As the story goes, New York Yankee stars Phil Rizzuto and Yogi Berra were on their way to a function in Cooperstown, New York when Rizzuto commented that he thought they were lost. Yogi’s reply? “Yeah, but we’re making great time!”
This story reminds me of the way some churches approach fraud prevention. There has been a recent proliferation of church embezzlement cases hitting the newspapers and many church administrators are reacting in fear. Often, this fear causes them to do something similar to Phil and Yogi. They head out quickly in the wrong direction, never slowing down to see if what they are doing is having any effect. From their typical casual and relaxed approach to business affairs, many churches rashly set out on a crash program of fraud prevention. Without much thought or planning, they begin to tighten things up by suddenly requiring dual signatures for all checks, beefing up offering count teams, and requiring purchase orders to be prepared in triplicate for all expenditures, no matter the size. Other churches even install security cameras, hire armored car services, or have off-duty police walk the halls of the church during services.
What do you think of when you hear names like Enron, WorldCom, and Sarbanes-Oxley? Most of us think of one word: fraud. These two companies who were embroiled in fraudulent scandal and the law passed to “fix the problem” have brought to light the impact fraud has on today’s society. No one knows for sure the economic loss to fraud in our culture due primarily to the fact that most fraud goes undetected or if detected unreported. However, some estimates have ranged as high as $600 billion in annual losses.
Unfortunately, churches are not immune to this threat. And even more tragically, most churches pay little attention to the exposure. Most church staff members are under a heavy work load and there is little if any time to stop and take stock of how vulnerable the church may be to improper activities. Add to the fact that many churches operate under the mistaken assumption that since they work for a church and “we are all good people here”, they don’t really need to worry about anyone doing anything wrong. They forget one basic fact: churches are in the business of healing sick people (Behaviorally sick as well as physically). It should come as no surprise that a church will attract sick people including some who end up in a position of trust.
The first step in fraud prevention is knowing what you are coming up against. In other words, a clear understanding must be gained of what financial fraud is before designing a battle plan to confront it.
The Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE) defines occupational fraud as “the use of one’s occupation for personal enrichment through the deliberate misuse or misapplication of the employing organization’s resources or assets.” Because of the heavy reliance of churches on volunteers, this definition should be expanded to include unpaid staff in addition to employees. According to the ACFE, there are three major types of occupational fraud:
- Fraudulent financial reporting
- Misappropriation of assets.
Effective fraud prevention starts with a strong foundation. And the cornerstone of this foundation is organization. Churches “lucky” enough to have avoided fraud are not really lucky at all. Luck had nothing to do with it. These churches avoid fraud because they make sure their organizational structure includes four key characteristics:
- Proper tone at the top
- An empowered leadership team
- Staff buy-in
- Competent volunteers
PSK LLP has provided this article as a resource to help churches prevent fraud.
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