Legendary humorist Rube Goldberg rates an individual entry in Webster’s New World Collegiate Dictionary (4th Edition): “U.S. cartoonist of comically involved contrivances; designating any very complicated invention, machine, scheme, etc., laboriously contrived to perform a seemingly simple operation.”

One of our favorite Goldberg “inventions,” a Modest Mosquito-bite Scratcher, is a device employing springs, levers, an inebriated bluebird, and a cannon to soothe that annoying itch. There are times when developing a nonprofit organization’s budget is a little like creating a Rube Goldberg construct–picture a contraption able to juggle flaming torches, carving knives and bowling balls . . . 

We hear a lot about nonprofits struggling to decide whether to fold or to carry on despite near-catastrophic funding situations. The thing about budget cuts is that they tend not to respect core programs and mission priorities. Moreover, the money we work with allows little discretionary control of capital–yet another way in which nonprofits are very different from the business sector we are chided to emulate. Even in “normal” times we exist in a complicated environment; our financial systems and structures (themselves often miserably under-funded) are hard-pressed to keep up with the many demands, obligations and expectations that confront us daily.

The initial idea for this issue was a straightforward examination of the things that make nonprofit financial management difficult. We proposed looking into the demands, assumptions and contradictions associated with this essential management function–as well as what nonprofit leaders are often compelled to do as a result. If anything, the unfolding financial crisis within the sector has only made the exploration of this topic more pressing and timely.

We would like to thank guest editors Peter Frumkin and Liz Keating of the Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations at Harvard University, who were indispensable in every phase of developing this issue. We open with their thought-provoking and grounded overview article—a must-read and an excellent warm-up for the remaining collection of articles. We’re also grateful for the generosity and enthusiasm of long-time NPQ advisor Tom Raffa of Raffa P.C., who, as technical monitor for this issue, displayed an impressive memory for the details of seemingly every financial circular ever written and who patiently helped us frame and manage the details.

We expect this issue to be the first in a series of bold forays into the strange paradoxes and conundrums of nonprofit financial systems. We’d love to hear your thoughts about what you’ve read and, as always, about what’s missing. This is one topic we know will need further coverage.