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Making an Impact in Their Communities Drove These Accountants to Become Nonprofit Controllers

nonprofit controllers

For Denise Garcia, it was taking a course in nonprofit accounting while a student at the University of Houston. For others, like Raquel Cosio, CPA, who started their careers in public accounting, it was auditing nonprofit clients.

It was experiences like these that gave Garcia, Cosio, and other accountants a glimpse into the nonprofit world—a world in which they would eventually work in as a controller.

And while their career paths in accounting might be slightly different, controllers at nonprofits are bonded by the same thing: working at an organization that makes a difference in their communities.

“I’m so glad that I found nonprofit work when I did,” said Paul Harrison, CPA, controller of the Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Garden, who started his career as an industry accountant. “I’ve enjoyed giving back to the communities that I’ve worked in, and to see the fruit of my labor on the happy faces of the people who we’ve served.”

“Every project, contract, and transaction is different from the one before it; every member of the staff is motivated, excited, and extremely well-suited for their role; and every day brings new projects and exciting challenges,” added Garcia, who is controller of the Houston Parks Board. “Houston Parks Board is dynamic and creates incredible change for Houston and its residents. It’s very satisfying work.”

I recently interviewed Cosio, who is controller of the Chicago Zoological Society, Garcia, Harrison, and five other controllers about why they decided to pursue a career at a nonprofit organization and what their expectations were for the controllership position. Here’s what they told me:

Ashley Bassim, Denver Museum of Nature & Science

Ashley Bassim considers herself lucky to have scored an entry-level staff accountant job during the same time she had begun her undergraduate program for an accounting degree.

“This was with a small company, and so I was able to learn the full cycle of accounting because I was also lucky enough to have a supervisor who believed in me and wanted to see me grow,” she said. “She gave me a lot of opportunities to work in all areas of the department. I would say that beginning with that job and every position since, I’ve sought out roles that would allow me to grow my skill set and especially my decision-making and judgment abilities.”

One of the roles she sought out was at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, not just because it was a nonprofit, but also because of the organization itself.

“The position I was at prior to the museum was for a large corporation that I felt very disconnected from. I missed the small-to-midsize scale of other positions I had held, so I began networking,” Bassim recalled. “When the museum opportunity came up, it was a good match for my experience and where I was in my career. After several meetings with my future colleagues, I felt very connected to the museum’s mission and I knew the scope of the work would be fascinating and a great challenge.”

She joined the Denver Museum of Nature & Science in 2012 as assistant controller and was promoted to controller five years later. Her previous experience as controller of a Denver-based transportation and logistics company prepped her for her current role, Bassim said, “by exposing me to all sorts of financial conditions, weird industry-specific issues, and various personnel matters.”

“Basically, nothing scares me,” she added. “As a controller, be prepared to expect the unexpected. It’s definitely not all general ledger codes and spreadsheets.”

Raquel Cosio, CPA, Chicago Zoological Society

When Raquel Cosio was in college, it became clear to her that she wanted to start her professional career at a public accounting firm.

“I wanted to have exposure to different industries and experiences in different areas, such as accounting, audit, and taxes,” she said. “Working for a small accounting firm provided this.”

After college, she joined Chicago-based Prado & Renteria CPAs, which claims to be the largest Hispanic-owned CPA firm in the state of Illinois, in 2001. While she enjoyed the 12 years she spent at Prado & Renteria as a public accountant, Cosio didn’t see herself as a partner, so she decided to make a career change.

“That’s when I started looking for a controller position at a nonprofit organization,” she said. “I had experience auditing nonprofits during my years in public accounting, and I really enjoyed working with them because I got to see firsthand how committed and mission-driven their employees were.”

In 2013, Cosio became controller of the Chicago Zoological Society, which operates the Brookfield Zoo in the Chicago suburbs. When she took over the controllership, she expected it to be a smooth transition, given her public accounting experience in the nonprofit industry.

“This has been the case as it relates to the more technical responsibilities of my position. However, being a controller also requires a good understanding of the nonprofit’s operations in order to make everyday decisions for which there’s very little guidance,” Cosio said. “As a public accountant, I was used to looking for answers in guides, manuals, or publications, but in the nonprofit world, there are more judgment calls and figuring things out.”

Shannon Emley, CPA, Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee

Like Raquel Cosio, Shannon Emley joined a small accounting firm after he completed undergraduate school. The size of the firm, Jamestown, NY-based Moore & Myott LLP (now known as Saxton, Kocur & Associates LLP), allowed Emley to gain experience in multiple fields—from tax and audit to nonprofit work, he said.

After working for the firm for nearly a year, Emley moved to Washington, DC, to work at nonprofit think tank The Heritage Foundation, starting in accounts payable and working his way into a senior accountant role. He then moved to Nashville, Tenn., where he spent two years as an accounting manager in the music industry before becoming controller with Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee in 2017.

“The decision [to join Second Harvest] was made easier by the great reputation Second Harvest has in Middle Tennessee and knowing I could come to work each day and feel like I’m making a difference,” Emley said.

He noted that his previous nonprofit experience helped frame many of his expectations as Second Harvest’s controller.

“Throughout the interview process, I began to feel this position would have significant similarities to my time in DC, and it has in many ways,” Emley said. “Both organizations aren’t small, as far as nonprofits go, so I think that provides for a similar structure in the accounting team and the systems in place.”

One thing Emley didn’t expect was the scope of work performed by the food bank.

“I’ve been blown away by the scale and variety of projects we take on to make sure we get good food to people in need. This certainly helps keep my job as controller interesting, as nearly all of our initiatives have a financial aspect in one way or another,” he said.

Denise Garcia, Houston Parks Board

While a student at the University of Houston, Denise Garcia took a course on nonprofit and governmental accounting as an accounting elective. And needless to say, she really enjoyed that class.

“That type of work and industry really spoke to me, and I decided I would pursue a career in nonprofit,” Garcia recalled.

After graduation, she went to work at Houston-based CPA firm Blazek & Vetterling as a staff auditor, specializing in tax-exempt organizations, government entities, and employee benefit plans. That experience gave Garcia not only a true understanding of internal controls and financial statements, but insight into the nonprofit world in Houston.

After Blazek & Vetterling, Garcia joined the Houston Zoo in 2010 as a senior accountant. During her two-plus years there, she was mentored by the nonprofit organization’s controller and CFO. When a controller opportunity became available at another local nonprofit, her mentor shared the job description with Garcia and encouraged her to apply.

That opportunity was at the Houston Children’s Museum, which Garcia joined in 2012. She said it was a perfect fit.

“The finance director gave me projects that expanded my base of experience, and for the first time, I was fully in charge of an audit, accounting team, and financial statements for internal management and the board of directors,” Garcia said. “We made many improvements, including a change in point-of-sale systems for admission, adding an additional accounting database for a second children’s museum, and changing payroll systems. These experiences helped prepare me for the next step in my career: controller for the Houston Parks Board.”

The controllership of the Houston Parks Board, which Garcia took in 2015, “offered complexity, an entrepreneurial feel, accounting for three sets of books, building an accounting team from scratch, and a knowledgeable mentor, which all translated, to me, as exciting accounting work,” she said.

Paul Harrison, CPA, Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Garden

As a young man growing up in the Dallas area in the late 1980s, Paul Harrison took a job at the local electric company. After work was done for the day, he would take college classes at night to improve his career path.

“After receiving my bachelor of business administration degree in accounting, I was moved to corporate accounting,” Harrison recalled. “After four years in corporate accounting, the utility offered an early retirement program but made it available to everyone. It was too good of an offer to pass up, so I took it.”

Harrison decided he wanted to pursue a job in accounting that would allow him to serve his community, so in 1992, he became controller of a Dallas-area mental health organization.

“I loved the general idea of a nonprofit mission. Those mission statements spell out how that nonprofit will help the community,” he said. “Giving back to the community was a job benefit that I had never realized would be so fulfilling before my move into the nonprofit realm.”

Twenty-five years later, Harrison continues to serve his community in an accounting capacity. He previously held the controllership at nonprofits Dallas Museum of Art and Dallas Opera, and has been controller of the Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Garden since 2013.

“Each organization is different, sometimes in many ways, but we’re all governed on the financial side by GAAP,” Harrison said. “Besides the technical aspect of knowing what the governing bodies expect of nonprofits, my extensive experience with nonprofit accounting software [Financial Edge and Raiser’s Edge] has been extremely beneficial for me to be successful in my current position.”

Carla McDonald, Weaver Industries

After college, Carla McDonald worked at public companies within the retail and manufacturing sectors in the Cleveland area. During that time, she progressed from staff accountant to senior accountant and was looking to further her career in a management-type role, such as accounting manager, assistant controller, or controller.

“However, before I was able to progress with the existing manufacturing company I was with in Cleveland, they started to significantly downsize their corporate office and my position was eliminated,” she said.

As she began the process of interviewing and applying for positions in Northeast Ohio, she determined how her skill set and accounting background could be used in other industries, not just manufacturing. That led her to apply for the controller position at Akron, Ohio-based Weaver Industries, a nonprofit that provides vocational training and employment opportunities to individuals with disabilities.

“There were a couple things that made it an easy decision for me,” McDonald said. “I had taken government and nonprofit accounting courses in college, I had interned at the Smithsonian Institution, and I’m an active volunteer—and a current treasurer—at a few different local nonprofits in my community. Additionally, I had a 3-year-old nephew who was born with Down syndrome, and I began to think about how his future would be impacted by the work performed by an organization such as Weaver Industries, and how I could be a part of those efforts.”

McDonald, who joined Weaver Industries in 2016, said her expectations as controller were limited because it was her first foray into a professional nonprofit setting.

“I knew I would have to manage receivables and payables, process the month-end close, and report financial results to the board of directors. All of those expectations have become reality—and actually have taken more of a minor role in my day-to-day job,” she said.

“Within one month of starting, the organization went through a compliance review, and based on the results of that review, it was clear that the organization needed structure and consistency in their compliance program. I quickly went into internal audit mode and helped the organization make the necessary corrections and established a compliance program that would benefit all levels of the organization. From that point on, I was named the corporate compliance officer of the organization and would report these activities to the board of directors.”

Brian Neville, CPA, PATH

Brian Neville began his accounting career in 1996 at Clark Nuber, a CPA firm in Bellevue, Wash., which specializes in medium-to-large organizations that aren’t publicly traded.

“This niche led to an emphasis on working with the region’s larger nonprofits,” Neville recalled. “As part of my practice, I worked on some of these clients. Toward the end of my time at Clark Nuber, PATH became a client of the firm, and while never a client of mine, I became exposed to the amazing work PATH does in the world.”

After leaving public accounting in 2005, Neville wanted to work for larger, publicly traded companies to broaden his accounting experience. He landed at Washington Mutual, which eventually became part of JPMorgan Chase, in an internal controls role. And then, after spending two “intense” years as corporate controller of HomeStreet Bank, Neville was presented with the role of controller, director of global accounting at Seattle-based PATH, a nonprofit global health organization, and it felt like a perfect fit.

“I had never led the whole end-to-end controllership function,” he said. “While banking and award-funded nonprofits are certainly different industries, the annual budget/revenue size was a better indicator of commonalities that exist in the controllership function—something I was definitely able to leverage.

“The job was large enough to have interesting professional challenges,” Neville added. “I’d be able to travel for work infrequently but substantively to some regions of the globe I hadn’t been to before, and I knew of and deeply respected PATH’s mission from my time at Clark Nuber. It seemed like the perfect confluence of factors at this stage of my career. After three years, I can say with 100% confidence that I chose wisely.”

Carolann Parker, CPA, The Morton Arboretum

Carolann Parker had always wanted to be in a position that oversees the entire accounting cycle of an organization from cradle to grave, including the budget process, accurate and efficient accounting and related processes, financial reporting, and ensuring appropriate internal controls are in place.

She started her career in the regulated telecommunications industry working in a variety of roles in the disbursements organization, with the goal of transitioning to the controller’s department.

“This goal was disrupted when there was a Department of Justice-ordered breakup of the AT&T system, resulting in a reorganization which took me into internal auditing and subsequently into network budgeting for the Midwest area,” Parker said.

After starting a family, she scaled back her load and worked for a small accounting firm in the Chicago suburbs preparing tax returns. This eventually led to Parker becoming the finance director of a small, local nonprofit organization.

“This was my introduction to the nonprofit arena, and there I was responsible for the full cycle accounting operations,” she said. “When I was ready to start a full-time position, I sought out The Morton Arboretum as a larger organization that I believed would allow for additional growth opportunities.”

Parker joined The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Ill. in 2006 as accounting manager and added the title of financial controller in late 2017. The position, she said, “utilizes all of my prior accounting experiences—from overseeing the finances of a smaller nonprofit to my experience in accounting classifications, internal controls, and budgeting within the telecommunications arena.”

“I enjoy bringing all of the accounting pieces together in a nonprofit arena that benefits the community at large,” she added.

Stay tuned for more from these controllers in a future article where they offer advice to accounting and finance professionals considering a controllership role at a nonprofit organization.

Image: iStock/Dmitri Guzhanin