The Complex Non-Profit

Our Chapter was contacted several weeks ago by the management of a not-for-profit organization seeking a referral to a CFE for conduct of an examination of suspected fraud.  Following a lively discussion with the requester’s corporate counsel, we made the referral which, we’ve subsequently learned, is working out well.  Our discussion of the case with counsel brought the following thoughts to mind. When talking not-for-profits, we’re talking programs; projects that are not funded through the sale of a product or service, but projects that obtain outside funding via the government, charitable grants, or donations to achieve a specific outcome. These outcomes can be any of a variety of things, from a scientific research study to find a cure for a catastrophic illness or federally legislated programs to provide health care to the indigent and elderly, as with the Medicaid and Medicare programs, respectively; or a not-for-profit charity that provides several programs, each funded from different sources, but all providing services to the elderly such as delivered meals, community center operations, adult daycare, and wellness programs. Typically, these outcomes are a social benefit. Some of these programs are of a specific duration, while others are renewed on a periodic basis depending on continued funding and the successful management of the program to achieve the desired outcomes.

In an examination for fraud in such entities, it’s typically not the core projects or programs themselves that are the object of the review; it’s the management of the program. Managers are engaged to operate such programs consistent with the program’s scope and budget. The opportunity for fraud in these programs will vary in several specific aspects: by the independence provided to the program manager, by the organizational structure of the program, and by the level of oversight by the funding source. These three elements make the conduct of a fraud examination of program management different from that of investigations for fraud in the typical core business functions of enterprises like those involved in manufacturing or retail trade. The fraud schemes will be similar because of the ACFE defined primary fraud classifications that apply to almost all organizations, but the key is how they’ve been adapted by program management.

The three primary classifications of fraud that are most common in program management fraud are schemes related to asset misappropriation, corruption, and financial statement reporting.

With asset misappropriation, the fraudulent action most commonly involved is embezzlement, not just simple theft of funds.  While they are both criminal actions, embezzlement has a specific meaning. Black’s Law Dictionary states it best: “the fraudulent taking of private property with which one has been entrusted, especially as a fiduciary.” It really is a matter of intent.
Examples of some inherent fraud schemes and of how these schemes are carried out within a program are:

False expenditures:

— The program is not being conducted, but funds are being expended. This sounds like the classic shell company scam, except a program rather than a for profit business is being exploited. The program by itself is legitimate, but it’s the intent of management that makes it a fraud;

–The program is not performed to its completion; however, the funds are fully expended. The decision to be made is whether the intent was to embezzle funds throughout the program or if there are other underlying reasons as to why the program wasn’t completed that resulted in the embezzlement of the funds;

–The program budget does not allow for program completion. Is this a case of bad budgeting or the use of budgeting with the intent to embezzle;

–The work plan is partially or wholly fictitious. It’s important for the examiner to keep in mind that some programs involve work that is so technologically or scientifically complex that it can be difficult for the examiner to understand just what the objective is.


Unlike false expenditures, the use of overbilling within programs is more of a means to commit the fraudulent act of embezzlement within the program’s specific functions rather than within the overall program as with false expenditures. Specifically, overbilling schemes are found associated with misuse of time or assets by staff or with expenditures not used in an approved manner. For example:

–Staff members are performing non-program duties. Often, personnel are pulled from one program to work on another. There are many reasons for why this decision is made, but was the funding for that amount of personnel intentionally requested with the purpose of using personnel on another program that is not entitled to receive the funding for additional staff members?

–Staff members are misrepresenting the performance of the program. Often, staff will show the project to be operating on a level that seemingly should require more resources. The project is really operating on a lower level of resources, and whoever has the authority to bill uses that authority to overbill.

–Staff members are hired who are not qualified to perform program duties. Many times, often with large grant monies involved, the program manager hires friends or relatives, or perhaps there is such a strict time frame involved with the funding that management will hire a warm body just to fill the approved slot. In both cases, proper vetting procedures should be in place, even though the granting authority may not require them.

–As with staffing, funds are often redirected to other programs for similar reasons.

–Funds expended are not consistent with the proposed budget. The CFE should ask why the budget is out of line with expenditures? Is the approved budget in use, or was it just prepared as window-dressing for a grant proposal?

–Funds are expended that are not consistent with the governing cost principles. The classic example is the outrageous amounts the military spends on commonly used items, like the $5,000 toilet seat the ACFE originally told us about.

–The program is not completed, but the funding has been expended. Embezzlement can occur within the framework of asset misappropriation or overbilling, but because programs can differ in their objectives to a large degree, the vulnerability is greater to asset misappropriation schemes than to schemes involving overbilling.

Program Reporting:

Financial reporting and program reporting are two different things. Financial reporting can be a component of program reporting, but not the other way around. Many funded projects have strict guidelines on how to report project performance.  Like a disease that goes undetected because everything checked out in a physical exam, ethically challenged program managers find subtle ways to misrepresent performance, either to hide misuse of funds or just to indicate program success when there is none.
For example:

–The status of the project is falsely reported. This type of program reporting misstatement is typically done to give the illusion that the project’s objectives will be met to continue the objective of an uninterrupted steam of funding.

–The program results are falsely reported. The difference between project status and program results may not be apparent at first glance. The motivation is the same in that both are done to hide fraud. The false reporting of program status is typically done to keep funds ongoing throughout the project; the falsification of program results is typically done to ensure renewal of funding for another year or for a period of years. The project type will typically determine the likelihood of which type of false reporting is occurring.

–Improper criteria are used to measure performance. This concerns overall performance as opposed to financial performance. Given that funded projects can be difficult to understand considering the complexity of the activity being performed, performance measurement criteria can be manipulated because of the inherently complicated nature of the basic project. No one understands the project, so how can anyone know whether it’s succeeding? This phenomenon is commonly encountered if the project is divided into so many subparts that no one person, except the project manager, knows with certainty just how it’s proceeding.

–Program accomplishments are falsely reported. How many times have newspapers parroted the declaration from a non-profit that their program provided such and such a level of service to the indigent?  How do readers know if the program’s actual goal (and related funding) wasn’t to provide services to a level of recipients three times the amount reported?

–Operating statistics are manipulated to provide false results. Operating statistics are not financial statistics. An example would be a program that provides meals to the homebound elderly. An amount of payment by those receiving the meals is suggested. However, the government reimbursement for those meals deducts any amount contributed by the elderly being served. The project manager may manipulate the statistics to give more weight to the fixed-income, city-dwelling elderly it services, because such recipients are usually unable to pay anything for their delivered meals.

In summary, in approaching the fraud examination of non-profit entities, it’s not the overall programs themselves that are typically fraudulent, meaning that examinations don’t have to start with a determination of whether the entity is real or a shell. Fraud is committed by people, not programs or business systems; they are the tools of fraud. The ultimate funding source of programs are people as well, whether taxpayers (in the case of Federal or State governments) or private citizens (in the case of private charities).   It is not only the vast amount of funding that can flow to not-for-profit programs that constitutes the justification for combating fraud committed by the management of such programs. Programs that rely on funding as non-profits are typically entities that are established to provide a public benefit; to fill in the gaps for services and products not provided through any other means. So, the occurrence of fraud in these programs, no matter the size of the program or the fraud, is an especially heinous act given the loss of social benefit that results. For that reason alone, the examination of program management by CFEs is vital to the public interest.

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