How I Learned to Love Cash Reserves

I have often said that my least favorite question is “What is the ideal target amount for a nonprofit to have in an operating reserve?” Because there is never a simple answer for the question, I wrote a post a while ago on The Cash Reserves Myth:

“Every nonprofit should have a cash reserve equal to three months of expenses.” There’s some truth and some myth to this “best practice.” It is absolutely true that every nonprofit needs to have adequate cash balances available to support the timing of payroll and other expenses, as well as to pay for unanticipated costs or increases. It’s a myth, however, that a single standard applies for all nonprofits. I have two issues with the “three month reserve” standard. One is that different organizations need different amounts of cash on hand. The second is that building a reserve of three months of expenses is not a practical, or even desirable, goal for all nonprofits.

In an article I wrote a couple of years ago, “The Yin and Yang of Nonprofit Reserves,” I recommended different ranges depending on the stability of incoming cash flow, with reserves as low as one to two months of operating expenses. One reason for my caution about standard reserve ratios has been the business question of whether idle cash is an efficient use of capital.

I take it all back. Well, I take some of it back.

The Value of Cash Reserves

The past 18 months have been a lab test of the value of cash reserves. This isn’t a surprise, I suppose, but it has made me re-think my earlier questions about the focus on reserves. It is clear that nonprofits that have been able to build up a good cash cushion have had options and opportunities in the past year that enabled them to respond to reduced income and increased demand more strategically and carefully than those organizations with few extra dollars in the bank. You know what I mean whether you are affiliated with a nonprofit that has reserves or with one that does not.

In the survey that the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits conducted to prepare the most recent Current Conditions Report, several questions were included about operating reserves. MCN generously shared the survey data with me for an in-depth analysis of these questions. The responses illustrate the differences between nonprofits with and those without reserves.

  • How much in reserves? For all respondents, 34% have one month or less, 18% have none, and 6% had a reserve fund but depleted it in 2009.
  • Asked if they anticipated dipping into reserves in 2010, 24% of nonprofits replied that they do.
  • Not surprisingly, 65% of nonprofits with minimal or no reserves experienced cash flow problems in 2009, and most of them anticipate prolonged cash flow problems in 2010. Nonprofits of all sizes fell into this group, most commonly in arts & culture and social services.

Why does it matter? I sliced the responses further and found that the nonprofits with minimal or no reserves were more likely to have cut budgets, eliminated staff positions, reduced wages and benefits. They were also less likely to have been able to increase services to respond to growing demand.

There’s a caveat that these results aren’t necessarily caused by the lack of reserves. It’s quite likely that other factors are at play, including the broader question of the governance and management practices and business model needed for nonprofits to build reserves over time through operating surpluses.

This survey and the practical cases that we talk with every day have taught me to truly appreciate – to love – operating reserves.

Build the Right Reserve for Your Organization

I still believe that the “right” target for reserves needs to be customized for each nonprofit based on their operating structure, cash flow, and ability to generate surpluses in the operating budget. Building reserves requires an intentional budget strategy and follow through to generate surplus funds. Whatever the target amount, reserves are most useful if there is clear agreement about their purpose and use codified in a written policy. Propel Nonprofits (formerly Nonprofits Assistance Fund) has developed a new resource, Operating Reserves Overview and Policy Example. If you are interested in a deeper dive on the issues, considerations, and structure for reserves, you’ll love the Nonprofit Operating Reserves Initiative Workgroup White Paper. They answer the “how much” question with a useful chart that sorts through the “it depends” factors.

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