Finance in the Cloud: How it Can Increase Transparency and Accountability for Non-Profits

The Rose F. Kennedy Greenway Conservancy, a private, non-profit organization, is the designated steward of the 15+ acres of downtown parks created by the “Big Dig.” The Conservancy manages, operates, and supports public events and programs on the Greenway, with the goal of delivering on its promise of a vibrant, beautiful, innovative city park. The 1.3-mile length has gardens, 4 fountains, free Wi-Fi, food trucks, public art, and 300+ free programs annually. The Conservancy works with scores of vendors and other partners.

“Our mission is to present a beautiful place that people can enjoy,” says Lisa Schimmel, the Director of Finance for the Conservancy. “We organize a wide variety of public programs that take place in the park, including a farmers’ market, festivals, music performances, exercise programs, and a workforce development program that offers young people an opportunity to work as stewards of the park, while gaining first-hand experience in sustainable horticultural practices.”

When she joined the Conservancy in July of 2011, Schimmel was advised to enhance the organization’s accountability and transparency. Prior to her arrival, the organization had operated on a cash basis, meaning that revenues and expenses were only recognized when the cash was actually received or paid out. The department directors would manually fill out an expense authorization and send it to the finance department to process for payment. Schimmel and her part-time assistant would then write a check, attach the paperwork, stamp, and mail it. They also needed to file everything to keep a paper record of their transactions.

Digging Out of a Manual Process

It was difficult for the organization to efficiently produce timely, meaningful reports. The extensive process of manual payments and record-keeping also was detrimental to the organization’s growth. Needless to say, Schimmel went looking for a better solution.

Bill.com proved to be a great solution for the Conservancy. Not only did it synchronize perfectly with QuickBooks, but it also allowed Schimmel to have all the bills come through the accounting department, or have the vendors email or fax them directly into the Bill.com system. “We use QuickBooks, which works very well for us, so we didn’t want to change our accounting system, just make it faster and more efficient,” said Schimmel. “And because we’re so decentralized,” she adds, “I can easily forward those bills electronically to our various directors without losing track of them. I always know where everything is and what its status is. There’s no more scrambling around at the end of the billing period, trying to figure out what bills are still sitting on people’s desks.”

Bill.com, a cloud-based system, proved to be simple to understand and took very little time for her employees to be- come accustomed to. Its intuitive inter- face enabled her employees, even those with no prior knowledge of finance, to make entries and contribute to reports. This personally saved Schimmel a lot of time, since her accounting and finance department consists of “1.4 people,” as she puts it, herself and one other part-time employee.

In addition, by implementing Bill.com, the organization was able to adopt an accrual basis of accounting, in lieu of the cash basis, therefore increasing the speed and accuracy of financial reports. Now, when department heads receive a bill for approval, they use Bill.com to categorize their expenditures in the general ledger and to also detail the source of funds. This way, she always knows whether she is spending government funds, donor restricted funds, or unrestricted funds, greatly increasing her accountability.

A Ribbon of Transparency

According to Schimmel, the Conservancy operates on an annual budget of around $4-4.5 million, which originates from several different sources. “About 40% [of our budget] is contributed by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (Mass DOT), which owns the Greenway land,” says Schimmel, “the rest comes from private donations, earned income, and from a $13.5 million endowment.”

Due to the organization’s reliance on private donations and government funding, one of the most important advantages of implementing Bill.com for the Conservancy was the improvement to accountability and transparency the system provided. It was important for private donors to be confident the Conservancy was spending funds in the manner in which they were designated according to a donor’s restricted purpose. Whether it’s the $1.5 million contribution to build a new carousel, or $750 for a new sculpture, the Conservancy must account for every penny and ensure that funds are expended per the donor’s request.

“For the carousel,” Schimmel explains, “there are funds that are restricted to just designing and building the custom carousel, and funds designated for developing the carousel park. So when we spend money on this project, I have to know which source of funds I’m drawing from.” Since potential donors are able to clearly see where their money is going and how it is being put to good use, Schimmel hopes more donors will give to the Greenway Conservancy in the future.

Becoming Green

The Conservancy’s operations are very green—the horticulture staff uses no pesticides, all organic material is com- posted, and employees use electric vehicles when out in the parks — so it made perfect sense to reduce the organization’s reliance on paper with Bill.com. All in all, the Conservancy saves over 25 hours of processing time on more than 150 bills and invoices per month. The Conservancy benefits from the reduced cost of bill payment, the reallocation of staff time – which was formerly spent sorting bills and chasing paper – and has greatly improved its efficiency with receivables and invoicing. Schimmel was able to achieve the transparency and accountability standards her organization required of her, and, in the process, save herself time, money, and stress. Now, at lunch time, rather than sitting hunched over her computer sorting bills and searching for lost paperwork, you’ll find Schimmel taking a stroll through the 1.3 mile stretch of parks and greenery that Bostonians and visitors are raving about.

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