Online technology can be an excellent enabler for nonprofit organizations; how it is leveraged varies depending on several factors. As CAAS professionals, we want to help the organizations we work with achieve efficiencies and adopt best practices in accounting, finance, and governance. Technology and its users play an integral role in this effort, and management accountants can help ensure that nonprofit organizations use these tools properly and follow established best practices. Having a better understanding of how nonprofits use available technologies will help that effort.
Cloud-based financial technology for 501(c)(3)s
The annual Blackbaud State of the Nonprofit Industry Survey asked nonprofits around the world about their technology and Internet usage. More than 2,000 nonprofit organizations from 10 countries responded. In all the countries surveyed, the study found that small nonprofits— revenues between $250,000 and $2.4 million—use online tools for advocacy, e-mail, and social networking at a higher rate than larger nonprofits. Measuring those efforts against their finances is a logical next step. Cloud-based financial technology makes it possible to integrate different data sets and quantify powerful scorecard metrics, which are essential tools for demonstrating accountability and transparency.
Scorecard metrics can be used to measure financial or non-financial criteria that reflect the efficacy of an organization’s programs and initiatives. Without cloud-based financial tech, it can be challenging and laborious to start to analyze scorecard metrics. When you focus on what and how to measure, you inform other aspects of your strategic planning, strengthen your stewardship and performance, and increase your mission impact. Some scorecard metrics that many organizations have found helpful include:
• Program efficiency = total program services expenses ÷ total expenses: This metric may be the most important for many charity evaluators, board members, and donors because it shows how funds are used for overhead or for making progress.
• Revenue per member = member revenue ÷ member count: Many membership-based organizations rely heavily on membership dues and program fees. How much revenue are you generating from your membership?
• Fundraising efficiency = unrestricted fundraising expenses ÷ total unrestricted contributions: How much do you spend to raise a dollar? This metric shows how efficiently your organization raises funds.
Cloud-based financial technology for government entities
Government accounting needs differ from those of private organizations. Government accounting requires specialized software for better compliance and financial transparency for the Government Accounting Standards Boards (GASB) and to help manage a municipality’s many budgets. Well-designed accounting software reduces municipalities’ stress related to adhering to government regulations, audits, and data reporting. Government agencies are also under the scrutiny of the public, specifically on how those agencies spend taxpayers’ funding.
While outsourcing the accounting functions for a government agency may seem feasible at first, it takes a dedicated, experienced vendor who works specifically in government accounting to check all of the boxes required for government agency accounting. Those specialists are expensive, and taxpayers don’t like to see their funds spent on expensive outside services. Cloud-based financial technology can solve the dilemma. After a decade of outsourcing all city accounting, one municipality successfully implemented an easy-to-use and well-supported cloud-based accounting system. They were able to reduce costs and reliance on outside accounting professionals and have improved data integration and reporting flexibility.
Processes to Upgrade to Cloud-Based Financial Technology
A common hurdle to using any technology is the anxiety of implementation. New technology means learning the intricacies of a new system, possibly new hardware challenges accessing legacy data, and perhaps, the fear of automation and efficiency coming at the expense of someone’s job. In reality, technology is for the betterment of the organization, its mission, and its people.
Let’s explore the three Es for the best implementation of financial technology: evaluation, education, and execution.
• Evaluating technology options should be a team effort that includes the finance department’s analysis of the present process and possible future applications and efficiencies and executive leadership’s desired outputs. It is essential that the day-today users of cloud technology be involved in the evaluation. Choosing software that best addresses the goals of the finance department and the entire organization should include considerations such as transferability of data into the cloud, ease of use, cost, support, and others’ reviews of the software.
One of the many benefits of evaluating cloud-based technology is having access to demonstration files. Ask your potential vendors for demo files to use for a period of time to explore the technology at your leisure.
• Once leadership has decided on financial technology, daily users of the software need to be educated, typically through structured training by the provider, on how to become power users and get the most value out of their decision. Education should involve the constant sharing of information about how cloud technology is used. That education can come externally from the service provider or other organizations and internally among the staff members using it.
Some helpful training tips:
- Never assume that what you hear is understood as intended. Explain to your instructor how you interpreted their direction.
- Request group training sessions.
- Ask your instructor to avoid abbreviations and “tech speak.”
• When executing the implementation of new, cloudbased technology, it is essential to plan, plan, plan—and do so in a timely manner. Follow that implementation plan and be ready for a few possible changes, of course, along the way, as no transition is perfect. Recommendations for executing a smooth implementation:
- Run the legacy system parallel with the new system, instead of setting a hard stop/start date. The period should be relatively short to prevent an unreasonable amount of redundancy.
- Designate a staff member to be the in-house “pro” to lead, train, and dedicate additional time to learning the new system.
- Make sure the legacy system is backed up or that the data is migrated to a separate cloud storage facility for access if needed in the future.
Once your cloud-based financial technology system is in place, you should revisit the three Es frequently. Evaluate if your system is still the best option, educate your organization periodically to stay up to date on upgrades, and execute any improvements and upgrades available for your system.
Real-time, cloud-based financial management enables nonprofits to take advantage of the same functionality, performance, security, and infrastructure that major corporations use. Modern fund cloud-based software can easily track and tag your expenses and revenue to specific funds and automatically calculate and report on these and many other scorecard metrics, giving you instant visibility and insights so you can proactively manage locations, programs, members, and funds.
Best of all, because cloud-based financial systems are typically open source and can pull information from other cloud-based sources of data, you can automatically integrate non-financial data with financial data without manual input. The right financial management system, such as Sage Intacct, along with the right team of financial professionals, like HBK’s CAAS office, can provide access to statistical data that enables you to automatically calculate scorecard metrics such as financial (revenue), statistical (membership), or a combination (donations per attendee). And it can offer the visibility, automation, access, and adaptability you need to grow your organization and succeed. From the benefits of fast and easy reporting to automated processes that yield greater efficiencies, you will be a better steward of your funds.