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Accounting APIs: sharing the wealth of who, why, and how much?



[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

AS the nonprofit world has become more sophisticated, there has been a corresponding increase in operational complexity. This has become increasingly acute in financial operations.

Once upon a time the accounting department often played an isolated and reactive role in tracking and reporting on receipts and disbursements. Only after a new fundraising initiative or service was put in place would financial staff be drawn in the process to deposit the money and track expenses. This kind of separation was effective in situations where information primarily flowed in one direction and totals agreed.

Every outcome or impact, whether it is improved math grades, months employed, or increased community vitality, now has a financial component attached--usually with the question "how much did it cost?" Strategic decisions now involve numerous tactical dollars and cents considerations for the full range of internal and external stakeholders Stakeholders

All parties that have an interest, financial or otherwise, in a firm-stockholders, creditors, bondholders, employees, customers, management, the community, and the government.
.

"The increased demand for performance metrics Performance metrics are measures of an organizations activities and performance. Performance metrics should support a range of stakeholder needs from customers, shareholders to employees [1].  and measurement and return on investment (ROI (Return On Investment) The monetary benefits derived from having spent money on developing or revising a system. In the IT world, there are more ways to compute ROI than Carter has liver pills (and for those of you who never heard of that expression, it means a lot). ) has increased the stake of the accounting office. It is more of a partner with other parts of the organization in producing reports and developing metrics and is more likely to suggest new ways of looking at data," said Andrew Payne, product manager for The Financial Edge product at software publisher Blackbaud in Charleston, S.C.

Smart managers are bringing financial staff to the table as part of the process of evaluating new programs, fundraising initiatives, and other activities. The point is to insure that the right systems are in place so that financial transactions can be integrated to a level where stakeholders have access to information when they need it.

Improving the connection between front-line applications--the client--or donor-facing software that collects or disperses money--and accounting systems improves the timeliness of information and reduces errors from duplicate data entry. However, defining roles and responsibilities, along with the associated turf battles, can be difficult and make technology decisions even more critical.

According to according to
prep.
1. As stated or indicated by; on the authority of: according to historians.

2. In keeping with: according to instructions.

3.
 Bonnie bon·ny also bon·nie  
adj. bon·ni·er, bon·ni·est Scots
1. Physically attractive or appealing; pretty.

2. Excellent.
 McLain, Sage Software's director of product management for Sage Fundraising 50 and Sage MIP MIP

See: Monthly income preferred security
 Fund Accounting in Austin, Texas, "Frequently, the finance people are the people who say no. They tend to be risk averse Risk Averse

Describes an investor who, when faced with two investments with a similar expected return (but different risks), will prefer the one with the lower risk.

Notes:
A risk averse person dislikes risk.
 and need to make sure that all of the pieces are in place to successfully support the idea or program."

There are many opportunities for connecting source data to accounting systems available and run the gamut See color gamut.

gamut - The gamut of a monitor is the set of colours it can display. There are some colours which can't be made up of a mixture of red, green and blue phosphor emissions and so can't be displayed by any monitor.
 from simple imports and exports data to sophisticated Application Program Interfaces (APIs). It runs even on to completed homogeneous environments Hardware and system software from one vendor; for example, an all-IBM or all-Windows shop. Contrast with heterogeneous environment.  where data are stored in a common database that all applications share. "There is a shift towards more collaboration. Our customer base is becoming more interested in having control of the data, and it's more of an expectation that the data they have can integrate with other critical applications" said McLain. "Nonprofits have a valid expectation that their vendors provide technology to achieve the desired level of integration."

APIS--MAKING CONNECTIONS

APIs are software protocols that allow applications to share data. The ability to import and export data or create a spreadsheet from your accounting software are examples of simple APIs. More advanced APIs allow one application to perform more complex manipulations on data in another program. The APIs available today tend to be very complex and consequently expensive to implement. Thus, the decision to proceed should be based on a thorough understanding of the costs and benefits.

Blackbaud's Payne observed: "ROI depends on the scope of the project. Even simple projects can free up staff to do more valuable things. Once an organization has software with published APIs, they're effectively building a system that is functioning as a cohesive unit where they can enter data in any place and have access to it in any number of other places."

Brandon Taylor, vice president for development at Serenic Software in Denver, Colo., sees APIs as a stepping stone to even higher levels of integration. "We'll see some revolutionary changes in the next few years--it will be like going from DOS to Windows. Accounting will be more proactive, they'll be able to provide more information in real time to help decision making."

CASE STUDY--FOUNDATION FOR SIMPLICITY

The Albert Pick Albert Pick (born 15 May 1922, Cologne) is a retired German numismatist. An internationally acknowledged specialist author on the subject of paper money, Pick wrote the first modern catalog of banknotes in 1974, and is widely credited with establishing the modern face of banknote  Jr. Fund (APF APF,
n the abbreviation for acidulated phosphate fluoride.
) is a Chicago foundation that maximizes its grantmaking by working to reduce operating expenses Operating expenses

The amount paid for asset maintenance or the cost of doing business, excluding depreciation. Earnings are distributed after operating expenses are deducted.
 wherever possible. One bottleneck A lessening of throughput. It often refers to networks that are overloaded, which is caused by the inability of the hardware and transmission lines to support the traffic. It can also refer to a mismatch inside the computer where slower-speed peripheral buses and devices prevent the CPU  in the grants management process was synchronizing synchronizing,
n a technique that a therapist uses to coordinate his or her breath with that of the client; builds trust and establishes relationship.
 data between the database that tracked funding requests and the accounting system.

Like many organizations, the APF had one software program to manage the grant process from submission through the authorization and payment of awards, and a separate accounting system. The overlap between the two systems consists of the grantee An individual to whom a transfer or conveyance of property is made.

In a case involving the sale of land, the buyer is commonly known as the grantee.


grantee n.
, funding areas and amounts. For grantmaking, the information is part of the larger process of matching resources to community needs; for accounting, it is one part of the larger financial picture.

While it was a simple chore to copy payment information from the grants database reports and manually enter them into the accounting program, that strategy had two of the most common shortfalls. Retyping information can lead to data entry errors, such as transposed trans·pose  
v. trans·posed, trans·pos·ing, trans·pos·es

v.tr.
1. To reverse or transfer the order or place of; interchange.

2.
 numbers, skipped records, and misclassification of data (where a grant approved for the Health and Human Services Noun 1. Health and Human Services - the United States federal department that administers all federal programs dealing with health and welfare; created in 1979
Department of Health and Human Services, HHS
 category might be entered under Education). Second, the time spend on re-keying data was double work, time that could be better spent.

The decision was a simple one for APF's Executive Director Cleopatra Alexander: invest some time and money in automating the synchronization (1) See synchronous and synchronous transmission.

(2) Ensuring that two sets of data are always the same. See data synchronization.

(3) Keeping time-of-day clocks in two devices set to the same time. See NTP.
 between the grants management system and the accounting system. "We try to promote a culture of efficiency that minimizes administrative overhead so that we can maximize the number and size of awards we make. I was enthusiastic about the idea as was our part-time accounting manager, who wanted to reduce the number of hours billed on re-entry RE-ENTRY, estates. The resuming or retaking possession of land which the party lately had.
     2. Ground rent deeds and leases frequently contain a clause authorizing the landlord to reenter on the non-payment of rent, or the breach of some covenant, when the
."

Another opportunity the APF explored was enhancing reporting functionality. "While the financial side of the grantmaking process is important, there were other aspects of our program of giving that we wanted to include in the budgeting and evaluation process."

The APF uses Peachtree by Sage Software for accounting and a custom Microsoft Access A database program for Windows, available separately or included in the Microsoft Office suite. Access is programmable using Visual Basic for Applications (VBA). Access can read Paradox, dBASE and Btrieve files, and using ODBC, Microsoft SQL Server, SYBASE SQL Server and Oracle data.  database for grants management. "While Peachtree is wonderful for the accounting, I'm not an accountant and didn't want to learn a second program to do any kind of analysis. I was already using the Access database to manage everything from accepting and acknowledging the applications through producing the board book for our meetings. Adding a budgeting component and some additional reporting to our grants management process allows me to quickly look at individual grantees, the money they've received, and their impact in a holistic way. Having both programmatic pro·gram·mat·ic  
adj.
1. Of, relating to, or having a program.

2. Following an overall plan or schedule: a step-by-step, programmatic approach to problem solving.

3.
 and financial information about a grantee at my fingertips "Fingertips" is a 1963 number-one hit single recorded live by "Little" Stevie Wonder for Motown's Tamla label. Wonder's first hit single, "Fingertips" was the first live, non-studio recording to reach number-one on the Billboard Pop Singles chart in the United States.  lets me answer questions more quickly without having to look in multiple places."

The integration of the grants management database with the accounting systems started with laying out basic requirements. The number one need was to be able to produce award checks quickly after the board meetings. This meant that information about the payee The person who is to receive the stated amount of money on a check, bill, or note.


payee n. the one named on a check or promissory note to receive payment.


PAYEE. The person in whose favor a bill of exchange is made payable.
 and award amount would have to be moved from the grants management database to Peachtree. Likewise, Alexander wanted information about the check number and date issued returned to the grants system for easy reference. After comparing the requirements with the features available in each of the software, staff decided on a process that would export two files from the grants system and import one file back.

The first export was the list of payees, which Peachtree regarded as vendors. The vendor import feature evaluates the vendor ID or account number and compares it to the existing list. If it finds an ID already in the system it will update the existing name, address, and other information. If the ID isn't found, the new record is added to the vendor list. To take advantage of this feature the APF made a business rule to only add or update grantees/vendors in the grants management database. When a grantee or other vendor changed addresses their contact information would be automatically updated in the accounting system the next time records were synchronized syn·chro·nize  
v. syn·chro·nized, syn·chro·niz·ing, syn·chro·niz·es

v.intr.
1. To occur at the same time; be simultaneous.

2. To operate in unison.

v.tr.
1.
. In effect, the grants database became the database of record and the accounting system became a copy that could print the names on a check.

The second export was the list of authorized payments to grantees. This list has the vendor ID, amount, fund, and other information necessary to create the check and record other financial information. Once both files have been imported into Peachtree, the accountant verifies the payees and amounts and prints the checks. After the checks are created, the software generates a file listing the issue date, vendors, amounts paid, and check numbers which is used to update the grants management system.

"Having the check numbers and dates in the grants database makes it easier to answer grantee questions should they arise, and it serves as a double check that the right organization got the right amount of money," said Alexander.

The process of exporting from the grants management system takes about five minutes, as does the import into Peachtree. The time necessary for the verification of grantees and amounts varies based on the number and complexity of grants made. The re-import from the accounting software to the grants system takes about 15 minutes. "The machines just talk to each other, and we just double check to make sure we got it right the first time. If we find an error we can fix it before it becomes a problem," noted Alexander.

APF's experience is a good example of the benefits of integrating related data between multiple information systems. The steps they followed form the basis of a strategy for determining ways that data should be distributed among applications and stakeholders. Those steps included:

1. There and back again. The first step in integrating accounting information between multiple systems is to find the duplicated data. Document where financial data exist in the organization and how information moves from the source to the accounting system and, if necessary, back again.

Development offices commonly receive money that then gets passed along to accounting. Having multiple people account for funds can be a good thing because it can help reduce errors and fraud.

Even within development there could be multiple systems, such as event registration and online giving that feed the fundraising database. Bills might be issued to or on behalf of client, tuition may be collected--all financial transactions that also have important programmatic information.

The exercise of mapping these transactions and the places where data are stored can be surprising. Regardless of the capabilities of the official software systems in use, it is very common to see Microsoft Excel (tool) Microsoft Excel - A spreadsheet program from Microsoft, part of their Microsoft Office suite of productivity tools for Microsoft Windows and Macintosh. Excel is probably the most widely used spreadsheet in the world.

Latest version: Excel 97, as of 1997-01-14.
 spreadsheets that mediate data between two systems. Reasons can be "we've always done it that way" to "so and so wanted it that way and we've never bothered to change."

From a business process perspective re-keying the data multiple times can introduce errors and slow down the process. However, these worksheets or other intermediary systems serve an important psychological function: the keeper of the spreadsheet is now in control of the process in terms of when things happen and what other people in the organization know. Automating the flow of information, say from an online event registration system into the main fundraising database, can be very threatening and create significant resistance.

In addition to determining all of the places duplicate data reside, take a look at who uses that information for their job.

2. Whack-a-mole error correction. While one of the benefits of integration is reduced errors by eliminating rework re·work  
tr.v. re·worked, re·work·ing, re·works
1. To work over again; revise.

2. To subject to a repeated or new process.

n.
, mistakes will still exist. Understanding where errors come from will help in establishing procedures for ongoing detection and correction.

Donors can misspell mis·spell  
tr.v. mis·spelled or mis·spelt , mis·spell·ing, mis·spells
To spell incorrectly.


misspell
Verb

[-spelling, -spelt] or
 their own names, give a new or different address, or a second email. Too much automation and these errors can become duplicate records and dilute the overall accuracy of the fundraising system. Internal data sources can also produce errors. Holly Scheuble, director of product management, accounting product lines at Kintera in San Diego San Diego (săn dēā`gō), city (1990 pop. 1,110,549), seat of San Diego co., S Calif., on San Diego Bay; inc. 1850. San Diego includes the unincorporated communities of La Jolla and Spring Valley. Coronado is across the bay. , Calif., provides an example on how staff will try to circumvent cir·cum·vent  
tr.v. cir·cum·vent·ed, cir·cum·vent·ing, cir·cum·vents
1. To surround (an enemy, for example); enclose or entrap.

2. To go around; bypass: circumvented the city.
 the system to get things done. "If you have budgets flowing through the system and a setup that won't allow you to go over budget, they'll go searching for another line item that will allow an expense. It's important to set up the system to be realistic and to train staff."

3. Judgment call. Automation doesn't eliminate human involvement, it just changes it. Based on process flow and error opportunities, decide who needs to be judge and gatekeeper In an H.323 IP telephony or video environment, a gatekeeper is a device that manages domains and provides call control. It is used to translate user names into IP addresses, to authenticate users and to manage network resources.  of information. Establishing reviews and approvals of information as it moves from one process to the next prevents problems from escalating and keeps things moving. Regardless of the system you end up with there will be an ongoing need for review and approval as financial data are collected, classified, and moved to the next area.

According to Blackbaud's Payne, "There is a risk to trusting the data too much, but that can be offset by having appropriate reviews. The process becomes to review and approve instead of entry, review, and approve."

[ILLUSTRATIONS OMITTED]

Sage's McClain added: "Communication is big. People are looking for Looking for

In the context of general equities, this describing a buy interest in which a dealer is asked to offer stock, often involving a capital commitment. Antithesis of in touch with.
 different pieces of information from the same transaction--it's important for everyone to understand what they need--the case manager wants information about the client, while the accounting office may be more interested in reporting against an outcome to a funder."

4. Capability and opportunity. Once you have a map of how financial information flows through the organization, along with the review and approval points, you can go back to the systems that store and transform the data. Look at the various source and accounting systems and identify their capacity to share data with other systems. Examine the software for import and export functions, third party synchronization, APIs, or even full-system integration.

Work the problem from both ends from the standpoint of the source system to the accounting system and again from what the accounting system can accept.

In many instances there will be multiple ways to accomplish a particular task. Blackbaud's Payne stressed, "Controls in the source system are the most important thing." The second most important thing is the method by which those systems are transferred to the general ledger General Ledger

A company's accounting records. This formal ledger contains all the financial accounts and statements of a business.

Notes:
The ledger uses two columns: one records debits, the other has offsetting credits.
. Third in the list is a review step before doing the final posting.

Just because a capability exists doesn't mean you have to use it. A common example is donor name and address information: it usually makes more sense to manage the detail about individual donors in the fundraising database and the summary information about money deposited by date and fund in the accounting system particularly when the list of donors can run into the thousands.

For Jon Biedermann, vice president at DonorPerfect Fundraising in Horsham, Pa., "It's best to have detail information in one place so that you can avoid the situation we call MVOT or Multiple Versions Of the Truth" While the fundraising system could synchronize See synchronization.  on an individual level, Biedermann explained, it can also post a summary of gifts directly to the general ledger. Repeated data can be a requirement, as it was with the APE ape, any primate of the subfamily Hominoidea, with the possible exception of humans. The small apes, the gibbon and the siamang, and the orangutan, one of the great apes, are found in SE Asia.  Evaluate the risks and benefits of duplication and select the option that minimizes redundancy.

5. Representing yourself. Integration can be a tumultuous undertaking. Some staff won't care; others will be worried about a loss of control or feel exposed to scrutiny before they're ready. The technologies available today can be quite complex and will often require additional staff or outside consultants.

Be cautious about allowing the technology to drive decision making a new feature or what worked at another organization may not be appropriate for yours. Assigning an internal staff person to act as the facilitator can be crucial to making business-based decisions that value flexibility and the realities of the organization.

The position can be called an internal consultant or project manager; the essential skills required include a knowledge of how the organization works and the ability to present new ideas "New Ideas" is the debut single by Scottish New Wave/Indie Rock act The Dykeenies. It was first released as a Double A-side with "Will It Happen Tonight?" on July 17, 2006. The band also recorded a video for the track.  in a non-threatening way. From a technical standpoint they don't have to know how to do it, but they do need to be able to tell when it's done (jargon) When It's Done - A manufacturer's non-answer to questions about product availability. This answer allows the manufacturer to pretend to communicate with their customers without setting themselves any deadlines or revealing how behind schedule the product really is. .

6. Lather, rinse, repeat The term lather, rinse, repeat is sometimes used as a phrase giving sardonic commentary to some people's practice of taking descriptions, instructions or expressions literally, and without common sense. . Improving the connection between parts of the organization is an iterative it·er·a·tive  
adj.
1. Characterized by or involving repetition, recurrence, reiteration, or repetitiousness.

2. Grammar Frequentative.

Noun 1.
 process. Some decisions will be obvious, such as replacing handcrafted hand·craft  
n.
Variant of handicraft.

tr.v. hand·craft·ed, hand·craft·ing, hand·crafts
To fashion or make by hand.



hand·craft
 Excel spreadsheets with system-generated reports. Others, such as comparing a slower, but cheaper, export/import option with a faster API (Application Programming Interface) A language and message format used by an application program to communicate with the operating system or some other control program such as a database management system (DBMS) or communications protocol.  will require more consideration. A full-blown review might evaluate replacing the current fundraising, accounting, or client management applications to achieve significant improvements. In some instances, fully utilizing existing features would be equivalent to installing new software. Anticipating how the decentralization de·cen·tral·ize  
v. de·cen·tral·ized, de·cen·tral·iz·ing, de·cen·tral·iz·es

v.tr.
1. To distribute the administrative functions or powers of (a central authority) among several local authorities.
 of responsibility with the centralizing cen·tral·ize  
v. cen·tral·ized, cen·tral·iz·ing, cen·tral·iz·es

v.tr.
1. To draw into or toward a center; consolidate.

2.
 of data will affect the organization is difficult, and opportunities will have to be traced through the information life cycle to determine the most workable choice.

Look at the way things could work and make some decisions about how to get there. Some changes will require training and work flows or responsibilities; others might require new software and even hardware. Serenic Software's Taylor added: "From a technical perspective they need to evaluate their infrastructure. As data gets pushed out to more users, organizations often have to invest in Web servers, opening up their firewalls, and dealing with client portals where they can log into their accounts. Security on what's presented outside of the firewall is critical. That requires skill sets that don't always exist within the organization."

Where responsibility for financial information resides has been cyclical. Kintera's Scheuble recalled, "There was a real push to decentralization in the 1990s where other departments could enter their own transactions and finance would just approve and cut the check. Earlier this decade there was a move back to centralization cen·tral·ize  
v. cen·tral·ized, cen·tral·iz·ing, cen·tral·iz·es

v.tr.
1. To draw into or toward a center; consolidate.

2.
 because the systems in place were inadequate for non-accounting people to make the right choices, plus there was a lack of training. Today people are more aware of financial practices and the software is better and there are fewer staff members that drives the current decentralization of responsibility."

Changing how information gets in and out of the accounting system will change how the accounting function interacts with the rest of the organization. Staff responsible for basic transactions will understand the importance of their work throughout the organization, and that, in turn, will change how financial information is used in decision making.

Accounting Software To Consider

AccuFund Inc.

AccuFund Accounting Suite-Standard

Single-user: $2,995; three-user: $6,495; add $895 for each additional user; AccuFund Accounting Suite-Professional

Single-user: $6,595; three-user: $8,995; add $1,195 for each additional user

(781) 433-0233

www.accufund.com

Agilon

Agilon Business Financials

Starts at $27,000 for 1-4 users

Starts at $42,000 for 5-10 users

(319) 739-0773

www.myagilon.com

Blackbaud

The Financial Edge, version 7.7

Starts at $2,100 for single-user

(800) 443-9441

www.blackbaud.com

Cougar Mountain Software Cougar Mountain Software is a privately-held company based in Boise, Idaho that markets accounting software to small to mid-sized companies. History
Founded by Bob Gossett back in 1982, the company celebrated their 25th anniversary in 2007.
 

Cougar Mountain The lowest and westernmost of the Issaquah Alps, Cougar Mountain is a zone of highlands in suburban Seattle, Washington, rising abruptly from southeast of the intersection of I-90 and I-405.  FUND Revenue Center

Single-user: $1,199; four-user: $1,449; unlimited: $1,449; Cougar Mountain FUND Suite

Single-user: $3,199; four-user: $4,199; unlimited: $5,299

(800) 388-3038

www.cougarmtn.com

Deltek

Deltek Costpoint

Starts at $57,134 for 250-499 employee organization; starts at $108,491 for 500 and more employees

Deltek GCS GCS Glasgow Coma Scale
GCS Guilford County Schools (North Carolina)
GCS Ground Control Station
GCS Grand Central Station
GCS Ground Control System
GCS Ground Combat Systems
GCS Group Communication Systems
 Premier

Starts at $5,400 for 1-25 employees

(800) 456-2009

www.deltek.com

Donor2/Campus Management Corp.

Donor2 Accounting

Starts at $2,655 per user

(800) 548-6708

www.donor2.com

Executive Data Systems

Nonprofit Starter Kit

Single-user: $400; unlimited: $600; Fund Accounting Software Series

Single-user: $1,000; unlimited: $1,500

(800) 272-3374

www.execdata.com

Fund E-Z E-Z Engdahl-Zigangirov (bound)  Development Corp.

Fund E-Z

Starts at $695 for single-user; add $495 for each additional user

(877) 696-0900

www.fundez.com

Intuit in·tu·it  
tr.v. in·tu·it·ed, in·tu·it·ing, in·tu·its Usage Problem
To know intuitively.



[Back-formation from intuition.
 Inc.

Quickbooks Premier for Nonprofits

Single-user: $449.95; Enterprise Solutions for Nonprofits

Five-user: $3,000

(650) 944-6000

www.quickbooks.com

Kintera

FundWare

Starts at $1,295

(800) 551-4458

www.fundware.com

Microsoft Corporation (company) Microsoft Corporation - The biggest supplier of operating systems and other software for IBM PC compatibles. Software products include MS-DOS, Microsoft Windows, Windows NT, Microsoft Access, LAN Manager, MS Client, SQL Server, Open Data Base Connectivity (ODBC), MS Mail,  

Microsoft Dynamics-GP

Starts at $2,250 per user

(701) 281-6500

www.microsoft.com/dynamics

Open Systems Inc.

TRAVERSE not-for-profit

Starts at $1,500;

add $200 for each additional user

(800) 328-2276

www.traversenfp.com

Sage Software

Sage MIP Fund Accounting

Starts at $2,995 for single-user

(800) 811-0961

www.sagemip.com

Sage Software (small business)

Peachtree Premium for Nonprofits

Starts at $599 for single-user

(800) 228-0068

www.peachtree.com

Serenic Corporation

Serenic Navigator

Starts at $3,000 per user for Business Essentials; starts at $6,000 per user for Advanced Management

(Offers grant management system)

(877) 737-3642

www.serenic.com

Tim Mills-Groninger has been a contributing editor A contributing editor is a magazine job title that varies in responsibilities. Most often, a contributing editor is a freelancer who has proven ability and readership draw.  to The NonProfit Times for more than a decade. He is the former associate director of the IT Resource Center in Chicago, now called Lumity.
COPYRIGHT 2008 NPT Publishing Group, Inc.
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Title Annotation:SPECIAL REPORT
Author:Mills-Groninger, Tim
Publication:The Non-profit Times
Date:Jan 1, 2008
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