Debt Isn't a Bad Word: Why Your Nonprofit Might Want to Borrow

Debt is an integral part of the strategic plans of many organizations, yet it has traditionally carried a stigma in the not-for-profit industry. That view is changing, as more organizations borrow money for major capital purchases, new program funding — even to manage current cash flow.

But if you're hoping to borrow funds, know that not all nonprofits qualify. And even if you're able to find a lender, it takes prudent financial management and reliable donor support to pay back a loan.

Exhaust Other Options First

You may think your organization has a good rationale for borrowing, but that doesn't mean lenders — or even your supporters — will agree. One of the primary criteria watchdog groups such as Charity Navigator and Charity Watch use to evaluate not-for-profit organizations is the percentage of available funds spent on programs. If a large portion of your budget is tied up in debt repayment, that's likely to affect how the public, including prospective donors, perceives your organization.

What's more, lender covenants may prevent you from borrowing for other purposes — and thus limit strategic flexibility — until your existing debt is paid off. And as many nonprofits have learned in recent years, debt makes periods of economic uncertainty that much more challenging. So in general, it's best to exhaust other funding sources, such as public and private grants and major donations, before applying for a loan.

Are You Prepared?

Even if you determine your not-for-profit can handle the risks of borrowing, you likely won't qualify for a loan unless you have all your ducks in a row. Before approaching a lender, make sure you have:

The odds of qualifying for a loan are better if you've already established relationships with lenders — preferably those with experience lending to not-for-profits. You may even want to establish a small line of credit with a local bank at a time you don't actually need the money. That way, the bank will know you when you apply for a larger loan. Be sure to ask for assistance from board members who may work in banking or who can introduce you to lenders they know.

Justify Your Loan

Lenders want to know, in detail, why your nonprofit is seeking funds and what you hope to achieve with them.\

One of the most common reasons organizations seek loans is to make major purchases. For example, a private secondary school may want to replace its aging gym with a new athletic facility. Or a senior community center may need a specially equipped van to transport disabled clients. Generally, such purchases are partially funded by grants or donations — and evidence of such support is likely to help your application.

Many organizations also borrow to stabilize cash flow, typically with a line of credit. You may, for example, need funds to bridge billing and collections gaps or to remain liquid while waiting for a major grant check to arrive. Such credit is usually acceptable as long as you don't routinely borrow the maximum amount or continually operate your organization with a deficit.

It may be harder to justify a loan to fund new programs or initiatives — unless you can prove they're essential to your mission and that they're likely to produce income down the line. And while you may be able to borrow to address an emergency situation, don't get into the habit of calling a loan officer every time the unexpected happens. That's what emergency savings and contingency plans are for.

Reasonable Certainty

As many consumers have learned the hard way, it's easy to dig a hole for yourself with debt. But a loan might be right for your nonprofit if you know with reasonable certainty how you'll repay it and you've determined with your board and financial advisors that the possible negative consequences of debt financing are remote.

Where Nonprofits Can Go When they Need a Loan

When you hear the word "loan," you probably think "bank." While plenty of banks are willing to make term loans or lines of credit available to nonprofits, your organization may not want or be able to pay the interest rates attached to them. Fortunately, you have other options:

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