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Tracy Branson: Accounting ‘Is So Me’

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When Tracy Branson was a teenager, she found herself interested in accounting.

“I used to babysit so I did financial statements because I was saving up for a car,” Branson recalled.

Then it was at UCLA that she knew accounting was the profession for her.

“It was in my first class in accounting at UCLA that I realized, ‘This is so me.’”

Branson is currently the chief financial officer at Newport Beach’s Orange County Community Foundation where she oversees more than $500 million in assets and almost $200 million in annual revenue.

The nonprofit works with individuals, families, foundations, and businesses to fulfill their philanthropic and financial objectives while supporting the causes they care about most. It’s home to more than 600 charitable funds benefiting a wide range of causes.

Since its inception, OCCF has granted $830 million in grants and scholarships, including more than $200 million in the past two years alone.

Branson’s love of accounting was rewarded Sept. 28 when she won the Business Journal’s CFO of the Year Award for nonprofits, held at the Irvine Marriott.

$10K Gift

“One of the important additional skill sets that a not-for-profit CFO needs is real experience in psychology and counseling,” emcee Dan Lubeck told the audience of 450.

“A nonprofit CFO not only has to do all the things that a normal CFO has to do but also navigate those other nuances and difficulties to bring success to the organization. It’s very challenging,” added Lubeck, who is founder and managing director of Newport Beach’s Solis Capital Partners LLC.

Branson has an “all-star financial mind” who is energetic and humble, according to Mike Kelly, co-founder and CFO of recruiter Conexus.

Kelly was so impressed with OCCF’s work that he and other partners at their company presented Branson with a surprise $10,000 donation during the award presentation.

“They are dedicated to proper fiscal management and have a commitment to accountability and transparency,” Kelly said of OCCF.

E&Y; Training

Branson was born in Atlanta to a father who worked for a company where every time he was promoted, the family moved. Thus, she also lived in Alabama, Florida and Ohio before landing in Yorba Linda when she was 12.

After graduating from UCLA with a degree in economics, she joined Ernst & Young where she worked as an auditor for nine years.

She enjoys accounting because “everything has to work.”

“It has to balance. It seems logical. It produces data that is useful for everyone around you.”

While pregnant with her third child, she was working reduced hours when the firm asked her to come back full time.

“I didn’t feel I had the capacity,” recalled Branson, who has been married for 40 years to Doug Branson.

“Motherhood got in the way. My kids told me I made the right decision for our family.”

Her two sons both work as CFOs and her daughter is a physical therapist. 

30 Years at OCCF 

Branson decided she wanted to work only part time, which is how she began at OCCF in 1991, working with founder Judy Swayne. She eventually began working full time in 2004 at OCCF.

It has ranked in the top 2% in grantmaking among 780 U.S. community foundations and is the recipient of a 4-star rating Charity Navigator for sound fiscal management and commitment to accountability and transparency.

As of June 30, it had assets of $513.9 million, up 22% over the prior year. It reported $198.3 million for the trailing 12 months ended June 30, up 64% largely because of $92 million in investment earnings.  

Besides being a Certified Public Accountant, Branson is a member of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants and the California Society of Certified Public Accountants.

The secret to her CFO success was her background of auditing public companies.

“I came in with a skill level higher than normal for a nonprofit,” Branson said. “Having that higher skill level from training at E&Y; has made me effective here.”

The Differences

Being a CFO at a nonprofit is different than working for a private company.

“The CFO of a manufacturing plant has to worry about sales and inventory,” she said.

“We’re worried more about how we appeal to donors to raise money, most effectively invest the money and choose where to donate.”

About 40% of contributions come in the form of stocks, including Apple and Tesla. Other donations received by the foundation include homes, business interests and other assets.

One of her key goals going forward is to upgrade the nonprofit’s technology, which is tougher than it sounds because of the need for hundreds of separate accounts for each of the charities that OCCF works with.

“We’re really trying to make a strong impact in philanthropy throughout Orange County and the world,” Branson said when accepting the award.

“I’m so proud of our organization.” 

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