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Jennifer Rock: Nonprofit CPA and Rock Star Volunteer Offers Advice

By: Susan Gorham

The spirit of volunteerism runs deep here at Gross Mendelsohn. Recently I sat down for a conversation with Jennifer Rock of our Nonprofit Group. Jenn is a nonprofit auditor and has been an absolute rock star volunteer for several local nonprofit organizations, who I might add, are lucky to have her on their side.

I’m excited to share Jenn’s story, and the advice she has for nonprofit leaders from the perspective of both a CPA and a volunteer.

Jennifer Rock is currently treasurer for Pets on Wheels and a member of Special Olympics Maryland’s audit and finance committee. Not too long ago, Jenn served on the board of directors and finance committee of the National Alliance of Mental Illness’s Baltimore affiliate.

Susan: Why do you volunteer?

Jenn: The simple answer is to give back to my community and to pass along knowledge that nonprofits can’t always afford to outsource to different service providers. There’s so much knowledge that we, as CPAs, can offer nonprofits. We can advise on everything from nonprofit startup to PPP loans and grants from COVID-19 relief packages.

Susan: Why did you choose the nonprofits you’re involved with?

Jenn: Currently I’m volunteering for Pets on Wheels, Special Olympics Maryland and Unified Efforts. I chose to focus on those organizations because they support causes that affect me, my family and community. It makes sense for me to help them fulfill their missions.

There’s a personal story behind each that reinforces why I’m involved.

Pets on Wheels brings therapy animals to nursing homes, orphanages, assisted living communities and other types of facilities. When my close friend Shelley was in hospice, losing her battle with stomach cancer, Pets on Wheels was with her right up until the end. It meant a lot to me that she wasn’t alone.

Pets on Wheels ShelleySource: Jennifer Rock

My son has ADHD and has some learning difficulties and disabilities. Special Olympics Maryland does a great job giving kids, who might otherwise be left behind, opportunities to shine.

Special Olympics MarylandSource: Gross Mendelsohn

Unified Efforts affords disadvantaged kids opportunities for academic enrichment, leadership development and community engagement. My daughter is in a mixed relationship, and through talking with them I learned that, sadly, her boyfriend did not have the same opportunities that my own kids had growing up. I want all kids to have those same opportunities, and that’s why Unified Efforts’ mission spoke to me.

The bottom line — nonprofits make communities work better as a whole, and that’s why I give my time.

Susan: 2020 — and now 2021 — presented unreal challenges for nonprofits. How did some of the organizations you’re involved with innovate and still fulfill their mission?

Jenn: In one word, “virtual.”

Pretty much everything went virtual in the last year — conferences, meetings, fundraisers. COVID-19 threw all of us for one big loop. For the nonprofits I work with, I’d venture to say they were challenged even more than some businesses because many simply don’t have the money to make major operational changes on a dime.

But, on the plus side, COVID-19 ended up fast tracking the nonprofits I work with, propelling them maybe five years ahead. Like lots of organizations we found ways to innovate and still stay true to our cause.

With Pets on Wheels, for example, our in-person pet visits went virtual. Some nursing homes purchased iPads and computers that allowed residents to “visit” the animals. There’s just so much loneliness among the elderly due to COVID-19, so we are thrilled to continue with pet visits, even though they look different than in the past. We also did something new — we started visiting first responders at the ambulance bays at local hospitals. We also put some pets in cars and drove them by the windows of facilities that were locked down due to COVID. These are just the times we’re living in.

Pets on Wheels hospitalSource: Pets on Wheels Facebook page

Pets on Wheels’ fundraisers were also turned upside down due to COVID-19. I’d say fundraising is one of the biggest challenges for nonprofits right now due to the pandemic. We could no longer have our annual bingo or bull roast fundraisers. Instead, we hosted a virtual crab feast raffle. It turns out we raised about the same amount from the virtual fundraiser as one of our past live events. When you don’t have overhead costs like food, facility rental, printed invitations, etc., you can save quite a bit of money and keep a higher percentage of donations. We are currently in the process of organizing a virtual trivia event that we hope will offer a new fundraising platform for the organization.

Susan: If you could write a letter to a nonprofit executive director, what are three things you’d say as a CPA?

Jenn: A few things come to mind right off the bat.

Have a strategy for tapping into your network. For example, if you know 10 people and ask them all for $1,000, you could raise $10,000 for your nonprofit. But what if one of those contacts is a savvy event planner? Would it be better to bypass the ask for a donation, and instead ask her to spearhead your next big fundraiser? Probably. Consider the skills of your stakeholders and how you can tap into them.

This is a big one — make sure your board members understand their fiduciary obligation. Board members need to understand financial statements and budgets. At the end of the day, it’s the board’s responsibility to oversee the organization. They can’t do that if they don’t have the knowledge to evaluate the financial health of the organization. If there’s a CPA on the board, they can help educate board members.

Another thing I’d tell an executive director is to fill the board with people who have the skills you need. People who understand investments, legal matters, fundraising, marketing and accounting have a lot to offer. The executive director should be involved in identifying, vetting and nominating prospective board members.

Also, consider partnerships with like-minded organizations. This year, Pets on Wheels partnered with Maryland SPCA in order to increase our outreach, education and volunteers for our current and potential future pet therapy teams.

One final tip — give the population you serve a voice on the board. Unified Efforts, as an example, has “young adult board members” who would have benefited from the organization’s programs. Our board, then, has direct access to people who would use the organization’s services. Likewise, Pets on Wheels has always had board members drawn from their volunteer therapy pet teams and is working to bring a nursing home administrator onto the board, which will give us a better understanding of the facilities that host our pet visits.

I think that was more than three things!

Susan: What are some of the challenges of volunteering?

Jenn: Finding time is the obvious challenge. Balancing the time commitment of volunteering with work and family commitments is always hard.

That aside, one challenge is that you want to give to everyone. Every nonprofit’s “ask” is important. But you have to set your own boundaries and sometimes the answer has to be “no.” Depending on the organization, sometimes board members are expected to make an annual gift. I’d advise any aspiring board members to be upfront about the financial commitment they can or can’t make.

Susan: What is one board engagement tactic you think every nonprofit should use?

Jenn: Have annual strategic brainstorming sessions. Facilitate ways for all board and committee members to get to know each other and see the skills and abilities of the whole board. At Pets on Wheels’ annual strategy meeting, we identified some fresh fundraising ideas and a came up with the idea of doing pet visits through home health agencies, which is a form of outreach we weren’t taking advantage of.

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Published January 26, 2021

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