Whether they’re volunteers who don’t understand accounting at all, or knowledgeable people who are more used to the ways of the for-profit world, staff at nonprofit organizations often don’t understand the special accounting and finance restrictions and requirements that go with their status.
Fortunately, accountants, consultants and software developers are deeply versed in the needs of nonprofits, offering tools, advice, implementation help, and ongoing training and support to help them fulfill their missions. Here, we talk with four different accounting firms and consultants of varying sizes about the tools they use to serve their NFP clients.
Firm: Schneider Downs
Users: 15 clients, five Schneider Downs consultants
Product: Abila MIP Fund Accounting
On record: Business development manager Patrick Armknecht
Process: Top 100 Firm Schneider Downs primarily conducts on-premise implementations of Abila MIP Fund Accounting, though Armknecht said that the firm is moving toward remote implementations. Keeping them on the scene, however, are clients that deploy the software with on-premise servers or in a hosted environment — an overwhelming 95 percent or so of the firm’s 15 Abila clients. Those few that try remote implementation tend to have a “deer in the headlights look and are lost.”
Equally disoriented are clients migrating from traditional for-profit accounting software. Those clients, acclimated to building a long linear chart of accounts with unique coding, must transition to a segment-driven chart of accounts, tracking elements like the grants, programs and departments for each fund. “It’s a small hurdle, but the biggest challenge is in thinking of fund accounting in a different way — how to best structure this for [the clients’] needs moving forward.”
For these clients lacking a large operating budget, MIP Fund Accounting offers “the biggest reward in the ability to slice and dice data in a whole different way.”
Before implementation, Schneider Downs’ technology consultants meet with the organization’s stakeholders to learn what the nonprofit wants to accomplish. “We see where they are struggling and spending the majority of their time,” Armknecht explained. “Often it’s in the reporting, and the unique reports they have for different funding sources.”
Results: Abila’s biggest advantage, according to Armknecht, is its reporting capabilities. While for-profit software limits the run of reports to calendar years, funds are often received in multi-year grants during various months of the year. Abila provides for this, while offering the ability to drill down into data and customize reports, surfacing the numbers most important to stakeholders.
“The benefit is [Abila] was designed as nonprofit software for nonprofits, focused on nonprofits,” Armknecht said. “The management team and development team is not trying to sell this into multiple industries but to accommodate nonprofits, and it was built from the top down for nonprofits. Abila has done a good job of coming out with and adding new functionality specific to nonprofits. As regulations change, there are new things they have to deal with.”
One piece of functionality is available via Abila’s fundraising product and, while Schneider Down doesn’t implement that as frequently, the solution integrates with Fund Accounting and other non-Abila systems.
“When people come from the Peachtrees and the QuickBooks of the world, it’s new to them,” Armknecht said. “Particularly when we’re dealing with an organization that comes from smaller solutions; if they did make a mistake, they could delete a check that’s been cut. When you go in and delete this check, it’s also the audit trail associated with that. Working as a CPA firm, we love the audit trail. For smaller clients coming off solutions that are more user-friendly, it’s an extra step, because they’re building that layer of the audit trail.”
Next steps: Armknecht eagerly anticipates Abila’s continued improvements to the MIP Fund Accounting design, Web optimization, and direct Web integration.
Step by step
Firm: Binnacle Technology
Users: 70-80 clients, two Binnacle Technology consultants
On record: President Ian Merkle-Scotland
Process: As a reseller and consultant for AccuFund, Binnacle Technology takes advantage of the software provider’s suite of solutions for both its nonprofit and government agency clients (split roughly 50/50). Merkle-Scotland describes his consultancy’s process in steps:
- Planning, the most important step, when clients outline their needs.
- Creating the database to reflect and accomplish those needs.
- Installation, often done remotely with the nonprofit’s IT staff guiding.
- Training, usually on-site as the organization goes live.
- Go-live, when Binnacle will be on-site helping create reports and providing advanced training.
One recurring step is customization, which AccuFund provides in myriad modules that can be added as necessary. “It’s one of the more fun parts, coming back to a client [sometimes] years later,” Merkle-Scotland shared. “We just did a big client that wanted to add requisition management. It was too much to take on in the beginning, so we came back years later to implement it. Clients know the product, like it, and are happy — and are willing to branch out.”
They are increasingly branching out to the cloud, using one of AccuFund’s two cloud-based systems. “There’s a big trend toward the cloud,” he said. “We sold AccuFund’s first cloud [solution] back in 2007 and every year sell a couple more.”
Adoption is dependent on the type of client, however, with social service agencies utilizing AccuFund’s representative payee solution, for example, more reluctant to store sensitive client data in the cloud. Government agencies devoid of client data are more willing.
Results: One senior auditor client at a larger regional firm “loves AccuFund because of the good audit trail and it’s easy to find stuff,” said Merkle-Scotland, adding that the “cool bells and whistles” also appeal to the less accounting-minded. Those features include built-in document management and report writers, as well as a “good” grant module.
The HR module is also agile enough to handle timely concerns. “With the Affordable Care Act, everyone is freaking out for the reporting for it,” he said. “The other day, we were able to create a report for the ACA in 15 minutes We can create a report that looks at employees’ history and would populate on the report for folks. For a large employer, we have to offer [employees] health care, so I can create a report and I can schedule — it has a cool scheduler — the report to run on a monthly basis” into the payroll module.
Next steps: Merkle-Scotland is enthusiastic about “a lot of exciting things coming up” in AccuFund, including a dashboard with more interactive charts, the integration of more cloud-based technology, and enhanced document management functions.
Quick on the uptake
Company: MJP Accounting
Users: Three clients, one sole practitioner
On record: Owner Melissa J. Powell
Process: As Aplos is “really user-friendly,” Powell’s role in advising clients on the online nonprofit accounting software varies depending on their comfort level. When she “teaches a client to use it, they grasp it really quickly,” she explained, leading two of her three clients to assume control of the solution with her providing oversight on the more complex accounting, while the third client needs Powell to manage everything.
“I can set my clients up on Aplos and they can use it themselves,” she said. “I can log in, look over it, and enter transactions. Some do it themselves, and some don’t want to touch it. It’s really customizable to the person.”
Results: One nonprofit client who works with ministries and schools in seven to eight locations overseas benefits from Aplos’ clear delineation of separate funds. “The donor says, Hey, I want this to go to the Congo.’ And [the client] has a specific fund in Aplos for
the Congo that shows all the money that’s gone in and come out for the Congo. With other software programs, it’s hard to tell,” Powell said.
Next steps: While Powell doesn’t currently have any clients on the donor management add-on, some are taking advantage of the capability to set up donor pages, which Aplos provides via a “Click to donate” button linked to the nonprofit’s specified bank account and then updated in the software.
An edge in training
Firm: Carr, Riggs & Ingram
Users: 10 clients
Product: Cougar Mountain Denali Fund
On record: Partner Marie Harrison
Process: Top 100 CPA Firm Carr, Riggs & Ingram, which offers consulting and software support to nonprofit clients on a variety of fund accounting software solutions, has found that Cougar Mountain’s Denali “meets a lot of the needs of our clients,” said Harrison. With about 10 of the firm’s approximately 140 nonprofit clients on the Denali solution, the typical implementation process begins with Harrison or one of the firm’s consultants going on-site to evaluate the client’s needs.
Where Cougar Mountain differentiates itself is a “great support team,” said Harrison.
Cougar Mountain’s individualized and expedient technical assistance is not only helpful but necessary for Carr, Riggs & Ingram’s audit clients, whose IT systems the firm is restricted from managing.
Results: Training is also essential in bridging the gap in knowledge some nonprofit clients don’t even realize they have. “A lot of employers think they can just buy the computer and install the software,” Harrison said, explaining that while Denali is user-friendly, its capabilities are getting more sophisticated. That reflects the complexities in nonprofit accounting, she continued, like the need for separate general ledgers for each fund, and the financial statements on specific grants with separate balances and closing dates.
Once aware of the additional training and expertise required, Harrison reports satisfied Denali clients.
Next steps: Carr, Riggs & Ingram offers myriad products to its nonprofit clientele (and requires its consultants to recommend three products), but will continue to provide Denali when it proves a good match. “It meets the needs of the clients, who are continually bombarded with sales pitches from other companies. They are seeing that what [Cougar Mountain] has performs just as well,” Harrison said.
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