The backbone of any organization, whether it be for-profit or non-profit is a sound financial accounting structure. An accurate accounting system is a catalyst to organizational growth as it provides access to critical data. This data is the only way to truly understand an organization’s financial health. Without the presence of timely and accurate information, an organization can quickly find itself making assumptions based on “gut reactions” and a false sense of confidence. Poor financial mismanagement is one of the leading causes of business failures in the United States today.

When considering an accounting platform for a business or non-profit it is important to remember a few key factors. First is simplicity. Unless your organization is incredibly large and regularly handles a number a complex financial transactions, a simple “off the shelf” or cloud-based accounting program will suffice. Too often, I come across non-profits that have gone to great lengths to set up a high-priced and incredibly complex accounting solution that only serves, in the long run, to frustrate its users and ultimately lead to a waste of organizational resources. Currently, there are several robust accounting systems available on the market today that are affordable and easy to set up.

A second factor to consider is accessibility. A strong accounting system and an abundance of insightful value-driven metrics are only good if it is accessible. Non-profit leaders and managers need to have access to an organization’s current financial position and key metrics at a moment’s notice. Access to reliable information, provided through a cloud-based service, can give an organization’s team members the ability to make informed decisions quickly and correctly. I have personally seen numerous non-profits struggle to get accurate and straightforward reports from their accounting platforms. A good system will always provide access to critical data quickly and simply in an easy to understand format.

A third factor to consider when comparing various accounting platforms is reliability. Without a reliable accounting system, non-profits can waste precious financial resources re-creating enormous amounts of data. A reliable system is one which includes offsite backup, the ability to access files from various locations, and a proven track record of long-term functionality.

Four specific accounting tools that our organization has used at various moments in the past, as a part of our accounting platform, are QuickBooks online, Expensify, Dropbox, and Freshbooks. Listed below is a short description of each service and a link to their website for additional details.

QuickBooks Online
QuickBooks is the market leader in small-business accounting solutions and most non-profits will find that QuickBooks adequately meets their needs. QuickBooks online is a web-based version of their popular software and offers a robust platform in a total accounting package. We have used QuickBooks online for several years, as it is an incredibly reliable, and accessible application. Additionally, it is fairly easy to use and is a cost-effective choice. The fact that it is “cloud-based” gives users the ability to access various reports and information remotely. This provides a tremendous benefit especially for an organization’s accountant and board members.

Expensify is a slick and easy way to keep track of receipts and business expenses. It is as simple to use as taking a picture on your mobile phone. It’s android and iPhone apps let you keep track of receipts and business expenses effortlessly. The web based application lets you view expense reports based on a number of criteria. Additionally, all of the collected data can be uploaded to and integrated with your QuickBooks software. It is hands down probably one of the easiest ways to keep track of your organization’s expenses.

Although Dropbox is primarily a cloud-based file storage solution, we have found it to be an incredibly useful accounting tool. We use Dropbox to store digital copies of all kinds of accounting information including invoices, receipts, payroll data, financial reports, and copies of financial statements. In addition to providing an enormous amount of accessibility (they have iPhone and iPad apps), Dropbox serves as an additional level of backup protection. Security is robust on Dropbox and its service relies on the highest level of 128-bit SSL encryption.

Freshbooks is an online billing and invoicing platform and is primarily used with for-profit businesses. However, if your non-profit generates revenue by providing a specific service, Freshbooks can be easily adapted to meet your needs. Its time tracking software gives multiple users the ability to keep track of billable time and then effortlessly create invoices by client and project. For a small additional fee, Freshbooks will mail out invoices to your clients and keep track of your accounts receivable. Freshbooks is easy to setup and use on an ongoing basis as part of your total accounting platform.

Allyn Anderson is the Executive Director of LiberiaNow, a 501c3 agency that serves the impoverished people of Liberia, West Africa.