Your Budget is a Statement of Values: Treat it with the Appropriate Diligence and Respect
The annual credit union budget is a statement of its values, the things the organization thinks are important. The values in that budget should reflect (and be directly tied to) the strategic plan that the board and senior management has developed together. It is critical that the board have a clear understanding of how the budget has been shaped, and takes pains to make sure that it’s appropriate.
I’m pretty sure that the fact that I’ve picked May to write about the budget is some sort of Freudian avoidance of trauma approach given what I’ve been through. I’ll be curious to hear about how you feel about the budget cycle. You’ve gathered some insight as to my feelings. Here we are in May, headlong into the 2023 budget but pretty far from next year’s budget development. That feels pretty safe. But come November things get a bit more messy.
Politicians from all sides and businessfolk like to spout the aphorism, “A budget is a statement of values.” And I agree with this. Where you’re putting your dollars reflects where your priorities are. But I’m not always sure how closely board members follow this idea even when they agree.
Here’s my broad stereotype from lots of experiences in this area: The board and senior management do their strategic planning sometime in the fall. Then not too long after, the CEO, after some voodoo, witchcraft, and pencil chewing with the staff in a secret room, submits a draft budget to the board that they will finalize by January. The board reviews the draft budget mostly by looking at the big round numbers on the right side of the page, and the amount and percentage that they went up from last year’s number. They ask a few questions for clarifications and it’s off to ratification/approval.
Let’s play the “for instance” game. For instance, your strategic plan suggests that the organization is going to have to build a new focus on wealth management services for your older membership to keep them at the credit union. Building that out as a new service is going to require funds. The board should make sure that’s reflected in the budget.
For instance, the strategic plan involves a shift from front line staff to a heavier call center approach, but also a focus on sales and service. I’ve seen this one play out in a variety of ways where directors completely understand the amount of $ that goes to technology for the call center, but not get why the training budget has doubled and salaries for call center staff have to be raised. (Sales and service skills require a LOT of training and proper rewards.) Here’s the curve ball – six months later one rogue director yells after a trip to the lobby, “what do you mean we don’t have any money for MSRs?!?!” Because he hasn’t internalized the values that the budget reflects and are tied to the strategic plan.
What Should Board Members Do?
The review of the budget should be an exciting event, not a perfunctory task once a year met with a yawn. (I know. Some of you are skeptical.) The board’s efforts here are to ensure that the values of the organization are given the priority that you have discussed and agreed upon. To make sure that the budget is tied to the strategic plan in a noticeable way. It sounds like I’m inviting the board into the operational weeds to nitpick. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is a call for thoughtful analysis of the budget at a strategic level.
- Don’t underestimate the pain and suffering that may be involved when the staff creates a budget. Respect the process and the analysis they give you.
- Ask thoughtful questions about how the budget is tied to the plan, not just “why did line 12 go up so much?”
- Reel in your rogue directors if they aren’t getting this. (I know that some of you are thinking about how you understand this but there’s that one director on your board who just doesn’t.) It’s your job to hold them accountable and make them understand, for the sake of your CEO and staff.
- Make sure you incorporate ranges for results. The budget is not a crystal ball. This also means that you need to know how to adjust when the environment has changed along the way.
- Be prudent with the members’ money, which is not the same thing as being cheap with the members’ money. Support thoughtful investment and make sure that you understand what it costs to do business these days. (Versus comparing everything to the value of your first car, house, candy bar from decades ago.)
The annual budget is as important as the strategic planning process. In fact, they are intertwined. Often the budget gets short shrift. Don’t let your eyes glaze over in the volume of numbers in the spreadsheet. Get excited about the promise of value to the members that you instill in the budget and provide support to the CEO to execute this vision.