Guides & Resources

String Theory and Pursuing My CFRE

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I recently had a string theory experience: Time and space collapsed; within about two hours, I travelled through a lifetime of confusion to a breath-gulping, “Eureka!” moment of clarity. All thanks to pursuit of my CFRE accreditation. 

In simple terms, string theory claims that multiple dimensions exist simultaneously and that they are related by filaments or strings of energy. Once we master the quantum physics necessary to understand these “strings,” we may be able to do amazing things, such as visit other dimensions. Until then, the best we can do is guess that these strings exist and continue to strive to understand. Such has been my lifetime relationship with math and accounting—I know accounting is useful, but to me, it’s another dimension of brainpower.

When I was in high school, I had terrible math experiences. First, I had a teacher who assigned me to the far corner of the room and never once called on my raised hand. I passed notes to friends who would ask my questions. Far worse was the pot-smoking Algebra teacher who kept us on page 62 for a month. I learned nothing that year. My subsequent college major in applied arts had zero math requirements. I believed I had escaped the torture.  

My philanthropic career began as a program director for a multi-million-dollar capital improvement project in the performing arts, segued into executive director of an educational nonprofit, and presently I am manager of a foundation with a global reach. I volunteer for multiple other nonprofits. It has been a fantastic ride, and I want no other career.

I can build a rudimentary budget and stay within its confines. I have built strong measurables against which to evaluate our initiatives and inform our donors about the impact of their investment. But I was unable to understand or educate anyone about any moment in time regarding our financial reality. I despised my weakness in money management. If I was raising the money, I should know more about how to take care of it.

When you work with as many talented treasurers and financial directors as I have, you can get away with this kind of ignorance. I also prayed a lot for ethical people and was lucky. I did take a few webinars on basic accounting for nonprofit leaders so that I knew essential rules about the industry, but no matter what I did, accounting remained murky.

About a year ago, I decided to seriously pursue my CFRE accreditation. I had been on the lookout for any opportunity to gain points to take the CFRE exam. The position for treasurer at a nonprofit where I volunteer was unfulfilled, and we were approaching the end of the year. One side of my brain said, “Do it! Think of the points you will gain toward your CFRE accreditation!” The other side of my brain screamed, “Are you insane? You don’t know what you are doing! Put your hand down, now!”

The desire to accrue more points for the CFRE exam screamed louder. I volunteered to serve on the board as treasurer.

Thus far, pursuing my CFRE had been a painless process tallying up my achievements during the last several years. As I sat with the outgoing treasurer, a seasoned accountant, she patiently explained to me the difference between a Statement of Activity (otherwise known as an income statement), a Statement of Financial Position (otherwise known as a balance sheet), and our approved budget. My head began to spin as if I was back in math class.

How many of you really understand why the treasurer’s report must be told several different ways, by multiple spreadsheets? After all, it’s all one company; why can’t they just put it all in the same report? I have heard board members talk behind treasurers’ backs accusing them of being “too proud of their numbers.” I will never again let a statement like that go respectfully unchecked.

Each report tells a separate and important story. The Statement of Activity is zeroed out so that you can understand the monthly expenses as a snapshot in time. It allows you to pay your monthly taxes. The Statement of Financial Position allows you to track over the year whether or not you are staying within your budget in various departments.

Some of this I understood—like I understand French. I know how to order a glass of wine, say thank you, or ask if the person speaks English. I can “survive.” But really, in a French-speaking country, I’m a danger to myself for being so vulnerably uninformed.

As a treasurer, I still have a lot to understand. Yet, this is what makes the process of pursuing a CFRE accreditation so elevating and valuable. In this one small volunteer position, I’m covering ethics, laws, transparency, leadership and management. I’m also finally learning accounting.

A quote on my office wall reads, “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” For me, I hope this will mean, life as a CFRE.

Courtney Johnson is the manager, foundation & giving at the Congress of Neurological Surgeons Foundation in Schaumburg, Ill. You can email Courtney at and discuss the trials, tribulations and excitement of math, accounting and the CFRE process!

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