The Skills to Pay the Bills

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The Skills to Pay the Bills

FMA made a number of assumptions about what financially stable organizations require: First, organizations need to understand their financial positions on an ongoing basis, as efficiently as possible. Good financial software makes that possible. Second, having wellspecified internal financial procedures ensures that all parties know what they need to do and when, with minimal redundancy. Third, in order to develop accurate, realistic budgets, an organization must calculate not only the costs directly linked to the delivery of program services (such as equipment and program staff salaries) but also the overhead costs of running the organization itself. Lastly, to make appropriate financial decisions, organizational leaders need information not only from financial staff members but also from program managers and others. Program managers are likely to know how and when to spend resources to maximize a program's effect, and if cuts need to be made, they are likely to know which will be the least damaging.

FMA designed its group learning sessions around these assumptions, providing guidance on how organizations could make their financial procedures more rigorous and systematic, ensure adequate controls on spending, involve staff members from programs in budgeting, acquire needed financial software, and create realistic budgets. The major difference between the models was the degree of customization. FMA consultants worked with the staff members from customized learning organizations, helping them design policies and procedures specific to their organizations. In some cases, they prepared customized manuals for the organizations' use. They also assisted organizations in assessing their staffing configurations, and they made specific recommendations about hiring. In contrast, the group learning model organizations received general advice and options in group learning sessions that they could then take back to their organizations. While the staff members from group learning organizations could discuss the advantages and disadvantages of various options with the FMA consultant during a one-hour phone call that followed each group learning session, and while the FMA staff could help them figure out how to address specific problems, the organizations had to make many more decisions on their own.

Table ES.1

The Professional Development Models at a Glance

ComponentCustomized LearningGroup Learning
Financial needs assessmentIndividual, on-site financial auditAssisted self-assessment
Work planDeveloped in partnership with consultantsSelf-developed
Individual coachingIn-depth8 one-hour consultations
Primary staff focus of interventionCEOsCFOs
Frequency of peer learning sessionsQuarterlyQuarterly
Initial grant to organizations ($)115,00040,000
Follow-up grant to organizations ($)025,000
Grant for cash reserves ($)125,0000
Median number of hours of professional development provided by FMA704183

SOURCE: Internal document on grantee characteristics provided by the Wallace Foundation.

For the second prong of the initiative (the one focused on reforming funding practices), a Chicago-based organization, the Donors Forum, was selected to work with funders, state and city policymakers and officials, and organizations serving young people. Its aim was to identify barriers to effective financial management and set priorities among them, develop principles to guide decisions, develop and implement practical solutions to improve the way funders manage contracts, and build momentum for wider reforms in Illinois.

The Study and This Report

As the third prong of the initiative, the Wallace Foundation commissioned an independent evaluation of the extent to which the initiative achieved its intended results, and at what cost of money and effort. The foundation was committed to informing a wide audience about whether and how results were achieved, what challenges were encountered, and whether and how the challenges were overcome.3 It also sought to inform a wide audience about the Donors Forum's efforts to improve the funding environment. To address these issues, the four-year study relied on information from interviews with CEOs and CFOs, conducted every 9 to 12 months for four years; annual visits to a selection of the organizations; and document reviews.

This report presents findings that should be of interest to practitioners, funders, policymakers, and the public. It examines the following questions: What forms of support do organizations need to strengthen their ability to manage their resources? What type of time commitment does this require from the organization itself? From consultants? What types of changes need to be made to funder practices, and how might those changes be achieved? When those changes have been achieved, how effective have they been? What lessons can the evaluation offer those who seek to strengthen the financial management of nonprofit organizations?4

Summary of Findings About the Professional and Organizational Development Models

  • The financial management practices of nearly all of the participating organizations improved over the course of the initiative.

Of the 25 participating organizations, all but 2 strengthened their financial practices in at least some areas, and improvements persisted beyond the first two years of intensive professional development. Meaningful changes were seen in a range of areas: improved financial skills; better - and better-used - computer systems; more useful internal financial reports and procedures; and more - and more effective - collaboration across program and financial divisions, which strengthened organizations' ability to create good budgets and monitor them effectively. Overall, organizations improved the quality of their financial decision making.

Nearly half of the organizations that received customized learning and nearly half of those that primarily received group learning improved in 80 percent or more of the areas in which they had been weak at the start of the initiative.

  • According to organizations' leaders and senior staff members, better financial practices led to better program planning and management, and to improved organizational stability.

Executives and senior staff members reported a range of benefits from better financial management that directly affected their ability to pay for and deliver high quality services. For example, a better understanding of programs' real costs, combined with improved decisionmaking processes, better equipped organizations to evaluate funding opportunities, rejecting those that did not fully cover programs' true costs. Organizations were also better able to plan their program spending. Many organizations have predictable cash-flow cycles over the year, and having staff members from across an organization understand those cycles helped the organization better manage its cash flow. Executives also reported that as a result of improved financial management, their organizations were better able to respond to external financial pressures such as funding cuts or late payments, leaving them more stable in the long run. With one exception, SFM organizations weathered the Great Recession that began in 2008.

  • Multiyear professional and organizational support - combined with funding to purchase new financial software and to defray some of the cost of staff time - helped organizations achieve long-lasting change.

It typically took two to four years for the organizations in SFM to lay the foundations for and build a new way to do business. Two years of involvement by expert financial management consultants enabled organizations to diagnose areas of need, develop work plans with ranked priorities, train staff members in good financial management practices, and implement their work plans. The median organization in the "customized learning" group received 704 hours of assistance from FMA, while the median organization in the "group learning" group received 183 hours. For both groups more than 90 percent of FMA's support was provided in the initiative's first two years.

This type of deep change required organizations to expend significant staff time (typically 800 to 1,000 hours over the course of the four years) and money ($30,000 to $60,000). The money was used to recruit new financial staff members, buy software, and pay for associated training. Taking into account the value of staff time, the full cost to each organization is estimated at $70,000 to $110,000. The unrestricted grants from the Wallace Foundation - $115,000 for customized learning organizations and $65,000 for the group learning organizations - enabled organizations to make the investments required to improve their financial management.

  • To succeed in achieving the aims of SFM, an organization's leaders needed to be motivated to change from the outset.

When CEOs reported at the beginning of the initiative that they were strongly motivated to participate in SFM because it aligned with their organizations' needs and plans, their organizations made significant progress in all aspects of financial management. The reverse was true for organizations where strengthening financial management had not previously been part of their plans. Sustaining an organizational change initiative like SFM beyond an initial burst is not easy, and leadership quality - the ability to communicate the change, execute it, and adapt to emerging circumstances - was critically important for achieving rapid, deep, and long-lasting improvements. Ironically, the initiative's goal may have been helped by the harsh economic climate, which reinforced the need for better financial practices. Thus, despite the recession's adverse effects on organizations' finances, it may have helped sustain the initiative's momentum.

  • The financial practices of organizations receiving the group learning model of support significantly improved, though more slowly and not quite as much as those receiving the customized learning model, indicating that this less expensive approach was cost-effective.

The customized learning organizations made slightly more progress than the group learning organizations, but the gains for the group learning organizations were still impressive, and those organizations received approximately a quarter of the consulting help and half the grant funds. While the financial practices of the customized learning organizations typically changed within two years, the group learning organizations took three or four years to achieve a similar level of change. This slower pace of change might have been in part because group learning organizations received their grant money in two payments, one at the beginning of the project and the second two years later. Organizations in the customized learning group received their grants at the start, which allowed them to make investments in financial staff members and software sooner.

Summary of Findings About the Policy Work

  • The second prong of the initiative, aimed at influencing funding practices, made some progress, but was slow to achieve results.

The Donors Forum was successful in convening key stakeholders in Illinois; identifying major challenges facing the state's nonprofit organizations and setting priorities among them; and developing principles for moving forward. The initiative made significant progress toward streamlining contracting procedures, working closely with stakeholders to develop solutions. Along with major nonprofit organizations in Illinois, the Donors Forum supported legislation that would streamline human services contracting. It then went further by providing staff support to an interagency committee charged with putting the legislation into practice. As a result, the state created a cross-agency reporting database. Where previously organizations had to provide the same information (such as audits or letters demonstrating nonprofit status) to multiple agencies when submitting proposals, now they only had to provide that information once. However, organizations did not see this as a significant enough change, for two major reasons. First, the reforms only touched one set of funders - four Illinois State human services agencies - and the organizations still had many other funders with their own reporting requirements. Second, the more serious problem facing organizations with state contracts was late state payments, and little progress had been made on that issue at the time this report was written.

  • The most pressing funding problem facing the SFM organizations over the course of the project was late state payments. The Great Recession resulted in payments that were delayed by up to six months, and little could be done to speed them up.

Although the Donors Forum recognized the challenges that late payments presented to grantees, it was unable to address the issue. Illinois, which had been accruing debt over a number of years and which had large unfunded pensions, was in dire financial straits. One of the ways it juggled its finances was by delaying payments. In Fiscal Year 2011 the state legislature lengthened the time the state could take to pay its invoices, further exacerbating the problem.


The Wallace Foundation's initiative casts light on the financial practices of organizations and on what can be done to improve them. If 25 well-established and respected Chicago organizations were struggling with financial management, it is highly likely that many more organizations across the country face similar challenges. Encouragingly, the initiative demonstrated that with a concerted effort it is possible to achieve significant and lasting improvements in financial management. Together with improvements in funding practices, these have the potential to strengthen program quality by permitting organizations to focus on programs instead of managing financial crises.

Implications for Funders and Consultants Who Support Organizational Development

  • Widespread weaknesses in organizations' financial management can have negative effects on their stability, planning, and programs. Good financial management is an important factor in facilitating and sustaining long-term improvements in program quality. The organizations involved in the initiative all had strong reputations for providing high-quality programs, but it was clear that internal financial weaknesses plagued most. Opaque budgeting practices that did not include program managers left program staff members ignorant of their budgets, leading to over- or underspending. Organizations that did not understand how to allocate overhead costs accurately across programs faced budget shortfalls that affected program stability. Inefficiencies in financial procedures took up a lot of time for staff members already stretched thin. This initiative suggests that efforts to create change in financial management can be effective in achieving lasting organizational improvements. Improved program quality is not guaranteed when financial practices are strong, since high-quality programs require other important forms of support, such as good planning, reliance on evidence, high-quality program staff members, high-quality staff training, and activities that engage participants. But financial management provides critically important support.
  • In order to create lasting changes in their core administrative infrastructures, organizations need to work consistently for several years on strengthening their financial management. Many initiatives to build organizational capabilities last only a short while, and there is little evidence that they work. It is important that organizations know how to change, but it is not sufficient; organizations also need time and resources. In SFM, changing organizations' financial management required changes in software, written manuals, and organizational practices, and each of these changes took time and money. Given that many of the changes were interrelated, it is unlikely that lasting improvement could be achieved in substantially less time.
  • Change in financial management requires widespread organizational change. It is important to emphasize that the changes under SFM occurred because the initiative addressed multiple aspects of organizations' financial practices and multiple senior staff members. The effort focused on training senior leaders, including organizations' CEOs and CFOs, rather than only training more junior staff members. Organizational leaders were expected to support the effort, and the evidence shows that when they were motivated to do so, their organizations made more changes to their financial management that affected more areas: staffing structure, staff members' skills, accounting IT systems, the quality of financial reports, and internal decision-making processes. Not every organization needed to change in every area, but many needed changes in most areas related to financial management.
  • Unrestricted funding made possible the necessary investments of time and capital. The amount of money required to create lasting change in an organization depends on the organization's size and needs. In this initiative, the Wallace Foundation's investments of $65,000 to $115,000 in direct grants covered staff time, software, and training. These costs will vary from place to place, since salaries vary across the country.
  • The group learning model was a cost-effective method of improving financial practices. The grants provided to the group learning organizations totaled a little more than 55 percent of those provided to the customized learning organizations, and the former group received only about a quarter of the hours of assistance received by the latter. While the customized learning organizations demonstrated slightly larger changes, the group learning organizations also substantially improved. Achieving larger change faster is desirable, but it is possible to achieve meaningful change at a lower cost.

Implications for Organizations

  • Organizations interested in undertaking efforts to improve their financial practices should be prepared to spend between 800 and 1,000 staff hours on the work over two to three years. Organizations involved in the initiative spent significant amounts of time on activities designed to strengthen their financial management, spread across multiple staff members.
  • An organization's top leader and its top financial manager must be involved in this work. Without the motivation and commitment of the organization's top leaders, changes are hard to achieve. An organization's CEO must have a basic understanding of good financial management practices and the risks that organizations face if practices are lax. The CEO also needs to communicate the importance of the work, to maintain staff interest and commitment. And finally, it is the CEO who has the ability to oversee changes in staffing to ensure that good practices are adopted and that program and financial staff members work together. The CFO must also be involved in communicating the importance of the work to financial staff members, in ensuring that staff members get the training they need, and in overseeing necessary changes to software and policies.
  • Changes in software and manuals help sustain organizational change. One of the challenges in helping organizations build their capabilities is sustaining those changes over time. In SFM, changes were made to manuals and software. Once such changes were made, staff members were trained in the changes and managers worked to ensure that they were adopted. The fact that the new procedures were built into software and written into manuals helped to sustain them over time. It appears to be especially challenging for organizations to maintain increased communication between financial and program staff members, so that change in particular should be written into organizations' policies-and-procedures manuals.

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    3. The Wallace Foundation initially awarded the evaluation to Public/Private Ventures. When Public/Private Ventures closed its doors in mid-2012 due to financial problems, MDRC and Child Trends stepped in to complete the evaluation.
    4. In 2012, Public/Private Ventures published an early report on the progress of the initiative that presents an overview of the participating organizations and their financial management challenges, along with a summary of good financial management practices and early lessons from the first year of the initiative. See Kotloff, Lauren, with Nancy Burd, Building Stronger Nonprofits Through Better Financial Management: Early Efforts in 26 Youth-Serving Organizations (Philadelphia, PA: Public/Private Ventures, 2012).