Poor Cousins No More
While advances in new technology seem to move at blinding speed, advances in the field of existing software applications generally are more sedate. In the past, this has been particularly true in the area of accounting software in the nonprofit sector.
More recently, however, the gap between the sophistication of generic accounting applications and those that are vertically oriented, as nonprofit accounting is, has narrowed substantially.
Today’s nonprofit accounting is no longer the poor relative. Vendors have become more sensitized to what their customers want and need, and more responsive in providing it. Part of this is pressure from new cloud-based entrants in the area. The recent growth of vendors like Xero, Freshbooks, Kashoo and others is providing more competition to traditional nonprofit accounting vendors, especially with those nonprofits that can use a more generic accounting application.
The move of accounting systems to the cloud, both in general-purpose accounting and in the vertical sector, is also pushing nonprofit software vendors to rethink their revenue strategies. Traditionally, in-house accounting software has been licensed with a large upfront expenditure, and future revenue from the customer has been realized in yearly maintenance fees. The need for a substantial initial capital outlay, as well as the ongoing expense of requiring in-house expertise to administer and keep the system updated, has acted as a barrier to a lot of smaller nonprofits. And in some cases, this has necessitated adoption of a less costly accounting application that doesn’t provide a good fit with your clients’ needs.
With many nonprofits operating on a small budget and with a limited number of employees, cloud-based accounting is becoming increasingly attractive from both an expense perspective and an operating perspective. Both vendors and clients appreciate knowing that the expense/revenue stream is fixed and predictable.
Another major benefit, easily recognized on both sides of the equation, is that the client’s need for a costly and rigid IT infrastructure is greatly reduced.
Increasingly, mobile access and the cloud are both areas that nonprofit vendors are actively pursuing. But they aren’t the only places where vendors are putting in an effort. To get you started in helping your clients find the right software partner for themselves, we surveyed six prominent vendors, and while we were at it, we also spoke to a couple of customers to get a take on their experiences.
Abila has two major products in the nonprofit accounting space — Abila MIP Fund Accounting, and Abila Advance. MIP Fund Accounting will be a familiar name to many. While its ownership has shifted between companies over the years, it is a mature, tried-and-true accounting system.
According to Erika McNichol, Abila’s director of marketing, their most significant update was the launch of MIP Advance this summer: “MIP Advance offers the complete MIP Fund Accounting experience in the cloud, with the addition of a Web-based user interface, powerful dashboards, and a REST-based API.”
Other areas where Abila has made improvements include the introduction of alerting functionality to help organizations deter and detect fraud and maintain internal controls, available throughout the product (general ledger, accounts payable, budgeting, payroll, HR, etc.); advanced reporting that provides customers with the tools to provide granular reports and data visualizations to demonstrate stewardship to grantors, funders and board members; and expanded integration opportunities with the introduction of the new open API that allows partners in Abila’s Partner Ecosystem to quickly and easily design tools and products that fully integrate with MIP.
Abila says that it has no intention of resting on its laurels. When asked what new features they are working on, McNichol told us that their customers are excited about the company’s cloud-based offering. “We’ll continue to focus our release efforts on responding to our installed base and market needs with enhancements to both on-premises MIP Fund Accounting and the expansion of MIP Advance.”
“We consistently see customers asking for more turn-key integrations, expanded dashboarding, improved usability and the ability to work when and where their schedule dictates,” she continued. “We’ll continue to release time-saving features that help rising and seasoned finance professionals increase their strategic contributions to the organization.”
Over the past 18 months or so, AccuFund’s efforts have been targeted to improving the usefulness of its AccuFund for Nonprofits software. These include upgrading the GL account reconciliation module, adding the ability to automatically generate AR invoices based on GL expenses, and making major upgrades to the software’s browser-based employee portal, such as being able to generate financial reports and view dashboards.
AccuFund’s SaaS product also received a dashboard, we were told by president Peter Stam. He also told us that users can expect additional functionality in the Employee Portal and SaaS products, as well as a new Position Control module.
When asked about any trends he is seeing with his customers, Stam told us that the company is seeing “more remote access and employees working from home. This means browser access is becoming more important than before. But we’re still seeing a lot of clients who still strongly prefer an on-site solution.”
Blackbaud has had a busy year and a half. “In the last 18 months, Blackbaud has launched its new cloud accounting solution, Financial Edge NXT,” Michael Blanton, senior product marketing manager of financial solutions, told us. “With Financial Edge NXT, nonprofits will gain access to a comprehensive fund accounting system in the cloud. We have designed Financial Edge NXT specifically to be more intuitive for our users, to be more efficient in its processes — such as faster reporting — and to dramatically increase accessibility via a range of mobile devices, making it easier to share information with management and key stakeholders.” Financial Edge NXT also features tight integration with another major Blackbaud product, the Raiser’s Edge NXT CRM application.
As to the immediate future, the software vendor intends to place significant focus on customer productivity and efficiency, and providing better managerial insight into their data.
“In terms of specific functionality, we are currently developing new reports in Financial Edge NXT, as well as completing adjustments to help our clients provide mandatory information for the Affordable Care Act as part of their annual filings,” Blanton said.
Interactivity is another area Blackbaud sees its customers as being interested in, Blanton mentioned: “Our customers are looking for ways to make their organizations more scalable. As they are continually being asked to do more with less, they are looking heavily towards technology to enable their teams to be more efficient, and also eliminate costly errors. So, having ‘smart’ technology that can help identify issues, provide alerts, and automate tasks is extremely helpful,” he explained, adding, “CFOs and executives are also looking for their technology to be better at providing them ready-to-consume insights. So, instead of the traditional means of pulling reports based on a system’s ability, and then adapting in Excel or another tool, [they want] to be able to see that same type of information real-time in the product, to help guide management decisions.”
Fund E-Z has also had a busy year. They released Version 11, which added support for SQL2012, Visual Basic10, and .net4. The latest version upgraded numerous features and the vendor also added quite a few new features in the new release. Some of these include new dashboards for the Pro version of the software, the ability to copy custom forms from one company to another, as well as a new form designer feature for editing purchase orders, cash basis invoices, statements and adjustments, as well as cash basis transaction vouchers. Also new is a “Change skin” feature that enables users to change the overall look and feel of the system, and the ability to close the books by module — GL, AP and AR may now be closed individually, or all of them closed simultaneously.
The software vendor doesn’t intend to stop there. In the coming year or two, Fund E-Z will add a Foster Care Module, which is due to ship this year, ACH payments to vendors, and a Web portal with credit card processing for AR/donors. Additionally, sales manager George Marcolini informed us that the company is developing “various custom projects that clients are requesting, many of which are in various stages of development. These range from custom reports to enhanced foreign currency issues.”
Many of Fund E-Z’s enhancements and features are kickstarted from customer requests. For example, Marcolini said, “Every single sale we’ve made has also included consulting services to ensure a proper setup for tracking programs, projects, departments, funding sources, FASB 117 restrictions, locations, etc. We noticed a few years ago that many clients, when doing self-setups, would apply incorrect conclusions and then require a re-setup. Fund E-Z offers the re-setup service, which includes custom programming to remap historical transaction account charges to solve problems that would otherwise require starting over.”
GRANTS MANAGEMENT SYSTEMS INC.
GMS has taken a slightly different direction in its recent development efforts. Its most significant updates in the past 18 months, according to president and CEO Donald Cassady, have been in the area of actively pursuing partnership with other software vendors such as cloud-based time and attendance and document management software. Cassady also told us that the company is in the midst of a major development effort: “By mid-2016 we will be releasing our new software rewrite incorporating the latest technology and features.”
One of the features GMS customers are asking for is seamless communications with other software. This is an important feature because, as Cassady pointed out, “By design and requirement of funding sources, being accountable has always been, and still is, a main driver of how the typical nonprofit designs their daily fiscal activities. Communication with other products such as cloud-based time and attendance and/or payroll preparation vendors continues to grow.”
Cassady also added, “I find that prospects are paying more attention to their due diligence than in the past before purchasing accounting software. I also feel our current client base is taking more advantage of our training services.”
“Our last release of Serenic Navigator was in April 2014,” Rhonda Shuptrine, director of customer care and product development, told us. “And key enhancements included interoperability with Office 365, richer Windows and Web clients, and improved usability within Payables to more easily handle decentralized processing of requisitions, purchase orders and invoices. Our next release will be Serenic Navigator 2016 (v. 9.00), targeted for the first half of the year. Coming up in the near future, we will be focused on features supporting decentralization, display of metrics and key indicators, and easier report generation.” Better reporting is probably the feature most asked for by customers.
“We are definitely seeing an increase in movement to a hosting environment. We are also seeing an increase in the user footprint within each organization.” Shuptrine added.
Donna Smiley, Serenic’s managing director, also had a bit of cautionary advice: “Our experience shows, over and over again, that the most successful implementations occur in organizations where there is a clear owner/advocate within the organization who understands the key benefits and reasons for the purchase of the new ERP solution and drives a positive change management process. Organizations which downplay this role and/or try to fill it through shared responsibility across multiple resources seem to fall short in realizing the full potential of their investment. This is true throughout the life of the ERP solution within the organization, as this person would also ensure continued increase in value via upgrading, training and service engagements to implement new features.”
EVERY CLIENT IS DIFFERENT
There are some very obvious commonalities in the answers we received in surveying the vendors. Most of what’s new revolves around making your client more productive and better informed, both of which can only have a positive influence on the client’s relationship with the software vendor and yourself. Abila’s McNichol pointed out: “There are a lot of factors that should go into selecting a new fund accounting solution; ultimately, it should satisfy your client’s basic fund accounting functions and set their organization up for growth.”
And, as AccuFund’s Stam pointed out, “As always, clients need to clearly define what their requirements are and make sure the vendors can clearly show how they are going to accommodate your clients’ requirements.”
In general, vendors, accountants and resellers seem to be doing a good job with this. Michelle Craig, CFO of Virginia’s Richmond Jewish Federation, told us she uses just about every module that AccuFund offers except payroll. She also really appreciates the tight integration between AccuFund and Salesforce CRM. Remote access is another feature that gets a lot of use in her office — she works in the nonprofit’s offices, but has an administrator who frequently works from home.
Abila user Raenelle Weatherly, finance officer for Meals on Wheels of Texoma in Sherman, Texas, also makes use of almost everything her software has to offer. She especially appreciates the fact that Abila lets her essentially do full-charge accounting for an organization with 45 employees and a budget of between $2.3 and $2.5 million a year. “I use it for AP and AR, and I run bi-weekly payroll on it,” she told us. She also makes use of Abila’s budgeting capabilities and appreciates the conferences that Abila holds.
Of course, not every user is as happy with their system as these two. But it does go to show that if you know what your clients need, and what the software vendors can provide, you’ll have a win-win situation.
NONPROFIT ACCOUNTING SYSTEMS
- Abila Nonprofit Online and Abila MIP Fund Accounting / Abila Inc.
- AccuFund for Nonprofits / AccuFund Inc.
- Denali Fund Accounting / Cougar Mountain Software
- CYMA Not-For-Profit Accounting / CYMA Systems
- FastFund Online Nonprofit Software / Araize
- The Financial Edge / Blackbaud Inc.
- Fund E-Z Nonprofit Accounting / Fund E-Z Development Corp.
- GMS Grant Management System / GMS Inc.
- Intacct Nonprofit Accounting / Intacct Corp.
- Microsoft Dynamics / Microsoft
- Netsuite Nonprofit Financial Management / NetSuite Inc.
- QuickBook Premier Nonprofit Edition and QuickBooks Online Nonprofit / Intuit Inc.
- Red Wing CenterPoint Fund Accounting for Nonprofits and Red Wing Centerpoint Fund Accounting for Municipals / Red Wing Software Inc.
- Serenic Navigator / Serenic Corp.
- Traverse Not-For-Profit / Open Systems Inc.