NGO Finance & Open Access to Information: Cyra Copeland of Creative Commons
Cyra Copeland is Director of Finance at Creative Commons, a non-profit organization dedicated to building globally-accessible public commons of knowledge and culture, and by doing so, creating a more inclusive and accessible world.
We recently met with Cyra to hear about the particularities of doing business in the internet and policy arena, as well as how she’s managed being a mighty team of one at a growing nonprofit where fundraising accounts for 90% of revenue.
Can you tell us more about what Creative Commons does, and your business model?
We’re an open-access space aiming to help organizations and individuals overcome the obstacles of sharing knowledge and information on the internet. A lot of the laws around intellectual property and such are just antiquated, probably because most were created prior to the very thought of the internet. Creative Commons is working to tear down some of those barriers. To do so, we focus on policy work and provide a domain free range of tools, programs, content that is stored in an easy to access space, and certified as available for use without financial impact or penalty.
As far as our business model, our main revenue comes through fundraising; both through grants we apply for and individual donor/foundation contributions. To complement this source of revenue, we have two online programs as part of our CC certificate programs that we charge for. These “courses” are for individuals wanting to become experts in open licensing. Lastly, we host the CC summit, an annual event to gather all of the stakeholders in the open-access space for them to share expertise, information, and network. This year it will be virtual, which will hit our bottom line since we usually charge for tickets.
I cannot stress enough how important it is for a nonprofit to diversify revenue sources, even though most of it comes from grants in our case, you can’t rely on just one source. In our case, fundraising represents 90% of our revenue stream and the CC summit and licensing programs the other 10%, but we are constantly looking for additional opportunities for diversification.
Aside from the revenue model, what are the biggest differences in leading finance at Creative Commons vs your past experience at Big4 firms?
Creative Commons is a well established nonprofit, founded in 2001 and counting 22 employees. Something you might not necessarily see in the corporate world or larger nonprofits at this level is the nuance around managing numbers or seeing the direct impact your work is having.
In my current position, I get to be a close strategic partner in all kinds of ways, not just with numbers, or thinking about revenue sources but also connecting the dots between the finance decisions and the actual positive impact we bring through our projects. I’m very close to the groundwork we do, it’s one of the best parts of the job.
I get to be a close strategic partner in all kinds of ways, not just with numbers, or thinking about revenue sources but also connecting the dots between the finance decisions and the actual positive impact we bring through our projects.
My auditing and consulting experience taught me agility and to work from a project standpoint. When you’re at E&Y you don’t have 3 months to get onboarded on a project because the engagement might be as short as that. Thus, I can adapt to projects quickly and tailor tools and systems to individual cases.
Another thing I’ve noticed in my nonprofit career is that teams don’t always track expenses on a project base. It’s not a requirement but from the reporting perspective, it gives much more robustness and clarity, and a better understanding of your spend versus budget. There’s a big plus in tracking on a project basis because it aids in transparency within the organization and discourages bad behaviors like spending without knowing where the money comes from. This has also allowed me to have a long term vision of our funds and to work on forecasting, which is extremely difficult but essential for a nonprofit organization.
What are the key metrics you track as a nonprofit organization?
The metric I track the most outside of the budget is our fundraising conversion rate. This is the dollar value we actually get back from the grants we apply for. For instance, if we pitch a million dollars for a project and are awarded 500,000, then in that case we received 50% of our applied fundraising. It is really key because like most nonprofits, we fundraise in the 4th quarter, which means we tend to operate in the red for most of the year anticipating we'll fundraise a certain amount of additional cash. Once you’re aware of the likeliness of the grants and contributions you may get, you can budget and spend wisely.
From a pure impact perspective, I’m not currently tracking any KPIs but it’s plausible that we’ll look into ways to incorporate a financial piece to that analysis.
Between all your stakeholders, who do you mainly report to?
We mainly report to the board, our CEO and of course, our grant funders. Any organization needs to be rigorous about its reporting and do it in a timely fashion but for non-profits, I would say the responsibility is bigger. At an organization CC's size there is a heightened responsibility to ensure we’re making good use of the money we receive, compared to larger corporations in the private sector.
I’m hoping to add another stakeholder in the near future, the management team, which may sound obvious but isn’t that easy for nonprofits. As I mentioned earlier, many organizations, including us, have struggled with project-based expense tracking and budgeting. Getting the finances visible to the teams who are actually on the ground doing the work will not only encourage them to be mindful of their spending but also empower them to find creative ways to bring in additional revenue because in a small organization no one wears one hat.
What role do you think finance professionals have to play in creating a positive impact on the world?
There’s a shrouded cliche about what finance is, as if finance teams are only looking into budgets, ways to increase revenue etc, but not worrying about anything else - including having negative effects on the world. But often-times, the demise of an organization is their finances, that’s what makes headlines in the news. It's up to us, as finance leaders, to ensure our organization is being a good steward of the money that we receive regardless of whether it’s a for-profit or nonprofit organization.
My advice to the for-profit sector is, if you want to fight against the stereotype of the company taking advantage of the world, you can start by pushing your organization to be transparent and to play by the rules. In the end, the impact comes from organization and your people, because no policy will ever be enough if no one follows, we’re all actors of change.
If you want to fight against the stereotype of the company taking advantage of the world, you can start by pushing your organization to be transparent and to play by the rules.
Any advice to finance professionals thinking about pivoting to the nonprofit sector?
I would say it can be a windy road so don't see that as a bad thing. When I look at my resume it looks like there’s no connection between positions but after thinking about my experience it actually makes sense. When you come from a Big4 and auditing or consulting background, you will be fully prepared to deal with the many challenges nonprofits face and every twist and turn led me to do what I love for a cause I strongly believe in.
Don’t be afraid to go from corporate to a university or a nonprofit, because something I've learned - especially in smaller nonprofits - is things can be done in such unconventional ways, and there are many ways to translate a corporate traditional finance role into the uniqueness of a nonprofit. What makes a strong nonprofit finance leader is having this varied experience.
About Cyra: With a background spanning from wall street and public accounting to academia and non-profit management Cyra is an experienced financial operations professional passionate about supporting organizations in sustainable administration and growth. Working for over 15 years in the industry, she has amassed a wealth of knowledge and is a leader in best practices around grants management, financial-based systems and templates, and policy and procedure creation and implementation, experiences which she is currently using to head up all financial operations at Creative Commons. Although she calls several cities home, Cyra is currently splitting her time between Philadelphia and New Orleans and spends her free time, cooking, traveling, and practicing French.Cyra and her mother travelling around the world.
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