Balancing a Nonprofit’s Checkbook
Rosemarie A. (Roe) Bonelli, WG’99
Treasurer, Wharton Club of New York
Interim CEO of the YWCA of the City of New York
Roe Bonelli, WG’99, has been involved with the Wharton Club of New York for 18 years. Early on, Roe put together plans to stabilize the Club’s finances, create legal safeguards, ensure tax compliance, and make wise investments. Those contributions demonstrate her consulting and management skills to assess a situation, create an approach and build a team to solve a problem!
How did you become involved in WCNY?
I was working in New York and had heard that Wharton Board meetings were open to members. After hearing concerns about the Club’s finances, I volunteered that I had a background in finance and operations, and could help out on the Treasury Committee. After further conversations with Club President, Nigel Edelshain, WG’93, and Board members Allen Levinson, W’77, WG’78, and Dana Michael, W’82, the conversation quickly developed from, “Oh, we’d like to nominate you to be Treasurer,” to “Hey, we elected you Treasurer.”
What were the key issues to address as you took on and built out the Treasurer role at WCNY?
The Club’s Treasury Committee had not been filing tax returns. Nonprofits don’t need to pay taxes. However, if forms are not filed, the IRS will come after you with large fines. The first thing I had to do was to work with our bank to recreate our financial statements. Then I worked with the regulators to wipe away our $60,000 penalty, which was more than we had in the bank at the time. Based on establishing a legitimate game plan and following up with clear actions, we were able to successfully ask for leniency.
What were your next steps?
Ken Beck, WG’87, came into the Club around the same time I did. After he became President, he expressed the vision to revive the Joseph Wharton Awards Dinner. Kenny orchestrated to have more people do fewer things, instead of a few doing all the heavy lifting. This approach helped him assemble the right team to revive the Dinner.
Meanwhile, I put in controls and policies to make better decisions, and standard operating procedures, such as who can approve what.
As I figured out the staffing needed, I brought in a bookkeeper and an accountant then a budget director and an assistant treasurer. These actions made us an operational club.
How did you have the confidence to improve the discipline at the organization?
My background is operational processes — basically, operational risk before it became a formal discipline. I developed systems and controls for the securities and finance divisions at JPMorgan Chase. I knew finance and finance controls, and WCNY was an operation that did not have controls.
The focus was to instill discipline and to change the culture. For example, we won’t do an event if we cannot cover the expenses. We used to put on events, where the costs of renting space or paying for food exceeded what we charged people. We asked volunteers who hosted the events to appreciate that their events should cover overhead. Another one was obtaining sign-offs before spending money and expecting reimbursements.
How did the Club grow its funds from $50,000 to today’s $1.3 million?
In the beginning, our membership fees did not cover operating expenses. We turned that around to better balance revenue streams against the expense base so that membership fees and event ticket prices covered operating expenses. Our Board’s goal was to responsibly invest the funds from our annual Joseph Wharton Awards Dinner until our balance reached $1 million — at which point, we would give back to the School. We reached that goal, and in fiscal 2017, the Club mailed a check to the Wharton School for $100,000!
What does the Finance Team do today?
We continue to raise the bar that a nonprofit should be at, in terms of our controls, our processes and our transparency. We have our finances audited, even though for our size, it is not required. We implement any of the positive procedures that the regulators recommend. Brent Dial, WG’12, CFO at Blkbox, our upcoming VP of Finance, is experienced with automated software, operational applications and budget disciplines.
What do you do as a profession?
I founded a consulting firm with a few partners that provides three services:
- Enterprise-wide risk management services for credit, operational and finance risk issues.
- Strategic redesign and execution — Where do you want to go? How will you execute your strategy?
- Transformation through influencing others — How do you get others to move from a “no” to a “yes”? How do you gain trust quickly?
Our clients are predominantly in financial services, although recently, we supported nonprofits focused on education.
And recently, you became the interim CEO of the YWCA of New York City. What will you do there?
Like many nonprofits, we have to constantly think whether or not we are relevant. What are our services, and are they the best services we can offer? Today, the YWCA in New York focuses on eliminating racism and empowering women.
What guiding principles have made a difference in your work? Foremost I never want to compromise my own integrity. Then, respect for others, which is imperative because a large part of my work involves change management. At the same time, you must be honest with people about where you want to go. You have to follow your convictions, but be open to input. That’s hard to do.
Can you give an example?
When you enter a new organization, and you try to create change, it’s easy to fall into the path of least resistance. People say they like change, but they don’t. They like a little excitement, and they want to move forward, but only at a pace they can digest.
Being true to my convictions is not the same as being stubborn. I can be true to my vision, but I need to be open on how to get there. The balancing point is how to integrate others’ feedback into the final strategy.
I often meet alumni who want to help women become successful. What advice can you give?
Call me! Get involved. Pick up the phone and call somebody, which is hard! Getting advice on the other end of the line is not as hard, as long as the ask is small. Let me tell you how I got involved with the YWCA.
I had attended an event on nonprofit boards, and met Debra Baker who is the Chair of YWCA New York. She asked me what I was interested in, and I told her I was interested in finding out a little bit more about boards. She said, “Why don’t you come talk to me about YWCA?” Before I knew it, I was nominated to come onto the board, and six months later, I was asked to become the interim CEO. So, don’t be afraid to ask, but also, don’t be afraid to tell.
How do you take on a role in which you don’t have specific experience?
It comes down to playing on your strengths and demonstrat- ing what you love to do. It sounds antiquated, but years back, I wrote letters to a bunch of asset managers, saying I’d like to get involved in asset management. The CEO of Shared Services for OppenheimerFunds called me to address a strategic problem he had. He wanted to focus on the company’s core strengths, and fund accounting and administration was not one of them. He wanted to do a “lift out” of the group, but the company was having difficulties moving forward on this project. He needed someone to come in, get buy-in from strategic stakeholders and manage the project to execution.
I had never managed a large, complex operations asset sale before. But I knew project management; I knew how to manage large teams; I knew how to influence people; and I knew how to process securities from my securities lending days. Within two weeks, I began working for him as a consultant and was hired on within a year. You have to be comfortable with what you do well, and then articulate it.