by Mark Jones

The way a ministry builds its budget has significant impact on how successfully the ministry lives out its mission. For larger ministries, the need for budgets to be built strategically and aligned missionally is crucial. The question is how. How do you build this kind of budget? 

I know this question is on ministry leaders’ minds because so many of them signed up for ECCU’s recent Advanced Budgeting webinar. So I’m looking forward to presenting an educational session on advanced budgeting at the upcoming Christian Leadership Alliance (CLA) 2013 National Conference in Anaheim, California. And I’m thrilled to be co-presenting with Caryn Ryan, whose credentials couldn’t be more impressive.

Caryn is the managing member and founder of Missionwell LLC, a full-service accounting, finance, and virtual office solution that exclusively serves nonprofits. She has extensive experience in major industry settings like Amoco Corporation and nonprofit settings like World Vision International, where she served as CFO.

To set the stage for our session at CLA, I asked Caryn a few questions about budget building.

Mark: Caryn, what are some strategic steps budget planners of large organizations should take to ensure that the process heads in the right direction?

Caryn: The most successful budgets have senior executives driving them. If the budget is a finance/accounting department effort only, it’s going to be less successful. Beyond alignment with the strategic plan, it’s helpful to have clear goals or business imperatives for the budget for the coming year. Examples might be absorbing new activity without affecting fixed costs, taking a deeper dive into the effectiveness of specific programs, freeing up funds to establish an operating reserve account of $XX without disrupting operations, or even starting a critical program when funding is at 60%.

Mark: Many ministries experience tension when it comes to aligning money and mission. What are some guiding principles or best practices to assure that a ministry’s budget reflects priorities?

Caryn: Aligning money with mission sounds easy, but is surprisingly hard to do! Start by listing out your strategic objectives/priorities, then translate them into strategic goals. Next, lay out multi-year strategies to achieve the goals. This is where the budget starts to come in. Each strategy (program or activity) requires direct resources, whether people and/or program dollars. Identify the direct resource (people and/or dollars) for each strategy at the level required in the budget year to achieve the longer-term goal.

Now the fun begins! Start a conversation to help answer these and other questions:

  • Are resources available to fund all strategies?
  • Do goals need to be adjusted?
  • Are fixed costs and overhead affordable?
  • Do programs or activities seem to move the organization towards its goals quickly enough?

The heart of the budget is to move the organization toward its goals efficiently.

Mark: What are some keys to assuring that a budget serves the organization well after it is approved?

Caryn: The simplest way to keep a budget alive is to consistently report actual results compared to the budget. Color coding variances can highlight the ones that are significant and require attention. Focus staff and teams on those variances. Also, keep in mind a budget doesn’t have to be completely financial. For instance, you can budget the non-financial elements of your balanced scorecard and report against those variances, too.

Budgets die after approval if they are not used as accountability tools!

If the organization doesn’t have a system of accountability, that should start with the board. The board negotiates with the president/executive director on what elements he or she will be held accountable. This may mean employing a flexible budget/agreement on what is and is not controllable in the year, or a range of acceptable outcomes around key line items. Pay increases, bonuses, and other rewards should be linked to achieving budget goals.

Another part of the accountability spectrum is staff—paid or unpaid, outsourced or direct employees. Once strategies have been funded in the budget, then people can be linked to the strategies. Typically, this is expressed as a percentage of a person’s time against an annual performance goal. The budget stays alive for the individual through their team meetings and meetings with supervisors as they compare actual performance to objectives aligned with the budget.

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