The not-for-profit motive

Many accountants, beyond the money, want to make a difference in their communities. A career in the NFP sector offer this—and also, for many, a surprisingly entrepreneurial career path.

Later in February, CPA Canada is hosting the annual Not-for-Profit Executive Forum in Toronto. The event brings together leaders in the NFP sector from across Canada—each from different organizations with different challenges, but with one common mission: to make their communities a better place. Cheryl Swallow (CPA, CMA), VP of Finance for the Canadian Cancer Society, is moderating one of the NFP sessions (“Too much, too little or just right: How to ensure your Board is getting the information it needs”). CPA Canada spoke to her about her journey through the NFP sector, and why she thinks it’s a great place for a CPA to work.

What attracted you originally to the not-for-profit sector?
I thought it was a great way to do meaningful work while at the same time practicing my skills as an accountant and business professional. I wasn’t interested in counting widgets. I really wanted to make an impact in this way.

You’ve worked for the Cancer Society for much of your career, but the job has changed quite a bit in the past few years, hasn’t it?
I started at the Cancer Society in Saskatchewan, then moved to B.C. in 2010 as Director of Finance for the B.C./Yukon division. Back then, each province had its own governing board and policies. During my time the CCS has evolved into a more nationalized organization.

How was the process of creating a national organization out of these provincial bodies?
From an administrative perspective, we are making good progress, but it is a complex undertaking. Last year we merged with the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation—so, not only were we nationalizing, we were also merging with another organization. It’s been a very interesting and exciting journey. We are developing nation-wide teams, policies, systems, and procedures.

Beyond this big organizational shift, what’s the biggest challenge facing the Cancer Society in 2018?
In the cancer world, there are over 300 cancer charities in Canada—so coordinating our efforts for our common goals is important. We need to work as efficiently as we can to have the biggest impact.

At the NFP forum, you are moderating a panel on boards, and what information financial officers need to provide a board. How would you describe the typical NFP board?
I would say that, at least based on my experience, not-for-profit boards share a sense of passion and a real sense of purpose; there are many board members who have been affected by the cause, whether it’s a friend or family member who has had cancer. It becomes very personal to them, which I assume is different from a for-profit board.

What’s your key responsibility to the board, as a not-for-profit’s chief financial officer?
To provide information that shows the impact of what we do—to show that donor dollars are being spent wisely. With smaller not-for-profits, some board members may have never seen an income statement. Education and clear communication is important. Either way, it’s up to us to provide our boards with the information they need to meet their fiduciary responsibilities.

You’ve worked in the NFP space your whole career. What would you say is a good argument for someone who wants to go into accounting as to why they should apply their skills to the not-for-profit sector?

It’s a great career opportunity to do a lot and make an impact. Just like a for-profit corporation, we have an interest in our bottom-line; raising money and doing it most efficiently. But, we’re doing it for a bigger purpose.


What has been your experience in the NFP sector? Post a comment below.

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