What Your Board Should Know About Nonprofit Accounting

Board members of your nonprofit organization have a responsibility to understand some of the fundamentals of running it. These include your mission, the people you serve and any federal and state regulations that apply to you.

One of the questions our nonprofit members at Addition Financial ask us is this:

"Do my board members need to understand nonprofit accounting?"

The short answer to that question is yes. However, they don’t need to be professional accountants or spend hours studying nonprofit accounting to be effective as board members. We’ve put together this list of accounting basics that your board members should know.

Main Financial Statements Required

The first thing your board members should know about nonprofit accounting is that the reporting requirements differ from those required for-profit entities.

Here are the basic reporting requirements:

  • Statement of financial position
  • Statement of activities
  • Statement of functional expenses (by function and nature)
  • Statement of cash flows
  • Notes to financial statements

You can find a full explanation of GAAP standards here. Your board members don’t need to know all of the details, but they should have an understanding of the documentation you’re required to produce.

What Being a Nonprofit Means

One common mistake people make when they’re invited to join the board of a nonprofit organization is thinking that “nonprofit” means an organization can’t earn profits. If your board members don’t understand that profit isn’t a dirty word, they may hold you back from raising needed funds.

Having more donations than you can use at a given time is a good thing. The key, as you know, is that making a profit cannot be your goal. Cash on hand will allow you to pay unexpected expenses, meet unanticipated needs and keep your organization afloat when donations slow down.


In the for-profit world, revenue is relatively easy to define. It’s what a company earns for selling products or services. In the world of nonprofit organizations, revenue includes a variety of things. It’s important for board members to understand what must be reported as revenue.

Nonprofit revenue may include any or all of the following things:

  • Donor contributions
  • Membership dues
  • Program fees
  • Ticket sales for fundraising events
  • Grants
  • Investment income
  • Sales of branded merchandise

So, in other words, if you have an online store that allows people to buy branded merchandise, it counts are revenue. The same goes for stand-alone donations, interest earned on Donor Advised Funds and grants awarded to your organization.

Donor Restrictions

Sometimes, money may be donated to a nonprofit organization with restrictions imposed by the donor. That’s something that can happen with stand-alone donations and may also apply if a donor makes a large donation that’s held in a Donor Advised Fund.

Your board members should understand the difference between restricted and unrestricted donations. Restrictions may be bounded by time or purpose. In other words, you may be restricted about when to use the money or how to use it.

Some restrictions may be permanent. It’s essential for shareholders to know if you have funds that may not be used. For example, some restrictions apply to the principal of a fund but not to interest earned on the money.

Mission and Ownership

This isn’t about accounting, but you should make sure your board members understand the mission and ownership of your organization. This item ties into the “Statement of Activities” we mentioned earlier in this article.

Your mission is related to the purpose of your organization. The Statement of Activities is equivalent to the Income Statement of a for-profit entity.

Any expenditures the board approves must tie into your mission as outlined in the Statement of Activities. It’s important that board members know there’s a connection – and that it’s their responsibility to maintain it.

The Simple Handbook for Successfully Managing Profits at a Nonprofit

Tax-Exempt Status

Your nonprofit organization may or may not be exempt from federal income tax. You must apply to the IRS to be awarded tax-exempt status, and your board members should know whether you have it.

Keep in mind that the issue of whether donors may claim their donation as a tax-deductible expense on their tax returns is a separate issue. Schools, churches and the Red Cross are three examples of organizations that are both tax-exempt and whose donations qualify as charitable deductions.

Some nonprofits can claim a tax-exemption but donations do not qualify as charitable deductions. These include:

  • Amateur sports clubs
  • Chambers of commerce
  • College sororities and fraternities
  • Employee organizations
  • Social organizations

If they want more information, you can refer them to Internal Revenue Service Publication 557, Tax-Exempt Status for Your Organization, which you can find here.

All board members should understand the basics of nonprofit accounting as we’ve explained them here. You may find that some board members want to learn more – and you should encourage them to do so.

Having a checking account that’s especially designed for nonprofit organizations can help you with your accounting. Addition Financial can help. Click here to learn more.

The content provided here is not legal, tax, accounting, financial or investment advice. Please consult with legal, tax, accounting, financial or investment professionals based on your specific needs or questions you may have. We do not make any guarantees as to accuracy or completeness of this information, do not support any third-party companies, products, or services described here, and take no liability or legal obligations for your use of this information.