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Rebuilding your nonprofit operating reserves

March 19, 2021

Events of the past year put a dent in many nonprofit operating reserves. Perhaps you tapped this stash to buy personal protective equipment or to pay staffers’ salaries when your budget no longer proved adequate. As the pandemic wanes and economic conditions improve, you’ll need to start thinking about rebuilding your operating reserves.

Back on steady ground

Assembling an adequate operating reserve takes time and should be regarded as a continuous project. Obviously, it’s nearly impossible to contribute to reserves when you’re under financial stress. But once you feel your nonprofit is on steadier ground, your board of directors needs to determine what amount to target and how your organization will reach that target. It’s also a good time to review circumstances under which reserves can be drawn down.

Reserve funds can come from unrestricted contributions, investment income and planned surpluses. Many boards designate a portion of their organizations’ unrestricted net assets as an operating reserve. On the other hand, funds that shouldn’t be considered part of an operating reserve include endowments and temporarily restricted funds. Net assets tied up in illiquid fixed assets used in operations, such as your buildings and equipment, generally don’t qualify either.

Protection and flexibility

Determining how much should be in your nonprofit operating reserve depends on your organization and its operations. Generally, if you depend heavily on only a few funders or government grants, your nonprofit probably will benefit from a larger reserve. Likewise, if personnel costs are high, your organization could use a healthy reserve cushion.

Three months of reserves is typically considered a minimum accumulation. Six months of reserves provides greater security. A three-to-six-month reserve should enable your organization to continue its operations for a relatively brief transition in operations or funding. Or, in the worst-case scenario, it would allow for an orderly winding up of affairs.

An operating reserve of more than six months provides greater protection if, for example, something similar to the COVID-19 lockdown occurs again. And a bigger reserve can give you financial flexibility. For example, you might have the funds to pursue a new program initiative that’s not fully funded, or to leverage debt funding for needed facilities or equipment.

No hoarding of nonprofit operating reserves

Note that it’s generally not a good idea to put aside more than 12 months of expenses. Increasingly, donors want to see the nonprofits they support put funds to work, not hoard them. Contact us for more information about nonprofit operating reserves and setting policies that are appropriate for your organization.

All content provided in this article is for informational purposes only. Matters discussed in this article are subject to change. For up-to-date information on this subject please contact a Clark Schaefer Hackett professional. Clark Schaefer Hackett will not be held responsible for any claim, loss, damage or inconvenience caused as a result of any information within these pages or any information accessed through this site.

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