Elmer B. Staats, comptroller general of the United States, said yesterday a "whole range of actions" is needed to improve the way United Nations organizations handle their money and financial operations.

Staats made the comment after meeting with J. J. MacDonnell, Canada's auditor general, who is one of the three members of the U.N. board of auditors.

The previously planned meeting came two days after Washington Post stories reported that U.N. organizations have $1.4 billion in excess cash in bank accounts and run an annual surplus of as much as $350 million a year.

Staats, who heads the General Accounting Office, the auditing arm of Congress, said organizations in the U.Nm. system need to manage their cash and investments better, improve their methods for purchasing goods and services, and strengthen their auditing procedures and standards.

"They need . . . a whole range of actions," Staats said. "Most of them were in [The Post] articles."

The GAO, in published reports, has criticized the way the State Department manages U.S. participation in U.N. organizations. The United States contributed $600 million, or 4.60 from each tax payer, to U.N. organizations in 1977.

"The Secretary of State should clearly and strongly state that immediate steps must be taken to strengthen and improve financial management [of U.N. organixations], including evaluation and external audit," the GAO said in a 1977 report.

The report said U.N. organizations need centralized planning, programming, allocation of resources and financial management.

"The U.N. system urgently needs to be restructured, and this requires more positive and aggressive State Department action," the report said.

Despite these and other criticisms voiced by GAO in the past, the report said, " . . . the State Department and other executive branch agencies have not greatly changed the way they manage U.S. participation in international organizations."

The GAO is expected to level similar criticism at U.N. organizations and the State Department in another report currently being prepared.

Staats met with MacDonnell, the member of the U.N.'s board of auditors, to discuss the report.

Staats has had a personal interest in improving U.N. organization finances since becoming U.S. comptroller general in 1966. He previously handled U.N. system budgets when he was with the predecessor to the Office of Management and Budget.

"There's quite a lot of money there, for one thing," Staats said when asked the reason for his interest.

GAO officials are scheduled to testify next Wednesday in hearings on U.N. finances by the House Foreign Affairs' international organizations and international operations subcommittees.

"We will be testifying on what is neededto strengthen the financial management," Staats said.