3 Key Areas to Enhance Nonprofit Finance Automation for Quick Wins
Automation isn’t a new concept but improving nonprofit internal processes with finance automation has never been more important. During the past year, organizations accelerated their use of digital technology. Now, there’s a great opportunity to revisit how things are being done in the core process areas, making sure those processes still make sense and exploring whether new technology could bring further efficiency and accuracy through automation.
Recently, two experts on nonprofit finance automation spoke at the Sage Intacct Nonprofit Finance Leaders Forum. In their session, Jacqueline Tiso and Cheryl Olson shared advice about the best ways to get started with finance automation, plus specific tips for automating with Sage Intacct nonprofit accounting software.
Jacqueline Tiso is the founder and CEO of JMT Consulting, focused exclusively on helping nonprofits with all financial aspects of their business from accounting services and technology to high-level management and board consulting. She serves on several nonprofit boards and has 25 years of experience in the nonprofit industry. Jacqueline is a frequent speaker on financial management and Cloud (SaaS) technology and has received national recognition with the Technology Pacesetter award in Accounting Today, a VAR 100 member, as well as being featured on the cover of Accounting Technology.
Cheryl R. Olson, CPA is the Director, Solutions Strategist for Clark Nuber, a Top 100 public accounting firm in the northwest U.S. Cheryl works with nonprofits in the areas of operational capacity, financial operations, technology, and governance advisory. She has an innovative approach to finding solutions for nonprofits that is centered around relationships, culture, and change management. For more than twenty years, Cheryl has dedicated her career to the nonprofit sector in a variety of roles, serving as volunteer, consultant, assistant executive director, CFO, auditor and tax accountant. Additionally, she is a member of the AICPA Not-for-Profit Advisory Council and Oregon Society of CPAs Not-for-Profit Committee.
With a modern cloud accounting system, nonprofits can automate many key areas to reduce stress and enhance efficiency. During their session, Jacqueline and Cheryl recommended nonprofits focus on addressing three areas of automation first because they deliver rapid benefits to the organization:
- Accounts Payable Automation
- Purchasing & Approval Automation
- Expense Management & Credit Card Management Automation
Accounts payable automation
Accounts payable automation is the most requested need for nonprofits. The pandemic increased this need exponentially. Before the pandemic, nonprofit staff could tolerate walking manual checks and approval sheets around the office for signatures. But having to drive them to multiple locations during the pandemic forced the issue of AP automation.
Before automating, consider people and processes
Before implementing automation technology, consider your people and processes. It’s critical that all staff follow common data entry protocols. This helps avoid duplicate data or inaccurate data finding its way into your accounting systems.
One process many nonprofits struggle with is setting up new vendors in their accounting system. For example, when you set up new vendors in the system, what are your policies for business names? If names start with ‘the’ will you enter that word or leave it off? How will you abbreviate address items like ‘road,’ ‘drive,’ or ‘highway’?
QUICK TIP: Let Sage Intacct accounts payable software automatically assign vendor numbers, rather than setting up your own vendor ID coding. Sage Intacct’s powerful search features will allow you to simply type the vendor name and quickly find what you need; there’s no need to memorize vendor ID numbers.
Another tricky process involves how invoices are entered. If there isn’t an invoice number listed on the invoice, how will that payment be entered consistently in Accounts Payable?
QUICK TIP: JMT Consulting creates a custom field in the vendor set up screen to indicate whether the vendor’s W-9 is on file. They also set a Smart Event that refuses to create a payment for a client that doesn’t have a W-9 on file.
Automation can support internal controls
Nonprofit organizations need to document internal control practices and develop supporting policies. Good internal controls dictate that one person should not have access to everything. You need to have good segregation of duties in financial operations. Some policies and procedures to think about include the areas of capitalization policy, allocation methodology, signing authority and approvals.
Approvals are a great example of an area where automation greatly reinforces internal controls as well as improving efficiency. Use your nonprofit accounting system to automate invoice approvals and payment approvals. This gives you control over the point where an invoice goes into your system as well as the point where payment gets made.
QUICK TIP: Sometimes you’re making a one-time purchase or buying something small, and you don’t need to run through the whole purchasing process. Instead, you’d like that purchase to flow through your AP with your accounting system managing the approval process. In Sage Intacct, you can turn on AP bill approval, then set up the approval rules that reflect your policy.
QUICK TIP: Sage Intacct account payable software also offers automated approvals on the payment side. By turning on the AP payment approval function, you can set multiple levels of approvals based on the amount of the payment. Different numbers of approvers can be designated for differing amounts of payment, allowing you to replicate the internal controls process you’ve established for your organization. Sage Intacct automates the approval routing and collects electronic signatures.
Almost every nonprofit organization uses allocations to spread receipts or expenditures across different programs or grants. Some allocations are very complicated. Others are transaction-level allocations that can often be handled at the point of initial data entry. If there is a one-line allocation entry that is complicated or often requires correcting journal entries, you might prefer to automate the allocation process for the transaction.
QUICK TIP: In Sage Intacct, creating a single line allocation can give your team a shortcut when they enter an allocation. Available in AP, Purchasing and JE, this feature auto-fills the Sage Intacct Dimensions that should tag that allocation on future entries. This is especially useful when you have unique types of entries that always leave your staff scrambling to recall how the allocation was entered last time. The shortcut saves time and also ensures consistency and integrity of future entries. In addition, Sage Intacct also offers a Dynamic Allocations module for more advanced allocations functionality.
As you can see, AP automation can save a lot of time for nonprofit accounting professionals while also strengthening and reinforcing good internal controls. In the rest of the session, Jacqueline and Cheryl explained how automation in the areas of purchasing, employee expense management and credit card management can also produce quick wins and lasting results for nonprofit finance teams. Gain more tips and tricks when you watch the full presentation — and five other sessions by nonprofit finance and technology experts at the virtual Nonprofit Finance Leaders Forum.
Nancy Master is a senior nonprofit industry marketing manager at Sage Intacct and is passionate about helping nonprofits achieve mission success. Nancy has more than 15 years of experience in software marketing and close to 20 years of experience working with a human services nonprofit organization.
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