How to Read a Nonprofit Statement of Cash Flows

How to Read a Nonprofit Statement of Cash Flows

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Overview of the Importance of a Statement of Cash Flows in a Nonprofit Context

In this article, we’ll cover how to read a nonprofit statement of cash flows. In the nonprofit sector, financial transparency and accountability are paramount. A Statement of Cash Flows is crucial as it provides stakeholdersā€”from board members to donors and regulatory agenciesā€”a clear snapshot of the organization’s liquidity and financial health. This statement is not merely a record of cash inflows and outflows; it serves as a vital tool for effective financial management. It helps organizations plan for future financial needs, ensuring they have the funds necessary to support their mission and operational commitments. For nonprofits, where funding can be unpredictable and tied to specific projects, understanding and managing cash flows is essential to maintaining stability and trust.

Brief Description of What a Statement of Cash Flows Represents

A Statement of Cash Flows is one of the core financial statements used by nonprofits to track the amount of cash and cash equivalents entering and leaving the organization. It breaks down financial activity into three distinct areas: operating, investing, and financing activities. This segmentation allows for a detailed analysis of how the nonprofit generates and uses its cash, offering insights beyond what income and expense statements can provide. Unlike the latter, which are prepared on an accrual basis, the Statement of Cash Flows provides information about actual cash available, thus playing a critical role in financial planning and decision-making. By detailing where funds come from and how they are spent, it helps nonprofits not only manage their day-to-day operations but also strategize for long-term sustainability.

Understanding the Basics of Cash Flows

Definition of a Statement of Cash Flows

The Statement of Cash Flows is a financial document that provides a detailed analysis of what happened to an organization’s cash during a specific period. For nonprofits, this statement is essential as it details the inflows and outflows of cash and cash equivalents, categorizing them into three primary activities: operating, investing, and financing. Unlike the balance sheet that shows a snapshot in time, or the income statement that focuses on revenues and expenses on an accrual basis, the Statement of Cash Flows reflects the liquidity and viability of an organization by showing how cash is generated and used.

Key Differences Between the Statement of Cash Flows in Nonprofits Versus For-Profit Entities

While the basic structure of the Statement of Cash Flows is similar across both nonprofit and for-profit sectors, there are several key differences driven by the nature of operations and financial practices in each:

  1. Nature of Cash Inflows:
    • Nonprofits: Cash inflows primarily come from donations, grants, and membership fees, which may be restricted for specific purposes.
    • For-profits: Inflows generally arise from sales of goods or services and are typically not restricted in terms of use.
  2. Classification of Activities:
    • Nonprofits: Operating activities often include cash received from charitable activities and cash paid for program-related expenses. This differs in focus due to the mission-driven nature of spending and revenue generation.
    • For-profits: Cash flows from operating activities are directly related to the core business activities, like revenue from sales and payments to suppliers.
  3. Financing Activities:
    • Nonprofits: These often include receipts of donations or grants that may be earmarked for long-term use, reflecting contributions that may not be immediately recognized as revenue in the income statement due to restrictions placed by donors.
    • For-profits: Financing activities typically relate to the issuance or repurchase of equity, dividends, and debt servicing.
  4. Investing Activities:
    • Both sectors include cash flows related to the acquisition and disposal of long-term assets and investments. However, nonprofits might invest more conservatively or in ways that align with their mission, which can influence the types of investment activities reported.

Understanding these differences is crucial for stakeholders in both sectors to accurately interpret the financial health and operational effectiveness of an organization. For nonprofit leaders and financial managers, recognizing how these activities impact cash flow is key to maintaining fiscal responsibility and achieving long-term sustainability.

Components of the Statement of Cash Flows

Operating Activities

Operating activities are the primary revenue-generating functions of a nonprofit and are fundamental to its mission. This section of the Statement of Cash Flows provides insight into the cash generated from or used in these core activities, making it a critical area of focus for stakeholders who want to understand the organization’s operational efficiency and capacity to sustain its mission.

Explanation of Cash Flows from Operating Activities

Cash flows from operating activities involve the day-to-day transactions that reflect the nonprofit’s primary missions, such as receiving donations, paying for services, and covering administrative expenses. This section adjusts the net income by accounting for non-cash transactions like depreciation and changes in working capital elements (e.g., accounts receivable, accounts payable). For a nonprofit, positive net cash flow from operating activities indicates that it is able to generate sufficient cash to meet its operational needs, which is essential for maintaining liquidity and financial stability.

How to Interpret Donations, Grants, and Other Forms of Revenue

When reading the Statement of Cash Flows, it’s important to carefully interpret how donations, grants, and other forms of revenue contribute to cash flow:

  • Donations and Grants: These can be either unrestricted, which can be used for any purpose, or restricted, which must be used according to the donor’s specifications. In the cash flow statement, cash received from these sources is recorded when the cash is actually received, which may differ from how these amounts are recognized on the income statement due to accrual accounting.
  • Other Forms of Revenue: This may include program service fees, membership dues, or revenue from special events. In the cash flow statement, these are considered operating cash if they are part of the organizationā€™s primary mission; otherwise, they might be classified differently depending on how closely they are tied to the core activities.

Understanding the nuances in cash flows from operating activities helps stakeholders gauge the nonprofitā€™s effectiveness in managing its core operations and its ability to sustain and expand its activities. It also helps in assessing whether the organization is overly dependent on certain sources of cash that might be unreliable or restricted in use, which could affect long-term strategic planning.

Investing Activities

Investing activities on a nonprofit’s Statement of Cash Flows reflect transactions involving the acquisition and disposal of long-term assets, such as property, plant, and equipment, as well as investments in securities. These activities are crucial for understanding how the nonprofit manages its long-term capital and invests in its future growth and stability.

Overview of Cash Flows from Investing Activities

The cash flows from investing activities section details the amounts spent on purchasing capital assets and the proceeds from selling those assets. It also includes investments in marketable securities outside the normal flow of operating activities. A net outflow of cash in this section could indicate that the nonprofit is investing in its operational capacity or in assets that support its mission. Conversely, a net inflow might suggest divestment, possibly for reallocating resources to more critical needs or to cover operational shortfalls.

Examples of Typical Investments in Nonprofits

  1. Property and Equipment: Nonprofits often invest in property and equipment necessary for their operations. This can include office space, facilities for service delivery (like shelters or schools), and equipment necessary for administrative and operational functions. These investments typically appear as cash outflows unless the nonprofit is selling off assets.
  2. Endowment Funds: Many nonprofits establish or contribute to endowment funds, which provide a permanent source of income. Cash used to purchase securities for endowments is recorded as an outflow in the investing activities section.
  3. Securities: Nonprofits might also invest in stocks, bonds, and other securities to generate income. These can include both short-term investments, designed for income generation, and long-term holdings, aimed at funding future projects or expansions.
  4. Technology Investments: With the growing need for digital transformation, investments in technology infrastructure such as hardware, software, and cybersecurity systems are increasingly common. These investments are essential for enhancing operational efficiency and expanding the reach of the nonprofit’s services.

Understanding the cash flows associated with investing activities provides insights into how a nonprofit is planning for its future and prioritizing its resources. This can indicate the organization’s commitment to sustainability and innovation, crucial factors for long-term success.

Financing Activities

Financing activities in a nonprofit’s Statement of Cash Flows involve the flows of cash that are related to the funding of the organization beyond its operational revenue. This section highlights how the nonprofit manages its capital structure, including how it secures and repays funds, and how it handles contributions that may have financial implications beyond the current period.

Description of Cash Flows from Financing Activities

In the Statement of Cash Flows, financing activities reflect transactions that change the size and composition of the contributed equity and borrowings of the nonprofit. These activities include cash received from issuing debt, repayments of principal amounts borrowed, and receiving restricted funds that could affect the nonprofitā€™s liquidity directly. For nonprofits, significant financing activities often involve cash inflows from new or existing grants that have conditions on timing or nature of expenditures (such as capital grants), contributions designated for long-term purposes, and any debt financing used for capital expansion.

Common Sources of Financing for Nonprofits

  1. Long-Term Debt: Many nonprofits take on long-term debt to finance large projects or maintain liquidity. Common forms include mortgages for property or loans for major equipment purchases. The issuance of debt shows as a cash inflow, while repayments of principal are recorded as cash outflows.
  2. Grants: Some grants, particularly those earmarked for capital improvements or expansion, are recognized under financing activities. These grants may be received in one fiscal period but are meant to cover expenses occurring over multiple periods.
  3. Donations and Endowments: Large donations or endowment funds that are restricted for long-term purposes are also considered financing activities. These donations often require the nonprofit to hold the principal amount in perpetuity and use only the income generated by it.
  4. Capital Campaigns: Funds raised through capital campaigns, typically designated for specific long-term projects such as building construction or endowment creation, are recorded in financing activities. The cash received from these campaigns reflects the nonprofitā€™s ability to fund future growth and expansion initiatives.

Understanding the financing activities of a nonprofit is essential for assessing its financial stability and capacity to meet both current and future challenges. This section of the Statement of Cash Flows provides insight into the nonprofitā€™s strategic financial planning and its success in securing funds necessary for long-term sustainability and growth.

Analyzing the Statement of Cash Flows

The analysis of the Statement of Cash Flows is vital for assessing the financial health and operational viability of a nonprofit organization. Understanding the flow of cash through the organization allows stakeholders to evaluate its financial stability and make informed decisions regarding strategic planning and management.

How to Assess Cash Flow Health

Assessing the health of cash flows involves examining several key aspects of the Statement of Cash Flows:

  • Positive Net Cash from Operating Activities: This indicates that the nonprofit is effectively generating more cash than it spends on its day-to-day operations, which is crucial for long-term sustainability.
  • Sufficient Cash for Investments: Regular investments in capital assets or long-term projects signal that the nonprofit is preparing for future growth and maintaining its operational capacity.
  • Manageable Levels of Debt: While some debt can be necessary and healthy, cash flows should be sufficient to comfortably cover debt repayments without compromising operational stability.

Indicators of Financial Stability and Red Flags

  • Consistent Operating Cash Inflows: Stability in cash inflows from operating activities suggests a reliable and possibly growing supporter base and efficient operations.
  • Volatility in Cash Flows: Significant fluctuations in cash flows can be a red flag, indicating dependency on erratic funding sources or poor financial management.
  • High Levels of Debt Repayment: If a significant portion of cash outflows is dedicated to debt repayment, it may indicate excessive borrowing, which could put the nonprofit’s financial health at risk.
  • Deferred Maintenance or Investment: Consistently low investment in capital assets might suggest that the nonprofit is underfunded or conserving cash for other uses, which could impact long-term operational capacity.

The Role of Cash Flows in Strategic Planning and Management

Cash flow analysis is not just about monitoring financial health but also a strategic tool for planning and management:

  • Budgeting and Financial Planning: Understanding cash flows helps in creating more accurate budgets and financial plans that accommodate the timing of cash inflows and outflows.
  • Risk Management: By identifying the trends and volatility in cash flows, nonprofits can better manage financial risk, ensuring they have sufficient liquidity to withstand financial uncertainties.
  • Decision Making: Detailed insights from the cash flow statement can guide strategic decisions, such as whether to embark on new projects, expand services, or strengthen reserves.
  • Funding Strategies: Analysis of cash flows influences funding strategies by identifying the need for diversified income streams or changes in funding tactics to stabilize financial resources.

Effective use of the Statement of Cash Flows in strategic planning enables nonprofit leaders to make informed decisions that align with the organizationā€™s mission and long-term goals, ensuring sustainable operation and growth.

Using the Statement of Cash Flows to Make Decisions

The Statement of Cash Flows is an indispensable tool for nonprofit managers and board members, facilitating informed decision-making and strategic planning. By understanding the nuances of cash flow within their organizations, leaders can make better choices regarding operations, investments, and funding strategies.

Practical Tips for Using Cash Flow Information in Decision-Making

  1. Monitor Cash Reserves: Regularly review the cash from operating activities to ensure there are sufficient reserves to cover routine expenses. This helps maintain operational stability during periods of fluctuating funding.
  2. Evaluate Timing of Cash Flows: Align decision-making with the timing of cash inflows and outflows. For instance, plan major expenditures or initiate new programs only when there is clear visibility of sufficient cash availability.
  3. Assess Funding Needs and Strategies: Use insights from the financing activities section to evaluate whether to seek additional funds through borrowing or fundraising campaigns. This is particularly important when planning for expansion or large projects.
  4. Sustainability Planning: Analyze trends in cash flow from operations to assess the sustainability of current operations and the feasibility of scaling up or adding new programs.
  5. Risk Management: Identify potential cash flow problems early by monitoring unexpected changes in the cash flow pattern, such as a sudden decrease in cash from operating activities or increased cash used in financing activities.

Case Studies or Examples of Strategic Decisions Influenced by Cash Flow Analysis

Case Study 1: Expanding Program Reach

  • A nonprofit educational organization used its statement of cash flows to determine the right time to expand its after-school programs. By analyzing several years of consistent positive cash flow from operations and a healthy reserve from fundraising activities, the board decided it was financially viable to open two new locations.

Case Study 2: Investing in Infrastructure

  • A health services nonprofit faced a decision about investing in a new facility to support its growing patient base. Cash flow analysis showed strong positive inflows from operating activities and substantial cash reserves, indicating the capacity to manage a long-term loan. The decision was made to proceed with purchasing a new building, funded partially by a new loan and partially by existing cash reserves.

Case Study 3: Handling a Funding Shortfall

  • During a fiscal year, a community arts organization noticed a significant drop in cash inflows from donations and grants as reflected in their cash flow statement. This prompted the management to postpone upgrading their performance space and to initiate an emergency fundraising campaign to bolster their cash flows, ensuring ongoing operations without severe cutbacks.

These examples highlight how critical cash flow analysis is in supporting strategic decisions that ensure the longevity and success of nonprofit organizations. By leveraging detailed cash flow information, nonprofits can navigate financial challenges more effectively and capitalize on opportunities to advance their missions.

Common Challenges and Mistakes

Understanding and interpreting the Statement of Cash Flows can be complex, and there are several common pitfalls that nonprofits may encounter. Awareness of these challenges is essential to ensure accurate financial analysis and effective decision-making.

Common Pitfalls in Interpreting the Statement of Cash Flows

  1. Misinterpreting Cash Flows as Profit: One common error is confusing cash flows with profit. While the Statement of Cash Flows shows how cash is entering and leaving the organization, it does not account for all income and expenses that are recognized on an accrual basis. This confusion can lead to misinformed decisions about the organization’s financial health.
  2. Overlooking the Impact of Non-Cash Items: Failing to consider adjustments for non-cash items such as depreciation, amortization, or changes in inventory can distort the understanding of the cash actually available for use. Non-cash adjustments in the cash flow from operations need careful analysis to reveal true cash availability.
  3. Ignoring the Timing of Cash Flows: Not considering the timing of cash inflows and outflows can lead to liquidity issues. For example, a nonprofit may appear financially healthy annually but may experience short-term cash shortages that aren’t visible without monthly or quarterly cash flow analysis.
  4. Focusing Solely on Positive Cash Flow from Operations: While positive cash flow from operating activities is generally a good sign, it doesnā€™t always mean the organization is in a strong financial position. For instance, it could be masking issues like insufficient investment in capital assets or excessive borrowing.

Tips for Avoiding These Mistakes

  1. Distinguish Between Cash Flow and Profit: Always keep clear the distinction between cash basis and accrual basis accounting. Ensure that all stakeholders understand that cash flows do not represent the net income or loss of the organization as shown on the income statement.
  2. Analyze Non-Cash Adjustments: Pay attention to non-cash adjustments in the cash flow from operating activities section. Understanding these entries can provide deeper insights into the organizationā€™s operational efficiency and actual cash position.
  3. Regular Cash Flow Monitoring: Implement regular monitoring of cash flow statements, ideally on a monthly or quarterly basis. This helps in identifying any potential cash flow issues early and allows for timely adjustments in strategy.
  4. Consider the Whole Picture: Always interpret the cash flow statement in conjunction with other financial statements like the balance sheet and income statement. This comprehensive approach provides a more accurate picture of the organizationā€™s financial health.
  5. Educate and Train Staff: Ensure that the staff involved in financial planning and analysis are well-trained in interpreting cash flow statements. Regular training sessions and updates on best practices in financial analysis can enhance the capabilities of your financial team.

By being aware of these common pitfalls and adopting strategies to avoid them, nonprofit organizations can better leverage the valuable insights provided by the Statement of Cash Flows. This enhances financial oversight and supports more informed strategic decisions, ultimately contributing to the organizationā€™s success and sustainability.

Tools and Resources

Effectively analyzing the Statement of Cash Flows requires both a strong foundational understanding and the right tools. There are numerous software solutions and educational resources available that can enhance your ability to interpret and utilize this crucial financial statement.

Software and Tools That Can Aid in the Analysis of Cash Flows

  1. QuickBooks: Widely used among small to medium-sized nonprofits, QuickBooks offers robust accounting features that include detailed cash flow tracking and reporting.
  2. Sage Intacct: This cloud-based financial management software provides comprehensive tools for managing and analyzing cash flows, making it suitable for larger nonprofits with complex financial needs.
  3. Xero: Known for its user-friendly interface, Xero helps nonprofits manage their finances with features that support direct cash flow monitoring and projections.
  4. Microsoft Excel: A versatile tool for custom cash flow analysis, Excel allows for tailored financial modeling and scenario analysis, which is essential for strategic planning.
  5. Tableau: For organizations that require advanced data visualization, Tableau can transform complex financial data into accessible and actionable insights.

Recommended Resources for Further Learning

  1. Books:
    • “Nonprofit Accounting & Financial Statements: Overview for Board, Management, and Staff” by Thomas R. Ittelson ā€” A great resource for understanding nonprofit financial statements, including cash flows.
    • Purchase on Amazon
  2. Courses:
    • “Nonprofit Financial Stewardship Webinar: Introduction to Accounting and Financial Statements” by Harvard Kennedy School ā€” This course offers an introduction to nonprofit financial statements, including cash flow statements.
    • Harvard Kennedy School
  3. Websites:
    • The Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) ā€” Provides extensive resources and updates on accounting standards that affect how cash flows should be reported.
    • FASB
    • Nonprofit Finance Fund (NFF) ā€” Offers tools, advice, and articles specifically geared towards helping nonprofits manage their finances more effectively.
    • Nonprofit Finance Fund

By leveraging these tools and resources, nonprofit professionals can gain a deeper understanding of cash flow analysis and its implications for their organizationā€™s financial health and strategic planning. Whether through sophisticated software or through educational materials, there are ample opportunities to enhance financial management capabilities in the nonprofit sector.


Throughout this article, we’ve explored the critical importance of the Statement of Cash Flows for nonprofit organizations. This financial statement is not just a record of cash transactions but a strategic tool that offers deep insights into the financial health and operational stability of a nonprofit.

Recap of the Key Points Covered

  1. Understanding the Statement of Cash Flows:
    • The Statement of Cash Flows is divided into three main parts: operating, investing, and financing activities. Each section provides unique insights into how cash is being generated and used within the nonprofit.
  2. Analyzing the Statement for Better Decision-Making:
    • We discussed how to assess the health of cash flows and identify financial stability or potential red flags. Understanding these elements is crucial for strategic planning and effective management.
  3. Strategic Use and Practical Applications:
    • Practical tips and case studies highlighted how real-world nonprofits use cash flow analysis to guide their decisions, from expanding operations to managing financial crises.
  4. Tools and Resources for Enhanced Analysis:
    • A variety of software tools and educational resources were recommended to aid in the accurate analysis and deeper understanding of cash flow statements.

Encouragement to Regularly Review and Understand the Statement of Cash Flows

For nonprofit leaders, regular and thorough review of the Statement of Cash Flows is essential. It not only ensures a clear picture of financial health but also enhances strategic decision-making capabilities. Understanding where cash comes from and where it goes can help leaders make informed decisions that align with their mission and long-term goals.

Regular engagement with this statement can prevent financial surprises, support sustained operational success, and ultimately lead to more effective fulfillment of the nonprofitā€™s mission. By making the Statement of Cash Flows a part of regular financial analysis and discussions, nonprofits can ensure better management and more robust planning for the future.

As we conclude, remember that the ability to effectively manage and analyze cash flows is not just a financial skillā€”it’s a strategic asset that can define a nonprofit’s ability to thrive and make an impact in its community.

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