Fraud: A Persistent Threat to Nonprofits

Fraud remains a persistent threat to nonprofits, siphoning off funds meant for mission-driven activities. One insidious form of fraud is embezzlement, where employees misappropriate organizational funds for personal gain. Surprisingly common, especially within nonprofit settings, embezzlement poses significant financial and reputational risks to organizations.

According to the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE) 2020 global fraud study, organizations typically lose five percent of their annual revenue to fraud, with nonprofits experiencing a median loss of $75,000. While this encompasses various fraudulent activities, including embezzlement, the financial and reputational repercussions can be profound.

The Responsibility for Preventing and Detecting Threat Rests with the Board of Directors

The responsibility for preventing and detecting embezzlement rests primarily with the organization’s board of directors. To safeguard against such risks, it’s essential for all board members to recognize common red flags and remain vigilant. By implementing robust financial policies and remaining attentive to warning signs, organizations can fortify themselves against fraud. While a red flag does not necessarily indicate wrongdoing, it warrants further scrutiny from the board.

Excessive Trust

Embezzlement often involves individuals who enjoy a high level of trust within the organization. However, excessive trust can create opportunities for fraud. It’s imperative not to dismiss red flags simply because of trust. Every individual, regardless of their position or reputation, should be subject to proper oversight. Such oversight not only mitigates suspicion but also serves as a deterrent against fraudulent behavior.

Delayed Access to Information

If a board member encounters obstacles when requesting access to financial records, it raises concerns. Financial records should be readily available upon request, and any delays or denials could indicate attempts to conceal wrongdoing. Even if there are discrepancies or errors, transparency is paramount. Any resistance to providing access to financial information should prompt immediate action, including securing available data and conducting thorough investigations.

Absence of Time Off

Employees who consistently avoid taking vacations or time off, particularly those responsible for financial matters, may arouse suspicion. While dedication and loyalty are commendable traits, the absence of breaks could signal an attempt to prevent scrutiny of their activities. Cross-training employees and implementing periodic checks on financial responsibilities can help mitigate risks associated with prolonged absences.

Unexplained Lifestyle Changes

Sudden, unexplained shifts in an employee’s lifestyle can be indicative of embezzlement. While employees have autonomy over their personal finances, conspicuous displays of wealth disproportionate to their income may warrant investigation. Vigilance regarding extravagant purchases or lifestyle changes beyond their means can help uncover potential fraudulent activity.

Reactions to Inquiries

Paying close attention to how individuals react to questions or accusations of embezzlement can provide valuable insights. Extreme reactions, whether aggressive defensiveness or exaggerated distress, may signal attempts to conceal guilt. Anomalies in demeanor or responses should be carefully assessed and investigated further to ascertain the truth.

Don’t Ignore Red Flags

While the presence of one or more red flags does not conclusively indicate embezzlement, it underscores the importance of proactive measures. Organizations must remain vigilant, promptly investigate any suspicions, and take decisive action to safeguard their integrity and financial health. Ignoring red flags only heightens the risk of financial malfeasance and undermines the organization’s mission and credibility.

For More Ideas and Resources

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Dr. Mark Smutny is a nonprofit consultant specializing in conflict resolution services. He teaches, writes and consults on ways for nonprofits to turn unproductive conflict to mission success.  He is the award-winning author of the book Thrive: The Facilitator’s Guide to Radically Inclusive Meetings, 2nd. Ed.

© 2024 Mark Smutny and Civic Reinventions, Inc. All rights reserved. May be copied with permission.