Accounting for a cause

Marry your passion with your CPA skills in the non-profit field

If you’ve got a passion for the environment, animals, or education and also happen to really know your way around a balance sheet, then the non-profit industry is for you. And man, does it need CPAs.

What you’ll do

A good CPA can have a huge impact on a non-profit organization, whether as a consultant, the CFO, or staff accountant. That’s because finding the right path through the not-for-profit tax code is a daunting task – one best left to professionals. Plus, non-profits often get their money from donations and grants, so budgeting is crucial. CPAs at non-profits make sure every penny is working as hard as it can for the organization and they’re experts at planning ahead.

Whether you work for a wildlife preservation society or a yoga institute, your financial know-how will do loads of good for society as well as your conscience.

View from the inside

It’s not entirely different from any other accounting industry. The accounting basics are the same. There will still be stressful days. And in the end, you are still helping to run a company, just one that isn’t focused on redistributing profits to shareholders.

There’s still money to be had. One common misconception is that CPAs at non-profits don’t make as much money as those in public or corporate accounting. While that can be true, it is not always the case. “I am paid based on normal factors that any other company would pay—such as the size and the revenues of the company – so the larger the company is, the greater my salary could be,” says Debra Lockwood, CFO of non-profit Provident Resources, Inc. So don’t count out a career in non-profit before you’ve really considered the salary potential.

The rewards go beyond your salary and benefits. “Being a CFO of a nonprofit is extremely rewarding,” Lockwood says. “I am challenged every day with the technical issues that most CFOs have to deal with. But at the end of the day, I also understand what we’re trying to do operationally and I’m very involved in that part of it as well. It makes me feel connected to my community.”

How to make it happen

If you’re passionate about an issue, it may be time to seriously consider a career working in non-profits. There are a lot more options than you might think. For instance, you don’t have to be on the payroll of a non-profit organization to flex your accounting muscles for a greater cause – you could always work for a public firm and specialize in non-profits.

No matter which path you take to get there, just make sure you’re mastering accounting and getting your CPA license right away, Lockwood says. “Learn the standards. Do well on the CPA Exam. Get some real experience and understand what your profession requires.” Knowing the fundamentals, she says, will prepare you to rise up the ranks at a non-profit.

Want to learn more about Debra's gig as a non-profit CFO? Check out her profile.

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