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What It’s Like to Be a Nonprofit CFO: Video

Sarah Gillman, finance chief at the Natural Resources Defense Council, talks about the challenges of her job and her commitment to improving the world.

Being finance chief at a nonprofit may be rewarding, but it’s not all sunshine and rainbows and saving the environment. Ask Sarah Gillman, CFO at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Gillman, former CFO at Save the Children and vice president for budget and financial planning at the Wildlife Conservation Society, has spent much of her career shepherding the finance departments at nonprofit organizations. She sat down with CFO to talk about how NRDC is hoping to grow, what it spends its money on, and how running finance at a nonprofit sometimes requires her to serve two masters. The interview, which has been edited for clarity, follows.

What are your biggest challenges as CFO?

How is what you do like what a for-profit CFO might do?
It’s in a lot of ways similar and in a lot of ways different. The similarities would be my day-to-day responsibilities. I’m thinking about planning and strategy, how we link our strategy and our mission to our budgets and our spending and then to our measures. I’m thinking about accounting regulations, how we portray our finances, and how we tell a story using our numbers and reports. I’m thinking about treasury, investment management, working with banks, and getting funds in and out of our organization quickly and efficiently. I’m working on technology, I’m working on mobile device launches, I’m working on security, I’m working on disaster recovery plans.

In terms of differences, a lot of it has to do with working for a mission-based organization. The people I work with care phenomenally about what we do, and they’re there because they’re dedicated to the cause. They’re dedicated to building a better world from an environmental perspective. And that passion infuses everything we do if things go right.

What are you focused on in the regulatory and compliance area these days?
From a compliance perspective there’s a lot going on with non-profits. We work with the IRS on tax filings on our 990, which is our main filing describing what we do. Every state in which we do business and in which we have charitable activity requires state filings, and keeping up with those is really important if you’re a nationally based organization. Also, New York City has compliance requirements that we have to follow in terms of the time we spend lobbying and doing other activities.

We’re also constantly following FASB guidelines and updates. The non-profit sector is a key area of focus for FASB right now, looking at changes to our statement of activities and presentation. There’s a ton of focus on investment accounting in the financial statements, and so that’s an area of continued compliance. For nonprofits like NRDC that work overseas we also have other Treasury and OPEC guidelines that we have to follow.

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