Cash

The charity reserves conundrum

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Just before Christmas the Charity Commission published its findings on Charity Reserves. Although 92% of the charities sampled explained their Reserves Policy and 90% explained why they were being held, a third of charities failed to disclose the actual level calculated in accordance with the Commission’s guidelines.

There will be several reasons for this lapse but an underlying one is that there is confusion about what people think ‘charity reserves’ mean. At a simple level there were differences between the Commission’s definition (in CC19) and the SORP definition which charities follow when preparing their accounts. At a more fundamental level there is real confusion amongst users. The formal definition of reserves excludes illiquid assets such as the property the charity uses in its work (which suggests the focus is in part on liquidity) but investment property is included which suggests it is not. To many a charity’s reserves will be Trustees’ long term policy of what they feel is the right size of cushion to underpin their long term charitable purpose.

The problem for the Commission is surely that they are pulled in two different directions – some charities keep far too much, and some (Kid’s Company is the usual suspect) keep far too little. These are difficult aims to reconcile in one formula. Focussing on liquidity suggests that charity Balance Sheets can never reshape themselves into something more efficient, and arcane calculations undermine efforts to allocate more  reserves to beneficiaries.

Reserve levels in charities are a complete substitute for the profit line in commercial companies. Finance Directors should drive their organisations based on long term reserve planning. Unlike a business, in a charity a profit or loss only matters in the context of its reserves. 

We believe that Trustees should always be able to answer these three questions:

  • Do we currently have sufficient cash to pay our bills as they fall due?

  • In accounting terms are we fully solvent? 

  • How large a reserve to we want to keep, and for what purpose?