Building Nonprofit Reserves: Ensuring Survival

No Comments

Dan WeissMost nonprofits live in a “hand-to-mouth” world where revenues are spent as they come in. It’s a dangerous way to live, because the inevitable interruptions in funding can cause an organization to fall into crisis. This includes job losses, disruptions in services, and enormous stress on the surviving staff. Building nonprofit reserves is the solution.

Several years ago, a world financial crisis resulted in reduced funding for virtually every nonprofit. Not all of them survived. The ones that did typically had to cut, scrape, and beg.

Even in the best of times, maintaining a consistent revenue stream isn’t easy. The prudent way to operate is to build reserves that can provide a cushion when funding is disrupted.

How Much Do We Need?

The best practices of nonprofit management dictate three to six months of cash reserves. In a $2 million organization, that’s $500,000 to $1 million. Do you have sufficient reserves?

Is it easy to build reserves? Of course not. Above all, it requires discipline in spending and commitments.

When you create your annual budget, build in a surplus. One way is to direct a target percentage of your budget toward reserves. For example, 5% of your budget in a $2 million organization would be $100,000 annually. Even if you fall short of your budget goals and break even, you’ll still be healthy. But if you set your budget goals at a break even point and fall short, it may be crisis time. Budgeting for a surplus is simply saving for a rainy day, which is just good business.

How Do We Do It?

Building nonprofit reserves requires a greater consciousness of profit planning.

It’s quite common for nonprofit managers to ask for too little and spend too much of their revenues on direct program services. While it’s appropriate to be sensitive to the impact of overhead, both in terms of efficiency and public opinion, it is too often an afterthought.

A typical project funding plan will begin and end with consideration of the direct costs of executing the project. For example, if it will cost $25,000 to serve 200 constituents, the funding request will be for $25,000. That’s not enough. Even the most organized and efficient organization will devote more resources to more activity. Capacity will be strained and overhead costs will increase.

Ask for more, and pay more attention to being a business steward by building nonprofit reserves. If the organization is healthy, the mission will take care of itself. And, in the long run, you’ll be more effective.


Dan Weiss, founder and President of Counterpart CFO, leads a team of flexible, part-time CFOs specializing in nonprofitsTo read more from Dan, follow him on LinkedIn or subscribe to his blog at

Previous Post
Risks of Paying Stipends
Next Post
Plan for Adversity to Ensure Continuity

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Fill out this field
Fill out this field
Please enter a valid email address.
You need to agree with the terms to proceed