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What the Best Nonprofit CFOs Do (and You Should Too)

What the Best Nonprofit CFOs Do

There is no doubt that the world of nonprofit finance is changing—but do you have the insight you need to drive innovation and transformation in your organization? Sage Intacct recently hosted a one-day virtual event focused on these and other trending priorities impacting nonprofit finance leaders today.

I had the pleasure of moderating a panel discussion where some of the best CFOs in the nonprofit industry shared ideas and practical advice for adapting to change, using technology to drive innovation, and maintaining strategic balance as a financial leader. The panel included the following chief finance officers, who also happen to be Sage Intacct customers:

Michelle Naus, CFO, Tri-County Mental Health ServicesMichelle Naus is the CFO of Tri-County Mental Health Services (MHS), a nationally recognized behavioral health services organization serving three counties in the Kansas City metropolitan area. Tri-County MHS provides comprehensive mental health and substance use and prevention services to about 9,000 individuals a year.

Shari Freedman, CFO, Room to ReadShari Freedman is the CFO of Room to Read, an international nongovernmental organization (NGO) that believes world change starts with educated children. Room to Read delivers programming to historically low-income communities around the world through 26 legal entities in 20 countries.

Karen Adame, CFO, JumpStart, Inc.Karen Adame is the CFO of JumpStart, Inc., a nationally recognized nonprofit that unlocks the potential of diverse and ambitious entrepreneurs to economically transform entire communities across the state of Ohio.


David Korsak, CFO, Animal Legal Defense FundDavid Korsak is the CFO of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, a national nonprofit animal law advocacy organization whose mission is to protect the lives and advance the interests of animals through the legal system.


In this article, I’ll share some big ideas from the panel discussion, titled What the Best Nonprofit CFOs Do (And You Should Too), that took place during the 2022 Nonprofit Finance Leaders Forum. But I invite you to view the entire on-demand session to get the full benefit of insights from these nonprofit financial leaders.

Watch a replay of the entire session and other virtual events at the Nonprofit Finance Leaders Virtual Forum.

How the CFO role is evolving

Historically, CFOs had been confined to finance optimization tasks and historical reporting. Today CFOs find themselves becoming increasingly involved in the overall strategy of their organizations and serving as both a leader and team player in making programmatic changes.

Shari Freedman of Room to Read notes, “Foremost, I’m the financial leader…we’re always responsible for ensuring financial fiscal management worldwide, financial transparency, and global compliance. I mean, those things don’t change. That’s the what, but the how and the who has changed a lot as well as the strategic balance of where I end up spending my time.”

The panel discussed their challenges in dealing with daily distractions and keeping everyone on their team motivated and focused on the big picture—whether it’s how to build and maintain trust among remote staff or leveraging technology to confidently deliver financial data to stakeholders and make predictions about the organization’s financial future.

I also asked the panel about what they look for when hiring and building out their team amid the Great Resignation. To hear the qualities and skills they’re seeking in job candidates, you’ll want to listen to the full recording.

Using technology to stay ahead of the curve

Since the last two years presented a pretty big curve for us all in terms of how we work and the way we work, I wanted to know how the panel was using technology to learn new things and set their organizations up for success. Karen Adame of JumpStart, Inc. shared that when her organization began the hiring process for a new IT Manager, the job requirements included technical skills of course, but noted they also wanted someone that focused on providing good customer service and was committed to continuous learning. Their organization needs people who can be agile and figure things out as new possibilities open up.

Karen also shared, “I spend a lot of my day answering questions … so just being able to leverage our existing technology to easily respond to people and be very customer-focused I think is really what makes technology help us stay ahead and always be on the forefront of being able to be responsive and forward-looking.”

The top four things CFOs should stop doing immediately

The panel shared these things to help guide nonprofit CFOs and other financial leaders as they navigate the enormous transformation taking place today. Here are four things they said nonprofit CFOs should stop doing immediately (or never start doing in the first place):

  1. Don’t be a ‘yes’ man.  “Make sure you have the ability to say no but make sure you’re ready to back up why you’re saying no,” shared David Korsak. “And hopefully that’s a journey to get to a maybe, and then maybe a yes.”
  2. Don’t apologize for making money.  Michelle Naus pointed out, “I think a lot of people in nonprofit read that as we have to break even or have a loss, so I always tell them 501c3 is a tax designation, not a revenue designation.” You should always have a profit motive because every dollar earned is more you can put toward services and building your mission.
  3. Don’t do everything yourself.  Shari Freedman advises, “Do not do the job or the jobs of any of your direct reports. Delegate. Trust that you’ve hired the right people. Get them the resources they need and then get out of their way…Don’t fall into the trap that you have to do everything yourself because then you stop being a strategic advisor, you stop being effective as a CFO, and you become one of your own direct reports.”
  4. Don’t just take their word for it.  “Don’t stop paying attention to what’s going on in the organization… In the end, everything has some financial impact…so don’t let people try to brush you off and say ‘oh, it’s not important for you to know’. If you’re trying to be strategic, and really helpful for the entire organization, then you have to know what’s going on,” recommends Karen Adame.

Advice for nonprofit financial leaders

Since we had time for more insights, I asked each CFO on the panel to share one or two pieces of advice for nonprofit financial leaders. Here are just a few of the things they shared:

  • Focus on your communication abilities and the importance of relationship building.
  • Understand your nonprofit funding model so you can effectively balance the passion and the financial viability.
  • Get involved and know the people you work with.
  • Build a network of other CFOs.
  • Breathe. Not everything can be fixed overnight—map out what success looks like and start by making incremental changes.

Make bold moves for your organization

In this article, I’ve shared just a few of the best practices and pieces of advice that these leading nonprofit CFOs shared with us. You’ll want to hear their thoughts and strategies about other topics including the importance of relationship building, connectedness, customer service, and nonprofit financial tools. Watch the full replay presentation to learn more about what the best nonprofit CFOs do (and you should too)—at the Nonprofit Finance Leaders Forum.

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