Many small charities do not have the luxury of having a finance team in place. Some are reliant on trustees, volunteers, and staff who have a range of other responsibilities, as well as handling the finances.
It often feels a complex area to tackle and may not be a top priority. However, there are some simple processes that can be put in place and a wealth of free information and resources available to help small charities ensure good financial management – it is often a case of knowing where to look.
Free resources and information
A good starting point for small charities is The Charity Commission’s website, which includes a Money and Accounts section offering guides on subjects including charity reporting and accounts, investments, managing assets, and resources, as well as examples of annual reports that can be downloaded.
The Small Charities Coalition has a comprehensive resources section on its website, which includes guides, useful templates for financial management and links to useful websites. Charities can also use the site to request additional help, support from a mentor or volunteer willing to share their skills free of charge or be matched to a trustee with financial experience. Other useful sites are NCVO and the Charity Finance Group.
Finance skills more important than charity finance skills
Even the smallest charity needs someone with good financial skills and knowledge to ensure good financial management – they could be a trustee, a volunteer or staff member. The responsibility for managing finance needn’t fall on one person’s shoulders – the responsibilities can be shared among different people with different skills in the organization.
A common misconception is that finance managers need specific charity accounting experience. In reality, it’s more helpful for them to have good financial knowledge, and the ability to communicate well so they can translate and interpret financial information into meaningful information for others and ask the right questions.
There is a great deal of practical support and training available to help individuals improve their financial management skills. The Directory of Social Change and NCVO offer affordable guides and online training modules covering all aspects of finance, Cass Business School is running a financial leadership course, and organizations including the Charity Finance Group, the Small Charities Coalition and accountancy firms offer training.
There are also Community Accounting Services – a national network of accountants – who provide a range of affordable services including training and one-to-one support all geared towards small charities.
What essential finance processes are needed?
The foundation of good financial management in small charities is to keep it simple. Basic accounting records are a must to keep track of spending. A simple spreadsheet could be used to chart income versus expenditure. What’s important, however, is that these basic records are kept up to date, with bank reconciliations taking place at least once a month. A cash flow forecast should also be created to predict movements in the bank account in forthcoming months. It is also important to have a good filing system or referencing system so any document or information needed can be easily retrieved.
Set up good processes and controls and involve others in financial management Processes need to be established and documented for managing all aspects of finance, including monitoring the use of restricted and unrestricted funds, the authorization of purchases and signing off when something can be paid. The Charity Commission guide, CC8 on internal controls includes guidance and a useful checklist.
In a small organization, maintaining the books and records will often be sole responsibility of one person but this can be a mistake. No one person in a charity should be responsible for this and processes must be communicated and understood by everyone in the organization.
Charities need to involve others particularly in processes such as bank reconciliations and in the production of management accounts. Ensuring there is segregation of duties will help to pick up any errors or mistakes and also helps to combat fraud.
Accounts – keep it simple and create a narrative
Even small charities need regular management accounts presented in a clear and simple way for senior managers and trustees to understand. One tip is to create a simple narrative to go alongside the numbers, so whoever is reading it, from the chief executive to the trustees, can answer any questions the numbers throw up. Sometimes the inclusion of bar charts or pie charts can make it easier for others to understand the accounts.
Annual statutory accounts also need to be produced by the organisation, which clearly represents its financial activity and current situation. The finance person must plan ahead and know when these are due so the accounts are prepared and filed in good time. The advice here is to keep them simple and include a good narrative to bring the numbers off the page. Financial performance should be linked with the activity to illustrate the impact the charity is having. This also ensures the charity complies with the annual statutory reporting requirements.
Don’t assume it will be easy
Just because a charity is small, managing finance isn’t necessarily easy; it can be complex. Many organizations stumble into challenges around tax – particularly VAT. Many charities can’t register for VAT because of the nature of their income however; but will end up paying VAT on things they buy. Even if they are VAT-registered the likelihood is they won’t be charging VAT on all their activities so will fall into the category of being partially exempt. It can be a complicated area. HMRC’s website’s has useful information and we have also produced a made simple guide on VAT.
Some aspects of financial management can be outsourced cost-effectively. One of those is payroll. This can be quite an administrative burden and a good thing to consider.
There are a lot of considerations for small charities in terms of managing finances but the most important thing is to get the basics right and to know where to look for help and support because it is out there.