Trust, so the experts tell us, must be earned over time. In the workplace, it is earned by consistently performing one’s duties well and by successfully accepting ever-increasing responsibilities.
The nonprofit workplace, like the for-profit workplace, works best in an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect among one’s colleagues. Without it, the workplace can be hostile, unfriendly, and uncomfortable.
But there is a fine line between suspicion and performing due diligence. Nonprofit organizations should guard against allowing trust to blindside them to the potential dangers of fraud and theft in the workplace.
A Cautionary Tale of the Ramifications of Blind Trust
One story that stands out is the story of Marge (not her real name), who worked at a large nonprofit organization. She was like a second mother to the staff. Honest, always willing to work extra hours, diligent in her job duties in the accounting department, Marge was trusted with managing many areas of the organization’s finances.
Although the organization had internal controls in place, they were often waived for Marge and other senior staff members who were so well-regarded and trusted that they weren’t questioned when they dodged the procedures. Marge was especially trusted and valued and did not have anyone present when she counted out petty cash or handled the checkbook.
One day it was discovered that money was missing from the petty cash. An audit revealed that small amounts of money had been taken from the petty cash box as well as from the checking account. Because Marge controlled both, she could make slight adjustments in the entry ledgers to avoid suspicion for a long time. It took the auditors only a short while to uncover the discrepancies and for Marge to confess that her lottery ticket habit had become a necessity and that she had been stealing ever increasing amounts to fuel an obsession with gambling.
Is Marge an isolated case? We think not, and a quick survey of the various nonprofit journals reveals similar patterns of fraud. Fraud doesn’t occur in isolation. It tends to occur when gaps are left within the internal controls that are intended to prevent such situations. In this case, trust and friendship overrode common sense. Exceptions were made that should not have been made. The result was an organization poorer for the loss of both money and a trusted employee who had to be let go when the truth was revealed.
Preventing and Identifying Fraud
Trust is a wonderful thing and a valued commodity in the workplace. That said, it should not preclude the use of standards, internal controls, and audits.
- Preventing Fraud
- Standards are the accepted norms for an industry. Accounting standards, security standards, and workplace standards can be codified and recorded in written manuals provided to all employees. Everyone can then be held to the same shared standard of conduct and behavior.
- Internal controls are the processes and procedures put into place around access to the organization’s finances. These controls should be written down and shared among staff. Training sessions and refresher training session are also important to ensure consistent understanding of the controls among everyone.
- Recognizing Fraud:
- Audits bring in outside consultants such as CPA firms, well-versed in accounting for nonprofits to examine your organization’s financial records, provide recommendations, and discover discrepancies.
- Provide staff with an anonymous method to report incidences of fraud to their supervisors or to the managers in your organization.
Trust doesn’t have to be blind. Assuring people that their work matters, listening to their ideas, implementing their suggestions and other positive examples of trust can build bonds among workers that engender loyalty to your organization. Don’t leave your nonprofit open to fraud or theft due to blind trust. Trust, but verify, and stick to accepted norms and standards of behavior and internal controls to prevent problems before they occur.
About Welter Consulting
Welter Consulting bridges people and technology together for effective solutions for nonprofit organizations. We offer software and services that can help you with your accounting needs. Please contact Welter Consulting at 206-605-3113 for more information.