When it comes to maintaining financial integrity, churches of all sizes and settings often run into similar control issues. By addressing seven common problem areas now, leaders have a far greater chance of thwarting significant problems later:
1. Duties aren’t separated. Every church must make certain that at least two of the following three specific duties are split between at least two unrelated persons:
- Authorizing transactions
- Recording transactions
- The custody of assets
Without separation, you’ve provided someone with access to the funds and access to the information systems. That person can manipulate information and cover up changes with little fear of detection.
2. Dated job descriptions and unmonitored workload. To keep job descriptions from becoming dated, review everyone’s duties and responsibilities regularly. Without this review, staff members may take on additional work that should be separated to unrelated persons, or they may take on more work than they can handle and properly oversee.
Also, a review of work-related duties can help make certain that someone isn’t overloaded to the point of potentially trying to justify or rationalize an act of embezzlement.
On a related note, churches often turn to volunteers. Make certain these volunteers are fully supervised and aren’t offended by close supervision and probing questions. Explain to them the importance of verifying their work to protect them and the church.
3. Unqualified personnel. Churches must steer clear of hiring or keeping unqualified individuals in finance-related roles. Sometimes a church hires out of pity because someone has been out of work a while; or a church might realize the person isn’t the right fit but doesn’t have the heart to let that person go. Neither scenario leads to good outcomes.
It’s also important to note the unique rules and laws that apply to church finances. It’s not the business world. It’s critical for churches to hire people familiar with church-specific rules and laws. You could also hire solid people not from a church finance background, but it’s essential to provide specific training that gets them up to speed about the ins and outs of church finance.
Speaking of training, churches may feel they simply don’t have the budget for such training. Thanks to the resources available online, many organizations offer free or low-cost webinars that can provide valuable training.*
Lastly, make certain to review the compensation of the personnel handling church finances. Low pay can serve as a trigger for rationalizing a fraudulent act, so it makes sense to periodically make certain the compensation for these leaders appears fair.
4. Accounting procedures manual. This should be comprehensive and regularly updated. If someone can’t come in and do the job after reading this manual, a problem exists. If only one person understands how everything works, that’s a potential vulnerability.
5. Limited time and staff. When a church staff feels overworked, there’s a temptation to cut corners on processes and procedures. When your church finds itself in this type of situation, it’s critical to emphasize to the staff the importance of maintaining the processes and procedures for the good of the ministry and their reputations.
6. Lack of monitoring. This is simply making certain your church has internal controls in place and follows them. It’s smart to periodically test the system to make sure it works like it should.
7. Trust. Church leaders often express their desire to extend “trust” on financial matters because it’s a church environment. As a ministry leader once expressed to me, trust isn’t an internal control. Of the three points that make up the “fraud triangle”—incentive, rationalization, and opportunity—churches can most control opportunity. That means leaders must trust, but verify.
Vonna Laue is a partner and West Region Director with Capin Crouse LLP, a certified public accounting firm specializing in nonprofit organizations. She is also an Editorial Advisor for Church Finance Today. This post is adapted from a presentation Laue gave to the Mile High Chapter of The Church Network (NACBA) in September.
For further help with financial controls, see the download Essential Guide to Internal Controls for Churches.
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