March 25, 2024

Optimizing Transparency: The Essentials of Functional Expense Reporting for Nonprofits

By Alyssa Simard, CPA, Partner, Assurance Services

Optimizing Transparency: The Essentials of Functional Expense Reporting for Nonprofits Nonprofit & Social Sector

The success and integrity of nonprofit organizations hinge on their ability to steward financial resources effectively. One critical aspect of financial stewardship is the practice of functional expense reporting. This article delves into why it is paramount for nonprofits to adopt a thorough approach to categorizing and reporting expenses and why it is a cornerstone of fiscal responsibility.

Understanding Functional Expenses

Functional expenses refer to the classification of expenses based on the purpose for which the costs are incurred. This categorization allows a nonprofit organization to demonstrate how its funds are spent across different activities and is essential for transparency and accountability. At its core, functional expense reporting segments a nonprofit’s costs into three main categories: program services, management and general activities, and fundraising efforts. This categorization enables organizations to demonstrate to donors, grantmakers, and regulatory bodies how funds are being used to advance their mission.

  • Program Services: These expenses relate directly to the mission-driven activities of the nonprofit. For most organizations, program services should represent the majority of their spending, reflecting a focus on their core objectives.
  • Management and General: These are the overhead costs necessary for the overall operation and management of the nonprofit organization, including administrative salaries, office expenses, and general organizational operations that do not directly relate to any specific program.
  • Fundraising: This category includes all expenses related to soliciting donations, grants, and other forms of financial support. Fundraising costs can vary significantly depending on the organization’s size, purpose, and revenue structure.

Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) require nonprofit organizations to showcase their functional expenses in the footnotes to the financial statements, the Statement of Activities, or the most commonly selected option, a separate Statement of Functional Expenses.

Legal and Regulatory Framework

Functional expense reporting isn’t just a best practice—it’s a regulatory requirement. In the United States, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) mandates nonprofits to disclose detailed functional expenses on Form 990 (a publicly available document), reinforcing the necessity for accurate and honest financial disclosure to maintain tax-exempt status and public confidence. Proper reporting is essential for maintaining tax-exempt status as it demonstrates compliance with IRS guidelines. Noncompliance can result in penalties or, in severe cases, revocation of tax-exempt status. Accurate functional expense reporting, therefore, ensures that nonprofits adhere to legal standards and avoid the risks associated with noncompliance.

Allocation Methodologies

There are various allocation methods that nonprofit organizations can use. Nonprofit organizations must consider the nature of the expense to ensure the proper methodology is selected.

Direct allocation is the easiest method and should be selected when the cost is identifiable with a singular function. For example, ABC Nonprofit purchased animal food and toys for its animal shelter. These costs should be directly charged to program services as they relate directly to carrying out its animal shelter program.

Indirect allocation is the more complex method and should be used when the cost benefits multiple functions. The nature of the cost will depend on how it should be allocated. The most common allocation methodologies for indirect allocation include employee time and square footage.

Some employees may spend their time on multiple functions within the organization. This is most commonly found with executive leadership but is not necessarily limited to those roles. For example, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) splits their time between performing administrative functions, conversing directly with key stakeholders and donors, and carrying out the organization’s programs. The amount of time spent on each function would need to be estimated to allocate salary, benefits, and payroll taxes.

Square footage percentages can be used to allocate rent, depreciation, certain insurances, and utilities. The amount of space occupied by each function would need to be calculated and then used to allocate the costs accordingly. For example, ABC Nonprofit rents a 3,500-square-foot building, of which 2,500 square feet is used for its animal shelter. The occupancy costs (i.e., rent, utilities, building depreciation, and insurance) would be allocated 71.4% to programs (2,500 square feet divided by 3,500 square feet).

Whichever method the nonprofit organization chooses, it is critical that the method is consistently applied and that the allocations be substantiated by supporting documentation to allocate the costs.

Annual Review and Continual Improvement

Nonprofits cannot have a “set it and forget it” mentality when allocating expenses. How costs are allocated can change over time as the organization’s operations change. It is essential that nonprofits regularly review and update how costs are allocated to ensure that the expenses are represented accurately.

Annual audits provide an external validation of a nonprofit’s financial practices, including functional expense reporting. Preparing for an audit involves ensuring that all functional expenses are well-documented and justified, demonstrating the organization’s commitment to fiscal responsibility. A consistent and transparent allocation of expenses positions nonprofits to better respond during the audit, as auditors will look closely at how expenses are categorized and justified.

Best Practices

Nonprofit organizations should have a formal, written, functional expense allocation policy. A well-defined functional expense allocation policy helps ensure compliance with GAAP and provides a clear framework for reporting how funds are used. Not only is it important that a policy is in place, but that it is followed and applied. Further, a functional expense allocation policy aids in developing accurate budgets and financial forecasts, which are essential for long-term planning and stability.

Technology has transformed functional expense reporting, providing tools that automate and streamline the process. From accounting software to data analytics, tech solutions offer nonprofits an opportunity to improve accuracy and efficiency in their financial reporting. Most nonprofit accounting systems aim to ease the burden of reporting expenses by functional category. Some systems allow for predetermined percentages to be applied toward expenses at the time the expenses are entered into the accounting system. Other systems enable costs to be categorized at a lower level of detail, beyond the natural expense category, to achieve the functional expense reporting requirement.

The Role of Transparency and Accountability

Functional expense reporting clearly shows how a nonprofit allocates its funds. By categorizing expenses into programs, management and general operations, and fundraising, potential donors can see exactly where their contributions go. This transparency is crucial in building and maintaining donor confidence, encouraging continued and increased support from private and public contributors.

Percentages of expenses by functional category can be a key nonprofit financial reporting metric scrutinized by watchdog agencies and existing or potential donors. A nonprofit that can showcase a high percentage of its expenses flowing directly into its programs is often more appealing to donors. On the contrary, allocating too much to programs can also be negatively viewed.


For nonprofits, functional expense reporting is more than just numbers on a page; it is a testament to their commitment to their cause and supporters. With detailed and transparent reporting, nonprofits not only comply with legal requirements but also communicate their story of impact, fiscal responsibility, and strategic vision.