Not-for-profit organizations don’t lose as much to occupational fraud as for-profit businesses do. According to the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners’ (ACFE’s) 2018 Report to the Nations, nonprofits lost a median amount of $75,000 during the 21-month study period, compared with $164,000 for private for-profit companies. Yet few nonprofit budgets can afford a $75,000 shortfall or the bad publicity associated with fraud. Here’s how nonprofits open the door to fraud — and how your organization can shut it.
How thieves slip through
The core of any organization’s fraud-prevention program is strong internal controls — policies that govern everything from accepting cash to signing checks to training staff to performing regular audits. Most nonprofits have at least a rudimentary set of internal controls, but employees bent on fraud can usually find gaps.
Nonprofits typically devote the largest chunk of their budgets to programming and can be stingy about allocating dollars to enforcing internal controls. This can be especially problematic if executives or board members indicate that fraud prevention is low on their priority list. Nonprofit boards may also inadvertently enable fraud when they place too much trust in the executive director and fail to challenge that person’s financial representations. Unlike their for-profit counterparts, these members may lack financial oversight experience and the knowledge to spot irregularities.
Trust is another Achilles’ heel for many nonprofits. Organizations often regard their staff and dedicated volunteers like family. They may allow managers to override internal controls and let volunteers accept cash donations without oversight — both very risky activities.
Fortify your defenses
Check tampering, expense reimbursement fraud and billing schemes are the three most common types of employee theft found in nonprofit organizations. But proper segregation of duties — for example, assigning account reconciliation and fund depositing to two different staff members — is a relatively easy and effective method of preventing such fraud. Strong management oversight and confidential fraud hotlines are also associated with lower losses due to employee theft.
Indeed, when it comes to employees, you should trust but verify. Conduct background checks on all prospective staff members, as well as volunteers who will be handling money or financial records. Also, provide an orientation to new board members to ensure they have a clear understanding of their fiduciary role.
Finally, handle fraud incidents seriously. Many nonprofits choose to quietly fire thieves and sweep their actions under the rug. However, this tends to encourage fraud by telling potential thieves that the consequences of getting caught are relatively minor. If an incident is hushed up, rumors could do more reputational damage than publicly addressing the issue head-on. It’s better to file a police report, consult an attorney and inform major stakeholders about the incident.