Running the finances of your nonprofit can seem tricky, especially if you’re new or not a big fan of accounting. 

Just like running a small business, it’s important to keep a close eye on your money. This means making sure you’re getting the most out of every donation, grant, and fundraising effort. 

We’ve put together a simple guide to help you understand the basics of nonprofit accounting. 

This guide is also related to our articles on understanding retained earnings, understanding gross vs. net profit, and understanding prepaid expenses.

cartoon accountants reviewing financial statementsWhat we’ll go over:

  • Fundamental Principles of Nonprofit Accounting
  • Key Accounting Standards and Regulatory Bodies
  • Understanding Revenue Recognition in Nonprofits
  • Expense Classification and Management
  • The Role of Budgeting in Nonprofit Accounting
  • Financial Reporting and Transparency
  • Audits and Internal Controls
  • Challenges and Best Practices in Nonprofit Accounting

By the end of this guide, you should know not just the basics of nonprofit accounting but also see how good money management can help you meet your goals. We’ll show you how to use these tips not just to follow rules, but to grow and make a bigger impact. Let’s get started.

Nonprofit Accounting Basics

Managing your nonprofit’s money means knowing a few important accounting basics. Unlike companies chasing profits, you’re all about achieving your mission and looking after your finances wisely. Here’s a straightforward breakdown to help you handle your cash better.

Accrual vs. Cash Basis of Accounting

First, know the difference between accrual and cash accounting. Cash basis is simple: record money when you get or spend it. It shows what cash you have right now.

Accrual accounting, though, gives a fuller picture. It counts income when you earn it and expenses when they happen, not just when money moves. This method is better for nonprofits because it shows what you really owe and are owed, helping you see your financial health more clearly.

Financial Statements for Nonprofits

Knowing your financial statements is crucial. Here’s a quick look:

  • Statement of Financial Position: Like a balance sheet. Shows assets, liabilities, and net assets, giving a snapshot of financial health.
  • Statement of Activities: Like an income statement but for nonprofits. Shows income and expenses, highlighting how you’re using funds and the impact on your net assets.
  • Statement of Functional Expenses: Breaks down expenses by category (programs, fundraising, admin), showing how much goes directly to your mission.
  • Statement of Cash Flows: Tracks cash coming in and out, showing your cash situation in detail.

These reports together give you a full view of your financial status, helping you make smart decisions and stay accountable. Get familiar with these to steer your nonprofit successfully.

Accounting Standards and Regulatory Bodies

Managing your nonprofit’s money right is a must. You’ve got to follow the rules set by the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) and stick to Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP). Plus, you need to keep the IRS happy to keep your nonprofit’s tax-exempt status safe.

FASB and Its Role in Nonprofit Accounting

FASB sets the accounting rules in the U.S., including for nonprofits. These rules make sure your financial statements are clear and trustworthy. Following FASB’s advice helps show your donors and the people watching your finances that everything’s above board.

GAAP as Applied to Nonprofits

GAAP makes sure your financial reports are right and easy to understand. This matters because it shows your nonprofit’s financial health clearly, keeping you in line with FASB rules and making it easier for people to trust and compare your organization.

IRS Regulations and Maintaining Tax-Exempt Status

The IRS checks that you’re sticking to tax laws, crucial for keeping your nonprofit’s tax-free benefits. This means doing the right things to stay tax-exempt, like limiting certain activities and not handing out profits. Don’t forget to file Form 990 yearly to tell the IRS about your finances and activities; it’s also a way to show donors you’re transparent.

Revenue Recognition in Nonprofits

For nonprofits, knowing when to record revenue is key for keeping your books right and staying in line with rules. You might get money from donations, grants, member fees, or paid services, and each has its own recording rules. Here’s a quick guide.

Types of Revenue in Nonprofits

  • Donations come in all sizes. Record them when promised or received, based on if you track money when it comes in (cash basis) or when it’s earned (accrual basis).
  • Grants have specific uses and come from various sources. How you record a grant depends on if it’s a trade (you give something back directly) or a gift. If it’s a gift, record when you meet the grant’s conditions or get the money.
  • Membership fees spread out over the membership period. If a membership lasts a year, split the fee revenue across those 12 months.
  • Service revenues are from things like event tickets. Record as revenue when you hold the event or provide the service.

Restricted vs. Unrestricted Funds

Unrestricted funds have no donor rules. You can use them as needed, and you record them when you get them.

Restricted funds must be used how the donor wants. If a donation is for something specific or for use later, you only record it as revenue when you use it as directed or when the time comes.

Knowing how to handle different types of income and fund restrictions helps you use money as intended and keeps your nonprofit transparent and trusted. Keep it simple: record income correctly, follow donor wishes, and report clearly.

Expense Management

Managing where money goes is as important as how much you spend. Getting your expenses right shows you’re trustworthy and keeps your nonprofit healthy. Let’s break down how to sort expenses and why it matters.

Classifying Expenses

Your expenses fall into three buckets: program, administrative, and fundraising.

  • Program expenses are all about your mission—what you do. Think costs of educational programs or services you provide. This is what donors look at closely.
  • Administrative expenses cover running the place—salaries for office staff, office supplies, utilities. Essential, but not directly mission-related.
  • Fundraising expenses are what you spend to bring in donations, like events or marketing.

Sorting expenses this way helps you keep track of money and make sure it’s spent where it counts.

Importance of Expense Allocation

Getting the expense mix right matters. A good ratio of program expenses to others shows donors their money is going where it should. Plus, it shows financial health – a solid expense ratio means you’re focusing on what you do best.

It also improves transparency and trust. When donors see their money is used right, they’re more likely to keep supporting you.

Review and tweak how you spend to ensure most of your budget boosts your mission. This keeps your nonprofit strong and impactful.

Budgeting in Nonprofit Accounting

Budgeting helps you smartly use resources to push your mission forward. It’s your financial game plan for the year. Here’s how to set it up and keep it on track.

Creating a Nonprofit Budget

  • Review Past Performance: Check last year’s results. Learn what worked and what didn’t.
  • Estimate Revenue: Look at all money sources like donations and fees. Be realistic to avoid overcounting.
  • Determine Expenses: List all costs—program, admin, and fundraising. Use past data and plan for new activities.
  • Set Financial Goals: Tie your budget to your mission’s goals. Decide where to focus money.
  • Develop the Budget: Map out expected income and expenses by category.
  • Review and Approve: Get feedback from department heads and the board to make sure the budget is on point.

Effective Budget Management

Staying on budget means watching and adjusting as you go. Here’s how:

  • Regular Monitoring: Check your budget often to spot and fix off-track spending early.
  • Variance Analysis: If numbers don’t line up, figure out why. This helps you plan better next time.
  • Flexible Planning: Be ready to shift funds or cut costs if needed.
  • Communication: Keep everyone informed about budget status and changes. Transparency is key.
  • Use of Technology: Budgeting tools can simplify tracking and updates.

Budgeting is about guiding your nonprofit toward its goals with clarity and control.

Audits and Internal Controls

Audits and internal controls keep your nonprofit safe, accurate, and trustworthy. They’re about making sure your finances are correct and that money is being spent properly. An audit:

  • Builds trust: Shows donors and partners you’re open and honest.
  • Finds risks: Audits can spot financial risks or weak spots.
  • Makes you better: Recommendations from audits can tighten up your operations.
  • Needed for funding: Some donors demand an audit as a requirement of giving a donation. 

Internal Controls and Policies

Good internal controls stop trouble before it starts. They keep your assets safe and your reports accurate. Some internal controls you can implement include:

  • Split up tasks. Don’t let one person handle everything money-related.
  • Keep tight access: Only let certain people into your financial systems.
  • Check and double-check: Regular reviews catch mistakes early.
  • Set spending limits: Make sure big money moves get the nod from the top.
  • Keep good records: Organized records back up your numbers and make audits smoother.

Combating Fraud

Fraud can hit nonprofits too. A strong culture of honesty, with everyone keeping an eye out and ready to speak up, helps keep things straight. Regularly updating your controls keeps them sharp and effective as your organization grows.

Challenges and Best Practices

Nonprofit accounting is different because of the way nonprofits work and get money. Knowing these challenges and using best practices can make your nonprofit’s money management better. Let’s look at common problems and how to fix them.

Challenges in Nonprofit Accounting

  • Fund Restrictions: Donations and grants often can only be used for certain things. Keeping track of this and making sure money is used right can be tough.
  • Volunteer Labor: Nonprofits use a lot of volunteers. It’s hard to show the value of their work in your financials, even though they’re really important.
  • In-Kind Donations: Nonprofits get a lot of donations that aren’t cash, like goods or services. It’s hard to figure out how much these are worth and report them right.

Best Practices

Implement Robust Fund Accounting Systems: Use software to keep track of money by what it’s for. Check regularly to catch any mistakes early.

Value and Record Volunteer Contributions: Keep track of volunteer work that takes the place of paid work. Use a standard hourly rate to figure out how much it’s worth.

Develop Policies for In-Kind Donations: Make rules for how to value donations that aren’t cash. This might mean looking up prices or asking experts.

Engage in Continuous Education: Keep learning about nonprofit accounting. Train your staff and keep up with new rules to manage your money better.

Maintain Open Communication: Be clear with your donors and people involved about how you handle money. Share reports and updates to keep their trust and support.

Leverage Board Expertise: Use your board members who know about finance to help with accounting problems, making policies, and making sure you’re doing things right.


Accounting in nonprofits is tricky but crucial. Make sure your accounting practices are transparent and responsible by following the rules from big organizations like FASB, GAAP, and the IRS. This keeps your nonprofit’s tax-free status safe.

Keep a tight ship with your money. Pay attention to how you record money coming in and going out, and plan your budget carefully. It’s important to avoid mistakes and fraud, so set up strong checks inside your organization. Manage any specific fund rules and gifts wisely to stay on track with your nonprofit’s goals.

Learn and adapt. Follow the accounting rules and use them to help your nonprofit grow and make a bigger impact. Stay open to learning new things and changing how you do things when the rules or best practices change. 

This way, your organization can keep doing great work in the community for a long time.

Next, check out our articles on bookkeeping vs. accounting, 14 common accounting errors and how to avoid them, and understanding journal entries in accounting.

Let Rigits help you

Grow confidently Sleep better at night

Get stuff off your plate

Let's chat!

FAQ: Nonprofit accounting

Here's some answers to commonly asked questions about nonprofit accounting.

Is accrual better for nonprofits?

Accrual accounting records income when earned and expenses when incurred, regardless of cash movement. This gives a complete view of your nonprofit’s finances, including what you owe and are owed. Cash basis accounting records cash movements only, offering a simpler financial snapshot. For nonprofits, accrual is usually better because it shows a clearer financial status, which is key for transparency and accountability.

What are key nonprofit financial statements?

Nonprofits use four main financial statements: the Statement of Financial Position, Statement of Activities, Statement of Functional Expenses, and Statement of Cash Flows. They show your assets, liabilities, revenue, expenses by function, and cash flow. These are vital for showing how funds are used, ensuring accountability to donors, managing money well, and staying compliant with financial rules.

How can a nonprofit manage fund restrictions?

To manage fund restrictions and comply with donor wishes, use a good accounting system to track funds by use. Document donation terms clearly, separate restricted and unrestricted funds, and regularly check financial reports to make sure restricted funds are used as intended. Keep donors updated on how you use their money to build trust. Regular audits help verify you’re following fund restrictions and identify improvement areas.