If an unforeseen event occurs in your building, your disaster plan would likely ensure that your valuable data would be saved and operations could continue. But what would happen if one of your key accounting people were unable to perform critical duties due to being injured somehow or because an uncontrollable event occurs that prevents that person from coming to work tomorrow? Would your nonprofit be able to conduct business as usual until that person returned to work or was replaced? Or would financial transactions virtually come to a standstill because no one else knows how to do that job?
Cross-training for your staff is the solution
The cross-training of accounting personnel and other critical employees—teaching them how to do each other’s jobs—can help protect your organization from an absence in the short or long term. Having someone else on staff trained to jump in and take the reins can keep your not-for-profit up and running without much of a hitch.
The organization benefits
Cross-training employees—ideally including everyone in your accounting department—can benefit your nonprofit in other ways, too. Consider, for instance, the productivity factor. If the workload temporarily becomes especially heavy in one area, you can shift staff to ease the situation.
Let’s say that Accounts Receivable (AR) is particularly hectic in the fall when annual membership dues are processed. Cross-training could enable you to move a person from another department to help with the onslaught for a few weeks.
There’s also the value to having a fresh pair of eyes perform the functions. An employee who’s temporarily filling in for another person will bring a new perspective to day-to-day operations and may be able to come up with process improvements.
Moreover, to use the example above, the next time that AR is processing membership dues, the cross-trained employee may be able to use the acquired skills for process improvements in the area they normally work.
Let’s not forget Payroll! Everyone in the organization would be adversely affected if the payroll couldn’t be processed on time each period! Although the data is super-sensitive and cannot be given to just anyone on staff, there are other trusted employees and management personnel within your organization that you can train to ensure that payroll gets processed timely and accurately.
Cross-training is also an essential internal control feature for your organization, and is particularly crucial in your accounting department. Making sure that one person’s job is periodically performed by another person can help prevent fraud and errors. Along with mandatory vacations, cross-training is a key deterrent to dishonesty, because a potential fraudster will know that the cross-trained person could uncover the fraud.
It’s not for every employee
Not everyone is a good candidate for cross-training. Pick employees who are interested in particular areas of your operation and are open to change. For example, your public relations person may be very interested in learning how to work on a grant proposal. Or your AR clerk may have the skills and experience with your software to be a great back-up for entering vendor invoices into your payables system.
Build the idea of cross-training into your hiring process as well. Select job candidates who show flexibility and curiosity, and let them know that cross-training will be something they’ll encounter during their employment.
Training methods vary
Training can be as simple as naming two people in a department each other’s “on-the-job buddy”—each person learns what the other person does (at least the key responsibilities) and how to perform those duties.
Another way is to split a person’s responsibilities between two or more appropriate people. Cross training can be effective even if you train different individuals to perform part of a key employee’s functions. Someone from Administration may be trained to handle the data input and someone from Marketing might be cross-trained to run critical reports.
Cross-training programs are most successful when nonprofits are attuned to some of the prickly issues that can arise. Above all else, make sure that no one feels that his or her job is threatened. Let employees know that the cross-training is for everyone’s benefit when a staff emergency or temporary need arises. You need to emphasize that employees will be expanding their skill sets.
Finally, don’t expect employees to learn everything at lightning speed. Be selective in the duties you pinpoint for training. Once an employee has developed new talents, be sure he or she uses them periodically.
Jacob Azar, CPA joined Lindquist LLP in 2014 as the Director of Not-for-Profit Practice Services. Jay is based in Orange, California, but will be instrumental in expanding the firm-wide not-for-profit practice, including services for higher education, trade associations and charities. He is considered an expert in not-for-profit accounting and has chaired/led many accounting technical teams over the years. Jay has extensive experience with public/private foundations, private higher education organizations, healthcare entities, religious organizations and membership organizations. He is a member of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA), California Society of Certified Public Accountants (CalCPA) and the California Society of Association Executives (CalSAE). Jay holds a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration from the University of Rhode Island. Contact him at (714) 257-0100 with questions.