11/16/2013 12:31 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Nonprofit Fraud Robs Charities of Substantial Dollars

"According to a Washington Post analysis of the filings from 2008-2012 ... of more than 1,000 nonprofit organizations, ... "there was a 'significant diversion' of nonprofit assets, disclosing losses attributed to theft, investment frauds, embezzlement and other unauthorized uses of funds." The top 20 organizations in the Post's analysis had a combined potential total loss of more than a half-billion dollars.

One estimate, by Harvard University's Houser Center for Nonprofit Organizations, suggests that fraud losses among U.S. nonprofits are approximately $40 billion a year.

Vigilant nonprofit boards might prevent many of these losses. Here's how:

• Have an audit committee charged with reviewing the overall results of a yearly independent audit conducted by an outside auditor.
• Carefully oversee executive compensations, pension benefits and other finance activities.
• Conduct a yearly review of conflict-of -interest policies. And be certain that employees sign a conflict-of-interest statement.
• Assure new hires are well vetted for honesty by searching background.
• Meet with external auditors at specified times, including an executive session without management present.

Ask the auditors:
1. Have they perceived any fraud problems?
2. Are internal controls adequate, e.g., those handling financial matters must take at least two weeks vacation per year so their duties can be temporarily assigned to others?
3. Are financial records accurate? To what extent were material mistakes located or was there an increase in non-material mistakes?
4. Do the proper managers or officers properly authorize activities and expenditures?
5. Do all assets reported actually exist?
6. Is the organization performing any activities that might endanger its tax-exempt status? For example, provide misinformation on the IRS Form 990.
7. Is the organization paying its payroll taxes, sales taxes and license fees on time?

Trust But Verify

Some directors argue boards can do little to prevent fraud. I argue that every director should know enough about finances to raise issues about questionable activities. At the least, everyone in the organization should be alerted to the fact that board members are paying attention to the possibility of fraud. That knowledge, in itself may deter some people from trying to steal.