Finance & Strategy

Real world nonprofit finance matters, and real world thinking about strategies for financial, programmatic, and leadership sustainability. This column is written by Steve Zimmerman, principal of Spectrum Nonprofit Services.

photo of Steve Zimmerman

Five Ways to Let Government Money Run You Over

Is government funding a way to expand what you do for important constituencies, whether they are families living with autism, low income people seeking legal help, or people attending your dance performances? Or is government funding a trap that will mire you in reporting nightmares, take you away from your values, and turn you into a heartless bureaucracy?

Let's start with a reality: local, state, and federal government agencies are major buyers of social services, education, health, and arts in the United States. In fact, government funding made up 52% of total income for social service nonprofits in 1997 (Lester Salamon in The Resilient Sector). For many organizations, the question is not whether to take government funding, but how to get more of it. Whether you are thinking about your first RFP (Request for Proposals) or are already knee-deep in existing grants and contracts, here are five ways to do it WRONG.

1. Don't assign anyone to oversee contracts management. Successful completion of a government contract requires not just doing the work well, but customized reporting of activities and finances. If no one is explicitly responsible for contracts management, some program directors may under-bid on costs, and you'll end up losing money on the contract. In other cases you may not pay attention to ensuring that the full amount of allowable costs is charged to the contract. Someone needs to make sure that budgets are appropriate prior to submission, that financial and programmatic performance is monitored, and that reports are done promptly and completely -- these are not entry-level responsibilities!

2. Stay out of politics. Political engagement is an essential responsibility of government-funded organizations. It's not enough to help social service . . .

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