Financial and accounting systems are central to the success of associations, but they can also present a variety of challenges. The ongoing pandemic has exacerbated some of these challenges and in response, some associations are considering ways to streamline or automate aspects of their accounting function.
If your association is considering accounting automation as a way forward, you face a number of choices. In this post, we’ll talk about some of the major trends we’re seeing at our association clients, and ways these trends could inform your decision-making.
1. Reducing or eliminating the need for paper documentation
One of the most significant trends in accounting automation is the focus on reducing the need to physically handle documents and manually enter data. During the pandemic, with so many accounting team members working remotely, this has become an even more serious need.
The accounts payable function — and specifically, online bill payment — is a good example of accounting automation in action. Although your bank can provide a partial solution to online bill payment, often the related documentation doesn’t automatically transfer to your own accounting software. More effective solutions tend to create their own lifecycle for bill management and payment. These solutions may feature automated approval processes and audit trails as they generate payments, and often sync directly with your accounting software. Staff in operating units can gain greater visibility into their own budgets, and drill down into specific payments whenever they need to.
These solutions can also deliver significant benefits before, during, and following audits. Traditionally, accounting professionals needed to physically track down documents in disparate locations, provide them to the audit team, and refile them afterward. Inevitably, some documents would go missing, leading to frustration and errors. However, when accounting automation solutions are implemented, it’s potentially much easier to locate and share documents needed for audits — and eliminate the need to refile them. Another potential benefit is that you no longer need to dedicate space for document storage, whether onsite or elsewhere.
2. Maintaining systems that talk to each other
A related trend in accounting automation is ensuring that different systems within the organization can talk with each other. This need has become all the greater during the pandemic, with team members needing to work remotely and collaborate virtually, increasing the risks of double-entry and other types of human error.
Association management may assume that effective integration requires little more than choosing a good accounting software platform and then pushing a button. In reality, it’s a complicated, time- and resource-consuming process, with many moving parts. That said, the benefits can also be significant. For example, many of our clients have reported that with tighter integration between their accounting software and other systems, their internal customers feel an increased sense of ownership over their financials, with greater control and faster answers to their questions.
3. Selecting systems that can grow with your organization
The pandemic has also highlighted the need for accounting systems with flexibility. Because of the pandemic’s impact on both dues and non-dues revenue, many associations are being forced to rethink their organizational structure and even their business models. For organizations whose accounting systems are older or less flexible, updating their systems and reporting tools to reflect such changes can be very difficult.
If your organization faces such decisions, it’s important to know that some software manufacturers effectively “lockdown” their systems so that users cannot make the kinds of fundamental changes just mentioned, while others are more flexible, and even encourage third-party software providers to introduce products to make their systems more functional.
4. Moving to cloud-based and SaaS systems
Another related decision associations face is whether to move to cloud-based and/or Software as a Service (SaaS) systems. While we’ve seen this trend for a number of years, it is becoming increasingly acute, especially in the area of data security. In the past, many associations could afford to have systems that lagged behind their software providers’ most recent build. But with the increasing risks of hacking and ransomware attacks, keeping one’s system current is more important than ever. Cloud-based and SaaS systems address this need by ensuring that an association’s security profile is always as up-to-date as possible.
It’s also helpful to understand that there is a continuum of SaaS models. On the simpler end, there are products such as QuickBooks Online; on the more robust and flexible end, there are systems such as Sage Intacct that may be better suited to the task.
5. Using training to ensure that your systems are being utilized to their potential
In our experience, many associations have barely scratched the surface in terms of what their people can do with their accounting technology — and the solution can often be found in training. Many of the best accounting software providers have scaled back or eliminated their training offerings. Fortunately, a robust ecosystem of third-party training providers can fill in this critical gap.
When selecting a provider with expertise in your particular accounting system, one helpful approach can be to join a relevant user group, which can be readily found through ASAE, or through various CPA organizations. We’ve also seen associations save money by taking part in group training; although the training is not customized, it does come at reduced costs that can make it a more sustainable solution.
Good luck on your journey
Not every association will place the same emphasis on these various trends in accounting automation — but keeping them in mind as you review your options can be a strategic plus. In essence, using the limitations and challenges presented by the pandemic to guide the development of your accounting system can be an effective way of making lemonade out of lemons.
Best of luck to you as you plan your organization’s future technology profile — and please let us know if we can provide any assistance.