Are Your Assets Resting?

Why would you buy a truck or a bus for your company and fail to use it?  Why would you hire a new accountant and fail to use her? We are supposed to buy fixed assets and employ people and get more money back than we spent. Nonprofits will focus on social impact as well as cash. That’s fine but some nonprofits find it easy to spend other people’s money for things of little value.

The 990 tells whether assets are being purchased or employed wisely.neonbrand-258972-unsplash


Each industry has its own range of the dollars returned in profit divided by the Assets. For profit education companies average 5%. The beverage industry is 9%.

The nonprofits studied have a return of assets of about 3%. That means that each $100 of investment in assets returns about $3 in profit. That is a lot lower than the industry ranges mentioned above because the corporate tax rate has been 35%! It’s fair to say that nonprofits actually do divert resources to the social sector that are returned in some other metric.

Two concerns emerge:

  • Nonprofits that are less than 10 years old have a return on assets in the 20% range. Since they are probably carrying fixed assets with little accumulated depreciation – why are they so much more effective in acquiring assets that actually return the cost of investment? Are newer nonprofits born in a more competitive time in the nonprofit industry and will be stronger structurally?
  • The historic nonprofits over 25 years old show returns as low as 3%. If they own heavily depreciated buildings or other long term assets, their return of 3% may be inflated. It could be closer to 0%.

Human Assets

In a post-industrial age, the real asset of any company is the compensation budget and the human resource that it represents. One way to measure effective hiring is to relate the total revenue to the dollars spent on compensation. If you hire a new staff member for $100,000, it’s clear that you have to raise at least $100,000 more in revenue to support the position. The labor efficiency ratio is usually between 2 and 7, depending on industry.

The formula used in the study is total revenue / total compensation.

Nonprofits are low, regardless of size.

  • Some of the lowest include nonprofits in existence for 25+ years that have limited federal funds. For example, one reported an average of 1.26 over four years. This means that only 26 cents were left after payroll for rent, materials, food, office, etc. An overemphasis on payroll indicates poor program quality.
  • The lowest reported (1.22) was family operated which probably means that they drain the nonprofit of cash by paying three sisters in management very well. Since it’s a special needs daycare, I pity the recipients of the services.
  • Regulated nonprofits (child care) will have lower labor efficiency ratios because of required staffing and credentials. Companies such as McDonald’s have few staff requirements other than the practical matter of getting hot food to customers quickly.
  • New nonprofits (under 10 years) tend to produce more money per staff member hired and spend more money on program (labor efficiency ratio of 1.7 – 2). This doesn’t mean that they pay staff poorly – they have enough money to do everything
  • Nonprofits with growth rates of 20%+ per year have labor efficiency ratios of 1.5 – 2. This seems reasonable. They are saving money for program and rent. They have budget balance.

A labor efficiency ratio under 1.4 is a danger signal. The income may be critically lacking for required infrastructure. There may be undue influence of board or management to drain resources. Accrediting and regulatory agencies should measure program quality carefully.


The only way for nonprofits to serve and succeed in mission is through wise use of assets.  When the financial return on assets is too low, it will reduce cash and destabilize the nonprofit. Older nonprofits generally seem to need more business training to approach 5% or more return on assets.

Labor efficiency is a critical asset because almost all companies spend most of their budget on payroll. When a budget is set up with less than $1.40 coming back in cash for every $1.00 spent on payroll, there is not enough money left to pay rent, insurance, and program supplies.

Younger nonprofits appear to be more nimble. They are less burdened with nonproductive assets and save enough money (aside from payroll) to finance quality program supplies and infrastructure.

Success = monitoring return on assets and labor efficiency.


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