Keeping NGO Finances Balanced

Thursday, 7 March, 2019 - 12:02

NGOs are not profit driven and so they sometimes put solid financial management on the back burner. But that is a big mistake!

‘If you don’t report donor funds properly and receive consistent unqualified audits you may not get further funding,’ says financial management consultant Wendy van Lingen. 

But the problem is not simply about having the right attitude to finances. Non-profits don’t always have the resources, to put in place a large finance team to do all the work required.  

Bongiwe Ndondo, Director of the Hlanganisa Institute for Development in Southern Africa (HiDSA) feels strongly about this:  ‘Many NGOS can’t attract high level finance personnel and finance units often get neglected. But we don’t just count beans. Our finances are complex. We can have multiple funders who fund the same activity.  So we need someone who not only understands the complexity of our work but also  how to break it down into different components for different donors. This is key for our sustainability. ‘

In 2018 HiDSA was given a breakthrough.

Audrey Elster, Executive Director of The Raith Foundation Trust recalls: ‘At the time we were looking for someone not just to do the books but to assist us to put in place solid finance systems. Wendy arrived and she was perfect. She also  did assessments of  the financial systems of grantees who we were concerned about. ‘

Bongiwe recalls:  ‘We were getting noise from the funder about the accuracy and lateness of our financial reports.  So we were thrilled, when RAITH offered to assist and gave us Wendy to get it right.  Wendy went through our finance processes with us. She analysed both the budget and expenditure across different activities and different funders.  Together we generated financial reports that were more detailed and streamlined.  She tailor made the system for us!

‘When I start at an organisation, ‘ says Wendy .  ‘I first assess what they do, what financial systems they have and know, and then look at how to improve on that.  My aim is to assist organisations to insource as much as possible which creates a more solid and sustainable finance department.’


‘We had been constantly changing bookkeepers,’ says Audrey from RAITH, ‘and one day Wendy came in and said: “But Bridget (who was our receptionist at the time) can do this.”  With endless patience and good teaching, Wendy not only put in place new systems for us to use, but then built the capacity internally for us to manage and use them ourselves. ‘

Bridget Ndobe joined  The Raith Foundation  in 2015  as an office assistant. Initially she was responsible for travel and events, and for answering the telephone. Bridget recalls:  ‘Wendy arrived in 2017 and until then I didn’t realise I like working with figures. She started to help me  to enter monthly transactions . She also came up with a template for expense requests and showed me how to do that.  Wendy taught me not to be afraid of making mistakes. I remember the first time I entered all transactions and it did not balance. I was so anxious. But Wendy calmed me down and showed me how to fix the problem.  She took me step by step . If I fell she picked me up. She has inspired me to study finances further. My dream is now to be an accountant . Figures don’t scare me anymore. ‘

Tracy Hendricks, the Finance Manager at HiDSA found the training and mentorship Wendy offered hugely helpful.  Unlike Bridget, Tracey had worked as an accountant in the banking sector for 20 years. But the NPO sector was different and multiple reporting to different donors was not something familiar to her. “  Wendy would sit with us the whole day and look at the flow of paper around payments and together we would figure out how to streamline it all. Wendy has a unique understanding of what donors require and then worked with me to design a system tailor made for our needs. Most consultants design something that keeps you tied to them for good.But Wendy didn’t leave until she knew it worked and I felt confident  to use it. She  left me a manual she had developed that I could refer to if I got stuck. She handed ownership of the model to me. ‘


Wendy was the Financial Manager at the Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS) and for the Socio-Economic Rights Institute (SERI).  Jonathan Klaaren, then Dean (Head of School) of the School of Law at WITS and later as a member of the Board of Directors at SERI could not speak more highly of her: ‘Ms van Lingen possesses excellent financial management skills.  Her skills are evident in her deep knowledge of the various formats used in this work.  But her ability to train others to operate these systems is truly unique.’

Training staff internally is cost effective in the long run, as it not only improves financial accounting and management but reduces the need to outsource.  

This ability to put in place financial systems that address the unique challenges of the non-profit sector and  to be an effective trainer, is rare.  Both are crucial for the sustainability of  the non- profit sector. Wendy is uniquely qualified and able to do both.
This article was written by Harriet Perlman, Writer and Filmmaker.

For more information email Wendy at:   [email protected]

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