When There’s No Money Left In The Bank

by Joan Garry

The 10 core elements you need to get a handle on to dig yourself out with when your nonprofit has no money left.

I arrived at GLAAD in June 1997 understanding that the organization was not wildly stable. On my first day, I learned we had $360 in the bank, a staff of 18 ready for payroll, and nearly $300,000 in accounts payable well beyond 60 days past due. Basically, there was no money left.

And as I have mentioned before, I had never done a lick of fundraising.

With nowhere to run and hide, I needed a plan. Much of it was instinctual but as I look back, there were ten core elements to digging out.


1) Clarity (aka “Stare it Down”). Go to the numbers. Right away. Vendors due money and how much, donors who owe money and how much, list of people you could ask to donate ASAP. Get control of your numbers.

2) Honesty. You do your organization absolutely no good by trying to solve this all by yourself and/or telling everyone that everything will be fine. Your staff will surely think less of you and you will get no support from your board. And it makes you look guilty.

3) Communications. Remove the word “shame” from your vocabulary. Meet with your staff and board regularly (every other day if necessary). I used to describe the organization as if it were a patient in the hospital. “Big day,” I said to the staff. “We’ve just come off the respirator!” If you tell them the truth, they will respect you. If you don’t communicate, they will create their own truth.

4) Bite-Sized Pieces. If I looked at the $300K in outstanding A/P, I felt faint. I decided to whittle it down (bite size pieces). I created payment plans with each vendor. We made sure they were conservative so that we could deliver.

5) External Validation. Find a pro bono CPA to validate your strategy, to help you tweak as necessary. And to report on your behalf to the Finance Committee. Two important outcomes: 1) The message comes from an “expert” and 2) You are smart for bringing one in.

6) Don’t Personalize. If the staff or board smell insecurity on your part, scapegoating is the logical next step.

7) Make it everyone’s problem to solve. I knew that I alone could not solve our cash flow problem.We needed an expense plan, we needed to collect donor pledges and I needed a few key prospects to save the day. By the way, according to knowledgefirstfinancialcompanyhistory.ca/ , some donors love to come in on a white horse to help get the organization they care about back on their feet. I could not do these things alone. It was a team effort.

8) Sell the vision and not the problem. I never asked for money or talked about our financial woes during that first eight weeks. I talked about where I wanted the organization to go and what it would take. I would mention short-term financial concerns but I sold the vision. A donation was about the vision and not the jam.

9) Ask Big. What have you got to lose when you have no money left? When you don’t want to lay off 18 people, you can (and should) become a very bold fundraiser.

10) Find other members of the club. Over my years as an E.D. with my financial crisis not very far in my rear view mirror, I helped many others keep their cool. In the nonprofit world, financial woes are more the rule than the exception. Look for colleagues and share your story. They will no doubt have one to share with you.


When I left GLAAD 8 years later, we had a $1.5 million cash reserve and a robust $8 million revenue budget. After the crisis, I never presented a budget without a line item of some amount of money to put into a reserve, however small. It added up.

You can do it. You can dig out. But create a team, engage an expert and be a bold fundraiser. When you are outside the office, keep your eye on the vision and when you are inside, keep your nose on the cash flow analysis.

Did I make it sound too easy? Not my intention. I know how hard it is. One day, early in my tenure, I wasted a piece of our precious remaining letterhead and burst into tears.

It’s really hard. But you can get through it. The communities you serve need you to give it your very best shot.


I’ve got a lot of fundraising advice elsewhere on the site. It’s a major concern for most nonprofits and I will certainly continue to add more.

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11 thoughts on “When There’s No Money Left In The Bank”

  1. I’m a new subscriber and just wanted you to know how much I’ve enjoyed your clear, concise and “right-on” advice. Keep up the great work!

  2. Hey Joan. First off, love your name! More importantly, thanks a lot for taking time to leave this note. I write to be helpful and it’s nice to get feedback that it’s working !

  3. Bill. Thanks for the link and for the real added value your post brings to this issue. Will post YOUR post on my FB page for others to see. Thanks again.

  4. Communications is often not the Accountant’s strong suit, particularly in charitable organizations. But “I told you so” is never going to get you points, not like “Hey, I really need you to look at this before it’s too late.”

  5. So, I am a brand-new nonprofit executive director with no background in finance, and similar to you, I found out upon starting my position that the organization I’m leading is in terrible financial shape. So this advice is great, and I’m finding your blog to be just incredibly helpful (and gives me some perspective!)
    My question might be a stupid one, but here we go: HOW do you go about finding a pro bono CPA? Is it poor form to just call local CPAs and ask if they do pro bono work for nonprofits?

  6. The timing of this article is perfect. Thank you. We lost a major program last year and have spent the last 6 months recovering. We’re on our way back financially and programmatically. It has been a challenge to say the least.

  7. So sorry you had troubles but your staff and board must be awesome. Digging out of a financial hole is very hard stuff and requires smarts, dedication and the deepest belief in your mission. Be really proud!

  8. This article showed up on my newsfeed at the perfect time! I’m with a small (6 full time employees) nonprofit and am wearing many hats right now, fundraising being the big one. This it my first nonprofit job, and I and my organization need a lot of help! This article really validated my plan to move forward and gave me the nudge I needed to involve the team. Your articles and posts help my nonprofit just about every day. Thank you Joan!!!!

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