3 Nonprofit Finance Leaders Share Their Thoughts on Driving Innovation
Nonprofit finance leaders have an important role to play in driving innovation within their organizations. By improving internal efficiencies, finance teams can help organizations deliver better return on mission. Nonprofit innovation applied to external programs and processes can amplify impact and accelerate outcomes.
I recently moderated the Panel Discussion: Finance as Innovation Drivers ― one of seven sessions being delivered at the Nonprofit Finance Leaders Forum presented by Sage Intacct. There was a lot to learn as three innovative nonprofit finance leaders discussed how they and their finance teams drive innovation within their organizations.
Braam du Plooy is the Controller of the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau (ACVB)—a private, nonprofit destination marketing organization seeking to bolster Atlanta’s $16 billion hospitality industry. Originally from South Africa, Braam has served the ACVB since 2005. Over the past several years, the organization has undergone digital transformation by moving to cloud solutions.
Celine Okoh is the CFO of The White Ribbon Alliance, a global people-led movement for reproductive, maternal and newborn health and rights. Celine oversees accounting, finance, human resources, legal, and property management. She has more than 20 years’ experience in both the nonprofit and corporate sectors.
Pavan Makhija is a Senior Financial Consultant with 15 years’ experience in finance and accounting across for-profit and nonprofit organizations. Currently, he is helping his client Womankind (a nonprofit serving clients from domestic violence in the Asian American community) transition from an external to an in-house finance team. Prior to that, he was the CFO for Possible, a nonprofit dedicated to improving healthcare in Nepal.
What follows next is an excerpt from the panel discussion and the insights these experts shared about their experiences driving innovation within their nonprofit organizations:
How is innovation defined within your organization?
Celine: “It’s defined for us based on what the bottlenecks are and what we want to achieve. For example, when we were looking at adding the purchasing module—there had been so much headache in terms of tracking spending for consultants. We had to extrapolate pretty quickly what we had within the Sage Intacct system that could help resolve this bottleneck.”
Pavan: “Innovation loosely defined is something that positively affects impact. That could be defined as something that improves quality or something that improves quantity, but it generally drives impact.”
How do you balance meeting your mission with using resources for organizational innovation?
Pavan: “It’s usually very difficult to get the organization to buy into investing on an innovation, especially if it’s not directly related to the mission. The big key is to tie your innovation to the long-term impact of the organization…thinking about how will we scale and maintain sustainability. By thinking more long-term, we are able to get people more excited about investing in short-term innovation.”
Celine: “For us, what usually comes to mind in balancing the mission and resources is looking at where the resource is going to come from and looking at the end result—what can we get out of it. That’s really the drive for us in our organization. How best will this investment carry us? Is the benefit outweighing the cost? If it is, then what will we get over the life of it and how quickly can we begin to realize the benefit?”
Braam: “To clarify our mission: We promote Atlanta domestically and also internationally with the hope that we impact the Atlanta economy favorably. We’re also a membership organization and we always reach out to members and partners. Not all partners are members, but we reach out to partners to see if they have specific expertise. Maybe in a marketing campaign, we would reach out to a radio station to help develop a radio ad. There’s a vast amount of resources that we use that way by utilizing our partners.”
How has innovation helped your organization during the COVID-19 crisis?
Braam: “About four years ago we started this project where meeting planners can actually visit a meeting space through virtual reality. So now, today, we have extended that to not just meeting planners but to all people, all walks of life. If you come to our website, there are virtual reality tours on museums, parks, places in the city, and that is something that at the time when we started, no one knew really where virtual reality was going to go in the future.”
Celine: “Because we are in the public health field, obviously a lot of concerns have come up in the different countries we work in… We’ve been getting on Zoom, being able to get everyone’s face in a conference call to discuss COVID-19, what steps we need to be taking, what information is out there, how can we provide support to one another…There's a huge concern for women that are now in a difficult situation…who don't know where to go if you're pregnant or if you're abused and they say stay home, but the home is really the place where you don't want to be. Where would your voice be heard? We've been organizing and talking about how we can collectively be sharing information, whether it's on our websites or through regular check-ins and calls so we stay connected.”
“Because we're in a grant environment…everything is unfolding in terms of programmatic activities. We've had communication with our donors about what other activities we can kick off in relation to COVID-19 so that not everything stops completely. Kind of refocusing programmatic deliverables in relation to what we're going through to reach those that are in critical stage and need the resources and support. Just being innovative really quickly and being open and replanning. We're trying to adapt.”
What technology applications and tools have helped the most in driving innovation?
Pavan: “I think for us, it's gathering data. I mean, data is so key and so focal in how we go about making decisions. And we're becoming more data driven in whatever organization I'm at, just as a whole. And in the case of Possible, we were pulling patient data and looking at actually what patients had and trying to look at that data in a format that was accessible. And then, for Womankind, it was about understanding what clients were coming in, where they were coming from, so that we could do more analysis and send out more marketing where we need to or reach communities that we need to do a little bit more. It's a lot about using technology to gather data and also analyze data.”
Braam: “We use a hundred percent cloud solutions and then added to that, we’ve got all the artificial intelligence that we have used in and on internal processes. But it's mostly around data, how you collect the data, how it's being presented, how you can slice and dice it, how easy it is to access…if it wasn't for the cloud solutions, I think we would have been not as far ahead as we are now. Five percent of our annual budget is comprised of cloud solutions, so it's a huge form of tools we use to operate…The investments we made six, seven years ago moving to cloud solutions, today we just cannot say thank you enough because we’ve had no problem working from home. Every day is going as normal. No major changes.”
Celine: “I truly 100 percent agree with the rest of the panel about the great value of having data, having access to it quickly, and having it in the cloud. And one example I can give was yesterday with our CEO. There was a chart, a PowerPoint, that I put together for her in 2017 when we had a meeting in Nepal. She wanted to see if I could update it, and if the data wasn't easily available, I would not have been able to do it. But being able to just update it within a short period of time, yesterday I sent it to her to give her a perspective of a journey between the years 2012 and 2019. It's because the data was there and was readily available and the technology allowed us to quickly manipulate information.”
Can you share an example of innovation through data and technology?
Celine: “The most recent technology that we implemented to work with the Sage Intacct system is Nexonia time and expense reporting. In the past, it's been manual, it's paper and it was a headache and calculation issues and all those things were not timely until we launched Nexonia. We launched it because it works extremely well with Sage Intacct. One of our staff was on travel—I think she was in Kenya—when she sent a quick text message to the controller and said, ‘this is the best thing ever!’ Because all of a sudden, everything was real time. She could put her information in, didn't have to do any manual calculation or currency conversion because the two systems talk to each other. You can upload your receipts and all of that. For us, it was an exciting journey to make that change.”
Pavan: “I would echo the working from home and having a cloud-based accounting system. Definitely our whole finance team at Womankind is very excited to have a cloud-base system because it’s relatively new for them. It was a great bonus to be able to quickly move, work from home, sign checks, send checks, and do all those things and no one had to go into the office. That’s been a huge bonus.
But I was thinking about this question and a story came into my mind from my time at Possible. It was at a point where we were trying to become more sustainable, to move from looking at just quality measures, but also look at quality measures and financial measures at the same time. The finance team noticed in one of our hospitals that our x-ray costs were going up. They were able to bring in some statistical analysis from the electronic health record system to see how many people were getting x-rays and at what percentage was the success rate, meaning did they find something. The success rate was going down while the costs were going up. When we were able to present that to the medical team, they wrote new protocols for all of the healthcare frontline workers to think about when they give x-rays. And that was sort of driven from this data that technology allowed us to uncover in a pretty quick sweep.”
From your perspective as a finance leader, what has been the most significant innovation your team has brought to your organization?
Braam: “Focusing a little bit more on our internal processes, there’s a feature in Sage Intacct that you can collaborate with other members, not just in the finance team, but across the organization as a whole. [The finance team] and our membership department collaborate on a transactional level with one another. In the past it was all via emails and if there was a question or someone did not answer a question timely or adequately, one always had to go to an email. Or me as a manager, could not access someone’s email for example, so if I wasn’t cc’d on this, I could not have an opinion. Now if something needs to be scaled up and may be a problem that I need to address, all the history is there.”
To benefit from the complete answers given by these finance leaders, you’ll want to listen to the entire one-hour replay of the Panel Discussion: Finance as Innovation Drivers. In doing so, you’ll hear each of their answers to the questions above, as well as their ideas and insights about additional questions, including:
- As a finance leader, how do you inspire and motivate your team to innovate?
- What specific innovation excited your team members the most?
- What are your tips for how to motivate and incentivize people to embrace change?
- How do you present data to your board and internal stakeholders that helps to drive approval for innovation?
Innovation has never been more important as nonprofit organizations work to adapt programs and strategic plans to rapidly changing conditions. The insights shared by these finance leaders provide some great ideas for driving nonprofit innovation, and we invite you to watch the full panel presentation—as well as six other information-packed web sessions—at the Nonprofit Finance Leaders Forum.
A native Texan, Joan has over 25 years of experience in the accounting, technology, publishing, and nonprofit fields. Bringing her experience as a nonprofit financial leader to Sage Intacct, Joan has been instrumental in creating solutions, and providing support and best practices that help ensure nonprofits achieve their mission.