Challenges and Solutions for Allocating Indirect Costs

Accurate nonprofit financial reporting relies upon proper allocation of indirect costs. Indirect costs can be challenging to place properly, but once they are, they can make a significant impact on your overall budget. More importantly, they add an extra dimension to all reports reviewed by your Board and executive team and can help with budgeting, staffing, and other critical decisions.

Classifying Expenses

Although nonprofits may have multiple expense categories, many expenses actually fall into one of three simple classifications. These include:

  1. Administration: Management and General Administration
  2. Programs: Any programs that support the organization’s mission
  3. Fundraising: The cost of raising funds

Your organization may call them by different names, but upon closer examination, the major expense categories should fit into these areas. Those expenses which can be identified as belonging to one of these three categories can be quickly allocated. Others, however, fall into more of a gray area which cannot be identified with a specific program or budgeting category.

Indirect Cost Allocation and Its Effects

Indirect cost allocation impacts many areas of your organization. It impacts how donors view your organization, for example, by changing the way in which expenses are laid out in your financials. High administrative fees may be unacceptable to some donors.

Indirect costs also impact the budget for programs. If costs seem to be weighing heavily towards one area, that area may get more or less budget for upcoming years.

The allocation also impacts the final percentages that appear on Form 990 for each tax year. These are the numbers that are listed publicly and can impact the public’s view of your organization. Think carefully about how you apportion indirect costs as their ramifications can be long-lasting.

Coming Up with an Indirect Cost Allocation Method

Determining a fair and equitable indirect cost allocation method is a good solution to the problem of items that do not have an easy ‘home’ in your budget line. By examining the methods you have on file to share expenses, you can plan and allocate accordingly.

One method by which you can allocate indirect costs is to estimate what percentage belongs in each major budget line. Let’s assume that an administrative assistant works for both the donor relations and the program area. Which budget should contain his salary? If the assistant supports three people in donor relations and one in programs, then 75% of his salary budget can be allocated to donor relations and 25% to program areas.

Obviously, not every allocation will be this clean and easy. Square footage is one area that can get tricky. For instance, if you rent office space shared by multiple program and departmental areas, determining the percent of costs to be borne by each department can get complicated if many departments share the space. Sometimes, you just have to give it your best guess.

Consistency Is Key

The big thing to remember about allocation is that consistency is the key to successful indirect allocation. Whatever method you choose, put it in writing and file it in accounting and financial documents, plans, and budgets so that it is common knowledge. Then, apply the rules fairly and consistently to the budgeting process. It is this consistency of application that auditors look for to determine if an indirect allocation method is acceptable.

Indirect allocation is a common challenge in the world of nonprofit financial management. Fortunately, it’s one with a solution that makes sense and that can be rolled out fairly easily throughout your organization.