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CFO Corner: Expansions; Weighing new opportunities and the budget

March 8, 2012
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Sheila Buska, CFO for the Monarch School, a public K-12 school in downtown San Diego that is exclusively for homeless students, discusses challenges during an expansion and weighing budgets and cash-flow forecasts against unexpected opportunities that arise. 

What was the biggest challenge your company faced over the last 12 months and how were you able to overcome it with financial leadership? The biggest challenge was a change in leadership at a time of expansion as we get ready to break ground on a new building three times the size of our current campus. Monarch, a public K-12 school in downtown San Diego exclusively for homeless children, expanded its leadership team and with that, we’ve gained so much and are experiencing a number of benefits to help the organization continue to prosper. However, new leadership also means an even greater need for policy and even more communication. By proactively providing accurate, relevant information to the leadership with insightful commentary regarding financial, HR, policy, procedures and history of the organization, I was able to help make the transition smooth without disrupting normal operations.

What has made your company stand out and be successful financially? Without doubt, fiscal responsibility. I always consider Monarch funds to be the donors’ money and work to ensure that they are spent as donors desired and for the purpose of the school’s mission – to educate homeless students and to fulfill their basic needs. For a non-profit, this establishes trust and faith in the organization and helps our fundraising team build long-term relationships for future donations. Additionally, Monarch School stands out for its accuracy and timeliness of financial information to executives and the board, and for its management of cash to protect principal while earning the best possible return on funds.

What is the most important thing you’ve learned in your position? To listen with an open mind and to stay organized. When I began at Monarch eight years ago, there were minimal policies, procedures or internal controls in place. I set to work establishing and implementing purchasing systems, strong internal controls and budget procedures. I worked with legal counsel to bring the school’s bylaws and committee structures up to date. A business, particularly a non-profit, needs to have solid guidelines in place and allow that structure to serve as the backbone for all decisions and activities. 

How do you prepare for board meetings and what information is most important for you to present? I prepare by first determining what I would want to know if I were a board member. I present that information succinctly as well as visually in charts and graphs, with the most important information first and foremost. I also report any material exceptions to standard operations, the status of operating cash reserves, the bottom line year-to-date net surplus or deficit with a comparison to four-year averages.  Since we’re in the midst of a capital campaign, I also provide data regarding capital campaign funds on hand, costs incurred and balances in pledges receivable.

What’s a common error in cash-flow forecasting, and what advice do you have? It isn’t so much an error as it is unexpected opportunities that arise and will benefit the organization but require additional funding. It’s important that all CFOs keep their eyes open for new tactics or approaches that will provide strategic advantages and that they are flexible with the budget when circumstances call for it.

What do you do to retain your strategic vision despite the crush of day-to-day operations? For me, it’s all about the perspective. I keep the mindset that I always know we can do it. There will be blips along the way, but they will be handled and dealt with, and we’ll move on. I always follow Monarch’s vision of improving the lives of homeless students, believing in the continuing generosity of our donors, and in ALWAYS having a plan B.

What’s your favorite book? (For business or escape) For business, right now my favorite book is “Crucial Conversations, Tools for Talking when Stakes are High,” by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, Switzer. For fun, Robert Parker’s “Spenser” mysteries – I highly recommend them!

To learn more about why cash flow forecasts are important, the processes and tools you will need, and tips for more accurate cash flow projections, download the whitepaper titled: Avoid Cash Flow Catastrophes.

Buska , CFO of the Monarch School Project, joined the non-profit  in 2003, with experience from a variety of industries and community organizations. Sheila was named 2011 CFO of the year by the San Diego Business Journal and was a finalist in 2010. She is most proud of the student accounting internships she established at Monarch. She graduated magna cum laude from San Diego State University with a B.S. in business and distinction in accounting, and has her Certified Management Accountant certification and is a C.P.A. 

Founded in 1988, Monarch School, is a public K-12 school exclusively for students who are at-risk and impacted by homelessness. Monarch operates through a partnership with the public school system and the organization’s non-profit arm to eliminate barriers to a quality education and to supplement homeless students’ basic needs for food, clothing, school supplies and more. The school in February broke ground on a new campus that will allow it to more than double its student population.  More information at or!/SanDiegoMonarch.   

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