Info You Can Use: Outside Audits And You

During the summer many non profit boards of directors suspend their meetings due to the difficulty of scheduling meetings around members’ vacations. When meetings start up again in the fall, it may be a good time to think about revisiting organizational policies.

Using the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which currently only applies to publicly traded companies, as a guide Independent Sector (IS) and BoardSource have drawn up a checklist of good governance practices to implement.

There is also a link to a more expansive discussion of the topics in the checklist you may wish to read.

While the act currently only applies to public companies, financial impropriety in the non-profit sector has lead many to explore how sections of the law might be applied to non-profits or to suggest the creations of similar rules for non-profits.

The bulk of the rules apply to auditing and financial disclosures though some deal with conflict of interest, record retention policies and whistler blower protections.

One of the biggest challenges in applying the recommendations from the law is that while publicly traded companies have to pass certain milestones in terms of size and assets before going public, non-profits come in all shapes and sizes. An outside audit is really only practical for some large non-profits (and required for those receiving more than $500,000 in federal funds.)

Most non-profits should at least have an independent audit committee, but as the article notes, many smaller non-profits will have difficulty finding a qualified people to be treasurer, finance committee and audit committee and good governance requires there not be significant overlap.

For those who do use an outside auditor, though the Act only requires the lead partner of the auditing company change every 5 years, IS suggests the company be changed every 5 years and that the company not provide any other services, except tax return preparation as pre-approved by the board, to minimize conflict of interest.

For those organizations using an audit committee, it is suggested none of the members of the committee have any financial/business interest with the non-profit.

The very bare bones, basic criteria for a board that IS suggests is that they all receive training to become literate enough to understand the organization’s financial documents. IS says it is important that when the organization signs off on their 990 that: 1- the 990 is actually completed comprehensively and accurately, something that is infrequently done; 2- that the signature actually reflects an understanding of the organization’s financial condition.

I have talked about conflicts of interest policies in the past and the IS document doesn’t really discuss this in as much detail as the financial disclosure.

One thing I was not aware of and wanted to share is the whistler blower protections. You may be aware that it is illegal to take any retributive actions against those who report misconduct: firing, demotion, harassment, passing them over for promotion. What you may not know is:

“Even if the claims are unfounded, the organization may not reprimand the employee. The law does not force the employee to demonstrate misconduct; a reasonable belief or suspicion that a fraud exists is enough to create a protected status for the employee.”

I wasn’t aware that the criteria to achieve whistle blower protection was based on a reasonable belief rather than requiring some sort of evidence. Perhaps I have been watching too many crime dramas–or perhaps not enough of the right types.

In any case, it is important to have good clear policies about employee conduct, financial and accounting practices, conflicts of interest, records retention (which includes email and voicemail) in place long before any of these things become issues.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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