Connections for Success



Common Finance-Function Mistakes You Should Avoid
Barbara Miller

Most not-for-profits are understandably laser-focused on their mission, and other less-critical matters may fall between the cracks, such as managing the finance function. However, if the finance function does not receive the attention it deserves, you run the risk of IRS penalties, reputational damage and lost revenue.

Four common mistakes related to managing the finance function

  1. Failure to Report Unrelated Business Income
    According to the IRS, unreported business income ranks as one of the most common tax filing errors made by not-for-profits. Revenue generated from a trade or business that your organization regularly engages in, but that isn’t substantially related to furthering its tax-exempt purpose (other than the need for funding), may well be subject to the unrelated business income tax. Generally, an exempt organization with $1,000 or more of gross income from an unrelated business activity must file Form 990-T. The not-for-profit must also pay estimated tax if it expects its tax for the year to be $500 or more.
  2. Misclassification of Employees
    Not-for-profits have long turned to independent contractors in the face of tight budgets and small staffs. Contractors can provide valuable flexibility, reduce administrative work and cut your costs and potential liability. The IRS, however, has strict tests for determining whether an individual is indeed an independent contractor or is actually an employee for whom you must withhold, and pay, payroll taxes. If the IRS reclassifies any of your contractors as employees, you’ll likely find yourself on the hook for back payroll taxes, interest and penalties. You also might be subject to minimum wage and overtime laws, Social Security and Medicare contributions, unemployment and workers’ compensation premiums.
  3. Overreliance on Software
    Not-for-profits sport plenty of choices when it comes to off-the-shelf accounting software packages. Although these products can improve efficiency, you can rely on them too much. The fact is that accounting software isn’t fail-safe. And it may not flag a mistake or spot possible fraud. Even with the most expensive and sophisticated software, garbage in means garbage out — in other words, the output is only as reliable as the input. For example, if an employee enters cash receipts for the wrong amounts or dates, or simply fails to enter them at all, that could have a domino effect. Everything from financial statements to tax filings potentially would be impacted. You need a knowledgeable individual (someone other than the person who makes the entries) to review journal entries, reconcile account balances and perform other checks and balances.
  4. Failure to Invest in Expertise
    An over-reliance on software also may lead to inadequate investment in accounting resources. Some organizations may count on volunteers to serve as their accountants. Think about the critical role your financial reporting plays in obtaining funding. Can you really afford to leave it to under-informed volunteers or one-size-fits-all software? Yet some not-for-profits continue to direct a smaller percentage of their budgets to finance and accounting than for-profit companies do. They may reason that professional accounting expertise will cost too much. However, the costs of not retaining such help could put a bigger dent in your wallet in the long run.

The Bottom Line

Mistakes in the oversight of the finance function can get in the way of accomplishing your organization’s mission. By allocating sufficient resources to this area, you can fortify your financial footing, protect your reputation and arm your leadership with vital information for decision-making.

For more information, contact Barbara Miller at [email protected], or call her at 312.670.7444. Visit to learn more about our Not-For-Profit Group.

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