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Leveraging Ratio Analysis for Sustainable Not-for-Profit Growth

February 8, 2024

In the complex landscape of not-for-profit organizations, strategic decision-making is paramount to ensuring the longevity and success of the mission. One powerful but underutilized tool in the arsenal of nonprofit management is ratio analysis. By examining key financial ratios, organizations can gain insights into trends, benchmark against industry standards, and make informed decisions that foster long-term sustainability.

Why Ratio Analysis Matters for Not-for-Profits

Ratio analysis is a crucial aspect of financial management for not-for-profit organizations for two primary reasons: trend analysis and benchmarking.

Trend Analysis

Trend analysis serves as a crucial tool for not-for-profit organizations, providing a comprehensive understanding of the organization’s performance over time. This analytical approach is particularly vital in highlighting shifts and changes within the organization, allowing for early detection of emerging trends. By employing charts and graphs based on key ratios, anomalies and alterations become more evident, making it easier to grasp the evolving dynamics. Trend analysis, therefore, acts as a proactive measure, enabling organizations to foresee changes.

Furthermore, this approach acts as a safeguard against rash decision-making during unforeseen events such as economic downturns or unprecedented challenges like the recent COVID-19 pandemic. By referencing historical ratio trends, organizations can reflect on past strategies and responses during adverse conditions, providing valuable insights for making informed decisions that align with the long-term goals of the organization.

Essentially, trend analysis becomes a valuable resource for crafting a resilient and forward-thinking strategy, allowing organizations to adapt to changing circumstances while maintaining a steadfast focus on their mission.


Benchmarking plays a pivotal role in evaluating a not-for-profit organization’s performance by comparing it against established standards and similar entities within the sector. This involves assessing the organization against standard benchmarks provided by entities like GuideStar, Charity Navigator, and the Better Business Bureau. These benchmarks offer a metric for gauging how well the organization aligns with industry standards.

Moreover, benchmarking extends beyond mere comparison to industry benchmarks; it includes evaluating the organization against peer organizations or counterparts with similar missions and structures. For instance, a chapter or affiliate of a national organization may assess its performance relative to other chapters or similar entities across the nation. This comparative analysis sheds light on areas where the organization excels and identifies areas where improvement is needed.

In essence, benchmarking provides not-for-profits with a comprehensive understanding of their standing within the sector, fostering a culture of continuous improvement. By striving to meet or exceed benchmarks, organizations can enhance their effectiveness and better serve their communities, ensuring a positive impact aligned with their mission and objectives.

Key Ratios for Not-for-Profits

In evaluating the financial health and operational efficiency of not-for-profit organizations, key ratios serve as invaluable metrics. The following numbered list highlights key ratios that play a crucial role in providing insights into various aspects of a not-for-profit’s performance, enabling stakeholders to make informed decisions and strategic adjustments.

  1. Program Expense Ratio:
    • Measures the percentage of expenses allocated to programming, providing insight into the effective utilization of funds
    • Is benchmarked against standards set by organizations like GuideStar, Charity Navigator, and the Better Business Bureau
  1. Administrative Expense Ratio:
    • Assesses the percentage of expenses allocated to administrative functions, dispelling the “overhead myth”
    • Is benchmarked against standards set by organizations like GuideStar, the Better Business Bureau, and Charity Navigator
  1. Government Reliance Ratio:
    • Calculates the percentage of revenue derived from government sources, helping organizations diversify funding streams
    • Is a vital metric for organizations dependent on government funding, enabling organizations to understand the potential impact if government funding was to be cut or lost
  1. Personnel Expense Ratio:
    • Assesses the cost-effectiveness of personnel expenses in generating revenue
    • Reveals efficiency improvements or potential inefficiencies through an analysis of trends over time
  1. Fundraising Efficiency Ratio:
    • Evaluates the cost-effectiveness of fundraising activities in generating contributions
    • Is benchmarked against standards, such as Charity Navigator’s recommended spending of $0.10 or less to raise a dollar, but is also used for a trend analysis to help measure the effectiveness of an organization’s fundraising efforts
  1. Net Margin Ratio:
    • Dispels the myth that nonprofits shouldn’t generate a profit by assessing the net margin of revenue
    • Is focused on trend analysis, which helps then guide decisions on expanding services or addressing inefficiencies
  1. Current Ratio:
    • Measures liquidity by assessing the organization’s ability to cover current obligations with liquid assets
    • Is used for a trend analysis that focuses on the strength of an organization’s liquidity
  1. Cash Reserve Ratio:
    • Evaluates the organization’s resilience by determining the number of months it can cover expenses with existing reserves
    • Is benchmarked against industry standards and guided by board governance preferences or metrics suggested by grantors of the organization
  1. Accounts Receivable Turnover:
    • Assesses the efficiency of collecting receivables based on payment terms, revealing potential collection issues
    • Is used for a trend analysis to indicate issues or concerns in the organization’s collection efforts
  1. Leverage Ratio:
    • Is important for organizations with debt, measuring the proportion of assets financed by liabilities
    • Guides decisions on taking on additional debt for expansion through an analysis of trends over time

Informed Decision-Making for Sustainable Growth

In the ever-evolving not-for-profit landscape, leveraging ratio analysis is a powerful strategy for informed decision-making. By embracing these financial ratios and consistently analyzing trends, organizations can navigate challenges, benchmark performance, and strategically plan for sustainable growth. The key lies in adapting these ratios to the unique mission and operations of each organization, creating a robust foundation for long-term success.

If you need help navigating ratio analysis at your organization, contact your KSM advisor or complete this form.


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