Goizueta's Tonya Smalls
Tonya Smalls

Even in the nonprofit realm, no one can deny fraud exists. The news headlines still have the power to shock. For example: “How Red Cross fraud cost Ebola fight efforts $6 million,” “Indictment in US $6.7 million IT fraud at charity,” and “Nonprofit manager charged with embezzling money meant for disabled kids.”

Say you worked at a non-profit organization that aimed to help children with disabilities. If you discovered that your boss was cooking the books, or manipulating financial statements, to make the numbers look better than they really were, would you report it?

Enter the research of Tonya Smalls, assistant professor in the practice of accounting at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School. Smalls brings a combined 25 years’ worth of experience in both for- and nonprofit organizations to inform her academic work. “Being in academia, and coming from industry, it’s important to me to research topics that are relevant for practice,” she says. At Goizueta, Smalls contributes to a growing body of work on the prevention and detection of accounting fraud, ethical decision-making, and whistleblowing, especially as it relates to nonprofit organizations.

Tonya Smalls
Tonya Smalls

In the hypothetical scenario above, Smalls maintains you should make the report. Maintaining trust is key. Reporting wrongdoing, including financial fraud, is in the public interest, for the greater good. Whistleblowers, typically insiders who become aware of wrongdoing and report it, have a crucial role to play rooting out corruption.

In fact, the single most effective way to detect fraud is via whistleblowers. Whistleblowers are responsible for catching nearly half of all organizations’ reported wrongdoing, making them more effective than external audits and other fraud-fighting methods.

And yet, whistleblowing in nonprofits is still relatively uncommon, especially when compared with its frequency in for-profit organizations. Why is that? Fear of retaliation? Indifference or lack of knowledge about its importance?

Whistleblowing Matters

Back when she was serving as chief financial officer for a large regional division of the American Cancer Society, Smalls saw firsthand, from the inside, how the running of nonprofits differed from their for-profit counterparts—even as they faced many of the same pressures. One notable difference was in the presence of regulations requiring strong internal controls—i.e., accounting and auditing processes. Put simply, there are more rigorous requirements for for-profits. At the same time, “internal controls are just as important in non-profit entities,” she explains.

A few years ago, Smalls and her coauthors—Andrea M. Scheetz of Georgia Southern University, Joseph Wall of Marquette University, and Aaron B. Wilson of Ohio University—set out to explore how internal controls—or, more accurately, how perceptions of internal controls—differ between nonprofit and for-profits and how that helps explain whistleblowing. The results were published in Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly as “Perception of Internal Control Helps Explain Whistleblowing.”

In a nutshell: If an employee perceives that an organization’s internal controls—including its policies and procedures that define its approval and authorizations, as well as the monitoring of such controls—are strong, that employee is more likely to step up to blow the whistle on fraud if it is witnessed.

This finding leads to a very practical piece of advice: Nonprofits should make sure they have strong internal controls (that are perceived as such by employees) in order to better fight fraud. “This is relevant for practice. It’s advancing the research on whistleblowing, and it is also relevant for practice,” emphasizes Smalls.

The Nuts and Bolts of the Study

In the study, to analyze the strength of organizations’ internal controls and how that strength impacted whistleblowing, the researchers developed survey questions based on the control framework put forward by COSO (so named for the Committee of Sponsoring Organizations in accounting and finance which developed guidance on internal control).  

The final survey was completed by 272 full-time workers who assessed their organizations’ control environment, control activities and monitoring activities (as defined by COSO). Employees were also asked to assess how likely they would be to step up as whistleblowers and report financial fraud to an anonymous hotline or to a superior’s supervisor. They also filled in demographic information.

In the analysis, demographic variables—i.e., participants’ age, gender, education, work experience, and years at current employer—were not deemed significant for predicting the willingness to whistleblow in any significant way. In contrast, the perceived strength of internal controls at each organization was deemed to be very relevant.

More specifically, they found that for-profits and nonprofits with stronger internal controls were more likely to be staffed with potential whistleblowers willing to step up. This is especially relevant in the nonprofit realm because the same group of researchers (that is, Scheetz, Smalls, Wall, and Wilson) demonstrated in previous research that whistleblowing is less likely to occur in nonprofits. Given these findings, they show that the perception of internal controls helps explain why.

Practical Takeaways

In sum, the study data suggest that increasing the focus on control and monitoring activities should benefit organizations, particularly nonprofits, to encourage a culture of whistleblowing.

In practice, many organizations today use anonymous tip lines, so employees won’t fear retaliation if they report wrongdoing at work. Phone lines are one tool, and websites are increasingly popular.

As another takeaway, the researchers noted that nonprofit employees may not yet be as comfortable reporting through a website as their for-profit counterparts are. Knowing this, nonprofit management can take steps to improve internal controls and encourage whistleblowing.

Because even venerable non-profit organizations like the Red Cross can fall prey to deception and fraudulent schemes, these tools to prevent and detect fraud are crucial. 

What next? Smalls’ current research includes a study of leadership style, age, and intention to whistleblow. It’s still too soon to report on results, but the quest to learn more—and pass that knowledge on in scholarship and in practice—continues.

Goizueta faculty apply their expertise and knowledge to solving problems that society—and the world—face. Learn more about faculty research at Goizueta.