Author Archive for Jennifer Brenner

31
Jul
13

Gifts-in-kind: Contributions and valuation

In the August 2013 Journal of Accountancy, the AICPA published this article on Gifts-in-kind: What are they worth?   It summarizes many challenges an NFP faces valuing GIK.  It touches on GIK valuation considerations (ASC 820), GIK contribution considerations (ASC 958), and management considerations, and it provides insight into how an organization may navigate these GIK challenges.

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20
Jul
13

Are you a continuous learner?

What are you doing to challenge yourself to learn today, to grow and become more equipped?  How are you identifying new tools, new responses, new approaches so that you have more to offer today then you did yesterday?

It is certainly possible to attend 40 hours of CPE a year without learning.  That’s not the “learning” I’m talking about.  What has changed or transformed you lately?  Anything?

I found several blogs about continuous learning I want to share with you.  One is about where continuous learning fits within a model to prepare you for the next stage in your career.  Another is about learning to equip yourself.  Don’t stagnate with what you learned in school, or the tasks you were trained on the job.   The technical standards side of accounting is in constant change, just go to the FASB project roster to see evidence of that.  The technology we leverage advances before its even implemented – what is your approach to stay ahead?

Benjamin Franklin said “Tell me and I forget.  Teach me and I remember.  Involve me and I learn.”  I know I learn best from actively engaging in a discussion.  How do you learn best? If its by being involved, how are you involved?  Are you reading books, periodicals or blogs?  Are you taking a class online or are you teaching a class for others?  Are you speaking at an event?  Commit yourself to learn in whatever way is most effective for you.   Be disciplined to following through.

28
May
13

Advice for Accounting Graduates and Students

Dear accounting graduates – Way to go!  I’m sure you are receiving an abundance of advice from your friends, family and faculty, but that won’t stop me from throwing in my two cents.  Why do you need one more opinion? I think its good for you to hear from those in the business you are joining as you make decisions and navigate these first steps outside of school.  I’ve also gathered advice from my accounting colleagues so you have many industry perspectives all right here.

The top two things I would advise:  First, bite the bullet and work in public accounting.  Second, don’t wait to sit for the CPA Exam.

Bite the bullet and work in public accounting.  Public accounting is a springboard for your future.  For those who have done this, the rewards of the experience outweigh the challenges it brings.  I worked at a medium size local firm and had a great experience in public accounting.  I liked this combination of firm because it allowed me to work on all aspects: tax, consulting, and audit start to finish.  While I didn’t prefer tax then and still don’t now, the exposure I received over my 5 years in public accounting equipped me for the future, and developed competencies I would otherwise have missed if I had gone to a larger firm where you chose either tax or audit.    

Don’t wait to sit for the CPA exam.  I know, I know, you just finished school.  You just finished studying and exams and maybe have even sold your books back already.  If you started in public accounting, the hours will be long.  But you JUST FINISHED SCHOOL.  Your foundation for the CPA exam won’t ever be this solid – don’t let it crumble before you start studying for the exam.

Ok, thats enough from me.  🙂 I’ve gathered advice from my accounting colleagues and want to share it with you.  We all have different backgrounds and experiences, but I value their perspective and know it will be important to you as you begin in your career. 

 Get your CPA licence and keep it active.  Even if you don’t want a long-term career in auditing, get some experience in this area.   It will give you a better perspective on how different businesses operate which will help you better determine what  you like (and don’t like) about the accounting/finance field.

– Stephenie

 My advice to accounting graduates is to not be afraid to be picky while choosing their first job. With the way the economy is, there is a lot of pressure to take the first job that is offered, because there is fear that another job may not come along. Although it is true that finding a job today can be difficult, it does not mean that it’s impossible. Spend time to think about what type of position and industry interests you, then pursue that type of position 100%. Focus on two or three jobs to apply to instead of many at once. By focusing on only a few job possibilities at once, you will be able to build real connections with the recruiters and employees in those companies. If you don’t already have connections within your target companies, you can build these connections by finding recruiters and other employees on Linkedin or at networking events, and asking them what type of applicants their looking for. Once you know what they’re looking for, you can determine if you’re a good fit, and how to present your skills in a way to help them understand why you are a good fit. Most professionals enjoy helping new graduates, and appreciate the initiative it takes to contact someone you don’t know.

– Rachel

 The main thing I would advise an Accounting graduate in a new job would be: Don’t be afraid to ask questions. This is an important concept as many accounting graduates, myself included, are afraid to ask questions because we don’t want to appear to be wrong, or appear to be incompetent. However, it should only be after you really have dug into a problem and need help arriving at a solution that you ask for guidance. Also when asking questions, make sure you thoroughly know the issue at hand.  That way, when a question is asked in connection to yours, you have the knowledge for an appropriate response. Additionally, it should be noted that it is okay to make mistakes at first, because the best way to learn is through trial and error.

– Stephen

There are many paths within the accounting field.  Find a job at a place where you can try out things like tax and audit.  And within those two broad paths, find out what interests you, and specialize in that.  In whatever job you find yourself, be smart, do great work, and get along with others, both co-workers and clients.  Be a team player. 

– B.W. 

My number one advice to any accounting graduate is to try out public accounting for a few years. Public Accounting gave me a wide range of exposure to different industries and improved my technical skills. It helped shape my communication skills and strengthen my ability to become a better team player. My second advice is be open minded about different accounting tasks. There is no job that is too small and too “immaterial.” For example, footing financial statement may seems like a boring job as a new associate but it gave me an opportunity to read through many companies’ financial statements. As a result, I got to ask lots of random questions I wouldn’t otherwise dare to bother managers or partners about during busy season. This in turn helped me build my technical skills and relationships with other managers who I may not have otherwise worked with.

– M.K.

Top 10 thoughts from E.W.:

1. Work for a CPA firm straight out of college – It fast tracks you to better jobs, gives you a variety of experience, and gives you time to figure out what you want to do for the rest of your career while quickly advancing your career.

2. Know what you’re getting into – Working at a CPA firm is tough and the rumors are true, you will face hard times and long hours and little respect, know what it is and work through it.

3. Apply to jobs appropriately – Tailor your resume specifically to the job you’re applying for, use keywords from the ad. Before the interview, research the company/firm you’re applying to, reach out to your alumni network, read every word of the website (that alone can land you a job). At the interview act interested in the job, ask appropriate questions.

4. Take the CPA exam as soon as possible – You may think you are busy now but you’re not. Your life will only get busier from here, take it while you have the chance.

5. Build a good reputation – The reputation of a CPA is probably more valuable than actual job skills, especially while working at a CPA firm. There are tons of resources available for tax and accounting issues, but no available resources will save your reputation.

6. Work on non-accounting skills – Technical accounting will probably make up less than 10% of your job in your career. Figure out how to use the accounting resources available to you then focus on other skills: sales, speaking, writing, relationship building, leadership, project management, etc.

7. Put in your hours – Putting in hours matters, particularly billable hours, and will carry a lot of weight for promotions and raises. If everyone else is staying late, stay late too. Don’t be the one leaving early.

8. Work hard and do what you’re toldThere’s a time and place for innovation and you’re going to need to innovate eventually. At first, though, no one want to hear about what the first year associate learned in their cost accounting class. Work hard, do what you’re told, build your reputation and respect among your peers.

9. Get involved in out of work activities with your co-workers – Play on one of the firm/company’s sports teams (but only if you’re good). Go to the happy hours and parties (but don’t get sloppy drunk, and yes, CPAs can drink A LOT, beware). You’ll need to be friendly with people to help build your reputation.

10. Build a relationship with a decision maker – At some point your firm will gather a group of managers/decision makers and they will decide the raises/promotions for the year. You need to know that there is someone in that room advocating for your promotion. Build a relationship with a manager or higher (without kissing up) who you can stick with and get pulled to the top, choose wisely.

-E.W.

And finally, an interesting perspective from an art school dropout:

Creativity > Intelligence

Let me explain: After receiving my accounting degree, mastering my technical competencies, moving through my career as an accountant, and later controllership, I realized I didn’t have just one narrowly focused talent. I wasn’t just good at math, I wasn’t just good at presentations, I wasn’t just good at understanding complex matters, I wasn’t just good at exercising my intelligence and critical thinking, but everything I learned to that point said that intelligence was paramount, and I had all the measures to prove it.

But I always thought… I have many talents and I want to know how to apply them to the fullest in my work. My epiphany came during graduate school MBA studies. I learned that everyone invited into the MBA cohort was smart, in fact, everyone was exceptionally intelligent. A GMAT in the 700′s was fairly normal, and everyone was a type A over-achiever, just like me.

But you know what truly differentiated us, what set us apart? It was creativity and the ability to summon it during critical times, right when it was most needed to get you out of a complex spot. This is what moved some ahead with momentum. That’s what I want to remind accounting graduates about. Don’t down play creativity in our work: creative problem solving, creative solutions to help the business achieve its goals, creative sessions and openness to innovation. Carve out time to innovate. Place a premium on creativity as you look forward in your career.

Unfortunately creativity, is not something that we encourage in accounting, it is not something that is lifted up as a rule, and there are many jokes about that. However, if you do not practice creativity, like anything that is not used, it will wither, and I think it is essential to lift up this competency and practice. Ideation and creativity is so important as you move down the continuum of your career.

– B.D.

28
Feb
13

Results reporting: Momentum for Non-profits to Demonstrate Effectiveness

These last few years, watchdog agencies and donors have increasingly created demand and interest in results reporting for Non-profits.  In January, 2013, Charity Navigator released its final rating approach for results.The focus is on a charity’s design, monitoring, and evaluation with the idea charities who design and evaluate programs transparently will be more accountable and more effective.  CN’s new rating approach is not an A vs. B rating, comparing one charity to another, but rather rating the individual charity to a yard stick and assessing how they measure up to CN’s expectation.  This has the potential to push charities towards more effective methods, and also draw out evidence which, until now, was not provided publically.

Recently World Vision released its own Impact reporting 1.0 – a first version of webpages which publish impact in terms of outputs, outcomes, and its unique approach to programming.  It’s a step in a direction to provide visibility to the public not only on what it recently did, but also how it has evolved over 60+ years of ministry.  These webpages are not perfect, but it’s a large step in a new direction, and one I hope empowers greater effectiveness in the future.

30
Jan
13

Public Accounting vs Private Accounting: Making the Transition

My colleague, Uma, recently posed about the question brilliance or consistency.  It reminded me of a discussion I often have with staff accountants who move from public to private accounting.  Accuracy or speed?  They are used to “passing” on large adjustments and may find the transition to private difficult where materiality is much smaller.   They often question why they need to sharpen their accuracy skills in their new role.  Public accounts focus on a certain view of materiality, but as private accountants, they need a new perspective.

Here’s how I view it from the private side:

To do or not to do – that is the question.  When you assess materiality on the private side, you often need to start with saying “will this process have a material effect on our organization’s financial reporting?” – period.  Assess the materiality of the process, not the transaction.  If the effort will not materially impact financial reporting (it may have other management or risk mitigation benefits to consider separately), then its possible the effort may be removed from the process.   One example is straight lining leases – organizations could evaluate the materiality of reporting leases on a monthly accrual basis instead of straight lining them over the life of the lease.  If there is no material impact on straight lining, it may not be worth the effort to make the adjustments monthly.  Instead, opt to calculate the materiality of the departure from GAAP and document the immateriality of the decision.  Don’t forget to reassess materiality at a regular interval, such as annually.

 If you’re gonna do something – do it right.  Ok, so you’ve made the decision a process is necessary and material.  Private accountants are kind of like baking soda – one small mistake, and the whole cake doesn’t rise.  We’re responsible to ensure we arrive at year-end without material misstatements. If you overlook the small things throughout the year, or let reconciling or accuracy slide, you may take away any room for judgment calls at year-end around materiality because the materiality level has already been absorbed by the small errors throughout the year.  Additionally, if small errors are making their way through, its difficult to prove large errors are prevented.  If you’re gonna do something – do it right.  If there is a situation when you decide the best judgment is to deviate from policy, document why you are making the exception and the immateriality to isolate the transaction.

Don’t forget to step back and look at the big picture.  The transition to private may put you into the weeds.  It takes a year to prepare for auditors for a reason – there are a number of transactions to assess, process, and allocate.  But don’t get stuck there – remember to take a step back and look at the big picture.  Do you analyze the work you’re processing?  Does it make sense in the big picture?  Do you understand what the inputs are, what the risks to completeness or accuracy are?  Don’t get so bogged down accounting for the volumes as fast as you can that you miss the opportunity to make sure it all still makes sense.  Stopping to analyze may seem like a speed bump when you’re trying to get to done, but in reality, it’s a springboard to accuracy and the path to immateriality.

19
Nov
12

CPAs advocate for addressing fiscal cliff and US Government’s financial health

Election day is over, and the fiscal cliff  becomes the focus of many.  I recently came across the American Institute of CPAs advocacy pages where the AICPA Chairman offers analysis and insight into the big picture of the US governments financial future.  On their site, there is a video which helps explain about the “continuing and growing mismatch between the federal government’s long-term spending obligations and projected revenues.”   Their video helped relate these complex concepts to us as individuals, and how our decisions today may affect future generations.

 

As CPAs, we are uniquely positioned to gain an understanding of these issues and engage in dialogue to support a movement to improve our country’s fiscal health.  We are often called upon to help our clients or our own NPO management understand the financial issues they need to wrestle with.  I want to encourage you to review these resources, to be ready to explain key concepts about our governments financial status, and to advocate for improving the U.S. Government’s fiscal health.

 

AICPA article “What’s at Stake? A CPA’s Insights into the Federal Government’s Finances”  

A Citizen’s Guide to the 2011 Financial Report of the U.S. Government

Fiscal Year 2011 Financial Report of the United States Government

 

06
Jun
12

Creating a desk manual

This topic isn’t unique to accountants, or even non-profits, but it is an important part of a good internal control system.  If you come from public accounting, a desk manual might not be something you think about because you’re used to having access to prior year client files.  However, when you enter private accounting, prior year records or even prior month records may be difficult to access or understand.  Below I’ve listed what I think are some of the top reasons why you should prepare and maintain desk manuals along with a few lessons I’ve learned along the way about what to include this manual.

What are the benefits to having a current desk manual

  • It ensures continuity while staff are out on leave
  • It provides the manager visibility into a staff’s process and allows for feedback and input to support the staff with effective, efficient processes
  • While writing the manual, it provides the staff an opportunity to think critically about their own activities and consider what could be improved
  • It is a quick resource for ad-hoc training or cross-training needs
  • When done well, it provides management with more agile resourcing.  If a desk manual documents unique responsibilities or functions separately, it allows agile resourcing because a portion of a job may be more easily transferred to another accountant to help balance out peaks and valleys among the staff.

What should be included in a desk manual?

The What – A basic desk manual should document what needs to be done.  It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words, and that is certainly true in this context.  Screen shots of systems, reports, processes or activities provide for a user-friendly visual desk manual.  If you want to
take a manual to the next level for a reasonable cost, Snagit is an example of a great program for ad-hoc screen shot editing.

The When – Make sure the desk manual documents how frequently processes or activities should occur.  Don’t forget to capture those activities that occur only at the quarter or year-end.  The less frequent they occur, the more likely they will be overlooked during training.

The Why – In public accounting you likely have documentation around not only what procedures were performed, but also why you completed a certain audit step, why you determined outliers were immaterial or not representative of the population, or why you arrived at the conclusions you reached from the test work.  In private accounting this type of “why” documentation may be minimal or absent altogether.  A desk manual provides more then just a record of what to do, it is a great place to document why and alternatively help answer the question why not?  It’s as important to know when to do something as it is to be able to distinguish when not to do something.  The firm I worked at used the term “SALY” to describe doing something just the Same As Last Year.  SALY is often a great place to start.  However, business processes change, exceptions occur, and accounts are the first line of defense for identifying and asking about transactions that might need to be modified because the activity or accounting standard is no longer the same as last year. 

The How – Don’t forget to include documentation about where files are saved, what programs are needed to accomplish the tasks, and who provide the various sources of information.  Documentation about how to get the job done will make the process go smoother when staff is unexpectedly out.

Contacts – What better place to store details about sources and users of information then a desk manual? 

Applicable standards or reference guides – Recognizing that accounting is often grey, include in the desk manual any applicable accounting standards or internal reference guides that apply to the activities as well as any interpretations of the standards which are specific to the business.  (If accounting policies are maintained separately, include in the desk manual a reference to the applicable accounting policies which capture this information.)

Key red flags – I’ve heard it said that “we stand on the shoulders of those who have come before us.”  By documenting red flags in the manual, you allow those who follow next in a staff’s footsteps to learn from the issues that have come up before. 

Finally, don’t forget the maintenance.  Its easy to let desk manuals go stale, but a manual is only as good as the information it contains.  Make maintenance an important priority.  Have someone other then the staff who prepared the manual review it at a minimum every 24 months or when a new staff begins working in the job.

I’ve included a sample segment from a fixed asset desk manual as an example.  I hope you find this useful as you consider how to use desk manuals to benefit your organization.




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