The Give: CPA’s Experience Aiding Nonprofits Underscores Value of Financial Discipline for Driving Missions
Whether working in the areas of arts, letters or numbers, Joyce Lee has long been a promoter of disciplined approaches for getting things done and getting ahead. The Shanghai-born only child of musicians became a private-sector CPA and transitioned to philanthropy by becoming the chief financial officer of the Marguerite Casey Foundation. She is in her first year serving on the Board of Hispanics in Philanthropy. “My parents are both classical musicians, so I grew up in a completely different world than I live in now …” she said. “I think they’re both amazed at having a daughter wanting to be a CPA and now going into philanthropy.” She plays the piano and likes popular numbers and jazz, as well as classical compositions. Her childhood, she recalled fondly, was full of fine arts. “But I didn’t think I wanted to make a living doing that,” she added. She recalls attending school in Illinois and in Hong Kong. She graduated magna cum laude from Western Washington University with a bachelor’s degree in accounting, and a minor in business administration. More recently she obtained a sustainable investing certificate from Columbia University in New York City and is a Certified Financial Planner®. Over 15 years, Lee rose from associate to senior manager and then principal at the Bellevue, Wash.-based Clark Nuber P.S. certified public accounting and consulting firm. She frequently oversaw the annual audits of part of its large portfolio of nonprofit and philanthropic clients, coaching many of them in tightening financial controls to increase their efficiency and effectiveness. The Marguerite Casey Foundation was one of the Clark Nuber clients. When the Seattle-based philanthropy that champions low-income American families needed to hire a chief financial officer, Lee transitioned comfortably to working in philanthropy. In addition to serving on the HIP board, she serves as board vice president of the Asian Counseling and Referral Service and is a member of the finance committee for Islandwood. Her family also includes her 10-year-old son, six-year-old daughter and her husband, Tim Lee, who works in the business intelligence field, taking data stored by big corporations and making sense of it for marketers. She’s also amused and proud to see that her son’s early favorite subject in school was arithmetic. She says that they used to have cats and dogs and huge aquariums. “We have guppies now…” she said, adding that school events often take center stage. “So the kids have taken up most of our time.” What kinds of insights did you get in working for so long as an auditor with nonprofits? They need to know how to operate a nonprofit as a business to accomplish their missions. They need to have strong financial operations to support the mission and programs. What do small nonprofits need to keep in mind? They usually have a very passionate founder, and focus on serving their mission. They tend to not spend a lot of time focusing on the back office of finance and funding. Make sure you have the right financial resources available to you, so you can do your programs and those other things. Very often, by the time they get to it, they’re down to their very last dime, and it’s too late. So it’s important to have that business plan to carry them through and work with those who know about this. So I think that’s very important. Most people are not numbers people like me. They hear numbers or anything budget-related and it just turns them off. It would be good to have a good understanding of what it looks like. Every decision you make will most likely have an impact on the bottom line, whether it’s adding a new program or a fund-raiser — having that be part of the day-to-day and to learn that in order to work and run an organization. What if they can’t yet afford to hire an auditing firm? You can probably find volunteers who are CPAs to get on your board. I know a lot of CPAs who want to give back to their communities. So you need to find a CPA, or it can be a banker who knows a lot about the financing of businesses, and who is passionate about what you do. That would be the best way to start … What particularly inspired you to get into philanthropy? [Giving to total strangers] is not actually something that is really prevalent in the Chinese culture. The way I grew up, it was about helping out family members. [The notion of family can be] very extended. … My grandmother would help distant relatives who came from her hometown. She would help them with food, clothes, shelter, and job connections. Some of these relatives were people she had never met before. That sense of wanting to give back and help my community was there since I was little. In what ways have you found your choices of serving on HIP’s board and working for the foundation most satisfying? I do believe in what minorities are doing and what they offer to the philanthropic community, but for me HIP is an opportunity to learn a little more about philanthropy and the Latino community in a more in-depth way, as well as contributing to HIP my financial expertise, I think it’s a win-win. I think, prior to joining the foundation, people from outside looking in, as a nonprofit seeking grants from foundations and financial support, you kind of wonder: How hard is it to give away money? … [But] you want to make sure that you are a good steward of the funds and have an impact, so I think it’s a very good job to do. What would you like to see happen in the philanthropic sector? Looking forward, I want to see more accountability or be able to better measure the outcomes of the grantmaking. How can we be more effective, and are there ways to measure and look at things differently … [Are there ways] to more smartly address needs of minority communities? Looking around in philanthropy, going to conferences, I feel that minorities are still the minority in this field. There needs to be organizations and programs like HIP, programs that are available should be more proportional to our population. Programs, funding and hiring – all of the above. I guess in drawing back to my background, maybe in the reporting as a foundation or any nonprofit, you are required to file tax forms that don’t really tell the story of what has been accomplished. If I could make it different, I would get information out to the community, their donors and constituents. I think there’s room for improvement. … I do think that they can do a better job of showcasing what they do to their donors and find a more effective way of communicating.