Carolyn Mollen was selected as the Rising Star in the 2016 Nonprofit CFO of the Year Awards. Mollen has been with the Independent Sector since 2011, most recently as CFO. Earlier she worked in finance for CliftonLarson (now CliftonLarsonAllen) and the former Langan Associates. Mollen took a few minutes to share insights and advice on nonprofit finance.
What is the one thing you see as a significant change since you entered into nonprofit finance?
Cloud computing/Software as a Service – I think we are nearing the end of our days with server rooms in our offices and multi-year upgrade cycles. I also think that we are moving in a direction where more and more finance work is going to be easily automated, so the way we utilize and staff our finance departments is going to continue to change.
What was the most important thing you learned when you first became a nonprofit finance manager?
The importance of relationship building and clear communication. Whether you are in public accounting dealing with clients and managing staff, or working in industry dealing with internal audiences and external stakeholders, success centers around your ability to work as part of a team while managing competing priorities. I’ve learned that developing strong relationships with those I work with combined with clear communication and feedback loops are the key ingredients to being able to navigate successfully.
Are there any organizations, tools, books, education media (webinars, Ted Talks, etc.) that you would recommend to your peers?
I have a deep love for learning (about anything and everything!) along with a strong passion for improving financial literacy and capacity in the nonprofit sector. I’d actually recommend three resources that I am connected to through my volunteer service and my work at IS, not because I am involved with them, but because I find myself routinely referring to them in my daily work.
The first is Independent Sector’s 33 Principles for Good Governance and Ethical Practice, which I believe is a wonderful framework for nonprofits to use to develop and/or evaluate core governance and management practices. As a companion to the Principles, IS has also put together a state-by-state overview of legal requirements for charitable organizations that provides a great starting point for nonprofit organizations to get their bearings on compliance issues.
For smaller nonprofits or those new to nonprofit accounting, I highly recommend the website www.nonprofitaccountingbasics.org. It is a free resource with very basic articles covering a wide range of nonprofit accounting and governance issues, ranging from things like how to calculate depreciation to an overview of functional expenses on the 990.
And for my peers who are seeking more in depth technical content, the nonprofit section of the AICPA is a great resource, with tools such as sample financial statements (updated to reflect the new reporting standard), sample policies and RFP templates, and in depth articles about tax and financial accounting issues.
For something outside of accounting, I’d recommend the book “The Lean Startup” by Eric Ries. I read this years ago during a class in graduate school, and I find myself continuously circling back to the concepts Mr. Ries introduces around testing and iterating centered around the idea of a minimum viable product. The book’s name is deceptive – the concepts are just as relevant to those of us in legacy organizations as they are to start-ups!
What’s the one distraction you allow yourself during the day?
This is not really a distraction per se, but I make a point to take a break to eat lunch with my coworkers even when my day feels too busy to pause. Prior to coming to Independent Sector, I generally would default to eating at my desk while working, with the feeling that I couldn’t afford to waste a minute of work time. What I’ve found, though, is that I am far more productive when I force myself to step away for bits of time. Taking a break to eat lunch with my coworkers not only gives me a chance to take a break from my day, but also helps to deepen my relationships with them and provides opportunities for informal discussions and sharing of ideas. It has become one of my favorite parts of the day.
Do you know an outstanding CFO? We’re now accepting nominations for the CFO of the Year Awards. Go to www.nonprofitcfoaward.com to make your nomination. Deadline is Aug. 1.