriad challenges, because the demands of each component in the accounting function (for example, core bookkeeping and compliance vs. tax planning vs. risk management) will make it extremely difficult to ensure that all core elements are operating effectively.
Finally, we see that as an organization grows, its accounting skills and needs change quite dramatically. A small business that begins with an Accounting Support Professional and a Staff Accountant cannot simply add another Staff Accountant as it grows. Rather, it will need new skills and capabilities at the Accounting Manager level or above. Similarly, we can also see that the Controller and CFO roles, while similar in terms of their seniority and executive responsibility, are in fact very distinct positions that are both essential for many growing enterprises. It’s natural that all of these skill levels will not be needed in a full time capacity right away or as you grow. The ability to add committed time in increments smaller than full-time staff hours makes outsourced finance and accounting an attractive option.
As you plan your organization’s accounting operations strategy for the future, make sure to think carefully about the staffing, talent and leadership needs that will evolve rapidly in the future. Preparing to create a full-featured accounting department (whether in-house or outsourced) will provide you with a critical advantage as your organization scales into the future.
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