Editor’s Note: This is part of a series of profiles highlighting the diverse interests and careers of VSCPA members. Know a member (including yourself) who would make for an interesting profile? Email VSCPA Communications Manager Chip Knighton.
Last month, VSCPA member Jim Cole, CPA, led one of the Society’s Nonprofit Finance Summits, as he’s been doing for the last decade. It’s a labor of love for Cole and the logical extension of a career filled with help for nonprofit organizations.
Cole, CEO of the Masonic Home of Virginia outside Richmond, helped launch the Nonprofit Finance Summit program and has stayed involved in planning and execution ever since. It’s not his only VSCPA involvement — he currently serves as chair of the Business & Industry Conference Committee and is an author and instructor of the VSCPA’s Ethics course every year — but it might be the role that’s closest to his heart.
”It’s nice to be able to help organizations. It’s what I call a multiplier,” Cole said. “If you help a nonprofit, whatever constituency they’re helping, I’m indirectly helping them, too. It’s like throwing a bigger rock in a pond than just a pebble. If you work with one group, if you work with multiple nonprofits like this, there’s a lot bigger ripple effect.”
Cole’s advice to nonprofits comes from a place of experience, dating back to well before his time running one. He got started in the field in his first job out of college at Ernst & Whinney (now Ernst & Young), where he was assigned to audit a hospital’s nonprofit arm.
“Someone had to do it, and they didn’t have anyone trained to do it,” he said. “It just happened to be on my audit, and they had a couple of issues related to a pretty specialized topic, and I kind of liked it and ended up being the only person in the office with any experience on it.”
The topic in question — tax liabilities for tax-exempt entities who perform business-like activities unrelated to their status — represented a knowledge gap for his office, and he stepped up to fill it and inadvertently launched a career. From there, Cole went to work for his alma mater, Virginia Tech, at one of the university’s affiliated nonprofits. He eventually found his way to the Masonic Home, a retirement home for Virginia Masons and their wives.
Cole says CPAs are uniquely positioned to help nonprofits deal with problems that can present knowledge gaps for existing staff.
“Most nonprofits, as they should be, are focused intensely on a mission,” Cole said, “and those missions are such that they become consuming for the organization. In trying to achieve their mission, they are not nearly as focused on their business operational side as businesses are. They’re more concerned with taking care of children or animals or historic facilities. They really, therefore, need some assistance on the business side.
“CPAs can bring a lot of skills because they’re used to working specifically on the business/operational side of a lot of different entities. Therefore, they have a variety of situational experience that they can bring to people in these organization who are very focused on their missions.”
Cole’s nonprofit experience has taken him to 38 states and Canada to speak on the topic. The most recent Nonprofit Finance Summit drew a full house at the South County Library outside Roanoke. Cole took time to speak privately with attendees who had particular issues that gave them trouble.
While each organization is different, Cole has been helping nonprofits long enough to know what issues tend to crop up repeatedly.
“A lot of the problems are very similar from organization to organization,” he said. “For instance, they need to worry about cash flow. They have concerns about making sure they’ve got appropriate insurance for their operations. They typically struggle with the establishment of a budget for their organization.
“The people in these organizations are more program-driven people. They don’t have the background on how to do budgets. Almost every organization is struggling with how to begin or enhance a fundraising program. Most of the organizations are very uncomfortable with IRS-related issues.”
And Cole is there to help them navigate the minefield of accounting and tax issues. It’s the latest step in a nonprofit career that began in high school when he volunteered at the church camp he attended as a child, Camp Alta Mons near his hometown of Shawsville in Montgomery County.
Now he’s on the board of that camp, tying a neat bow on his nonprofit career.
“The special thing for me is that I’ve been blessed to be able to see an extremely wide variety of situations in which nonprofits find themselves,” he said. “The fun part for me is being able to reach back and say, ‘I know where you’ve been,’ and to help people out.”