Mar 31, 2008

Nonprofit Finance Fraud: What's Behind It?

For any fundraiser, the idea that your hard-won grant and donation money might be eaten away by employee theft is, if not unthinkable, demoralizing at many levels. And, if discovered, it will make future fundraising a lot harder.

Dollar billBut if we're to believe a recent analysis in the Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly (December 2007 issue), around 13% of the roughly $300 billion given to charity in 2006 was stolen by organization insiders. (I confess upfront, I didn't pay to read the actual report, but read an excellent analysis of it by Stephanie Strom in the March 29 issue of The New York Times).

My first reaction is disbelief -- which may be justified since, as Strom notes, they arrived at that figure by simply applying the same assumption to nonprofits as to government and for-profit organizations, namely that they lose 6% of revenue to fraud each year.

That's a pretty broad assumption. And I'd like to believe that nonprofit employees are "above" the rest, since most of them are working for a cause they believe in.

But the most disturbing part of the report may be the finding -- which does appear to have been nonprofit-specific -- that the typical thief was an employee, usually female, who earned less than $50,000 a year and had worked for the nonprofit at least three years. She wasn't going for million-dollar temptations, but took less than $40,000.

I'm projecting here, but doesn't that sound like someone who's frustrated by how little she's earning for a lot of hard work? Who perhaps doesn't even think of what she's doing as stealing, but just getting back a little of what she deserves?

If that's true, then this is a classic "no free lunch" illustration: Underpaying nonprofit employees will come back to hurt the group eventually. So my concluding pitch would be, in every grant proposal or other project budget, to try and give the hardworking employees a raise. Even a small amount can go a long way toward showing appreciation and preventing employee disgruntlement.