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Community Groups Can Be Accountable
Why community organizations struggle with accounting and what we can do about it Interview with Suzanne Smith
Suzanne Smith has lived and worked abroad for over 20 years. Her focus is on training and capacity building. She began as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Niger, working at a rural clinic and focusing on child survival. She went on to work in Bangladesh and then Mozambique, where she managed a microcredit program. She then turned her focus to working with community groups, village health workers and nurses, to strengthen outreach and organizational capacity in the midst of the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
Suzanne has worked in Afghanistan, where she helped design and then implemented a life and work skills training for female high school teachers as part of USAID’s PROMOTE.
She likes to distill complicated processes to their essence and create systems that are simple and easy to understand. Her trainings are accessible, fun, engaging, and most importantly she makes sure people leave feeling good about themselves and confident in their ability to learn new things
Suzanne founded Accountable Partners to make sure community based organizations have the systems, skills and support they need to account for donor funds accurately and transparently, to the last dollar spent.
Oftentimes small partners simply do not know how to fulfill a donor’s accounting requirements. More and more, International Donors and NGOs are partnering with small community organizations to achieve their development goals. While programs are being funded and progress is being made, too often these small partners fail to satisfy their donor’s accounting requirements – requirements that are necessary to a fulfill donor’s fiduciary responsibility. Without clear and accurate financial reports from their partners, donors hesitate to disburse the larger funds necessary to scale up activities, and sometimes small partners may lose their funding entirely. Accountable Partners developed a simplified accounting system specifically for small community organizations. We then created The Accountable Partners Academy so we could teach it. The Academy provides NGO/donor field staff with the knowledge, skills, and tools they need to train their small partners in simplified accounting. We know that simple is transparent, simple is accessible and simple is sustainable. The result of our Academy is accurate and transparent financial reports from small partners to their donors.
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NPE Suzanne Smith
Hugh Ballou: Hello, it’s Hugh Ballou and Russell Dennis for another edition of The Nonprofit exchange. Hugh is calling in from the mountains of central western Virginia. Russell, are you just a little bit south of Denver in mile-high mountain Colorado?
Russell Dennis: I’m just southeast here in Aurora. Suzanne’s out here.
Hugh: We’ve been doing this for a little while. Russell was a faithful attendee. One day, I asked him to be co-host. I have to work hard to keep up with Russell. He is a thoughtful, learned, and wise gentleman.
Our guest today is going to be talking about accountability. Hmm, the word “accountable” comes to mind. Suzanne, I’m not going to waste any more time. People want to know who Suzanne Smith is. What do you do, and why do you do it? Welcome to The Nonprofit Exchange. Introduce yourself to our listeners and our viewers.
Suzanne Smith: Thank you, Hugh and Russ for inviting me today. I’m really excited. My name is Suzanne Smith. I have been a career development worker, meaning that after college, I joined the Peace Corps. Like so many people, after the Peace Corps, I thought to make my career living overseas and doing development work. I have done that for the past 25 years.
Hugh: Development work?
Suzanne: Overseas humanitarian. Some people call it humanitarian aid. In the business, we call it development.
Hugh: Connect the dots from then to now.
Suzanne: The Peace Corps sent me to Niger in west Africa. I worked at a rural clinic recuperating malnourished children. After that, I went back to the States and got a Masters in psychology of all things. Then I ended up going to Bangladesh and studied microcredit. That was a real eye-opener. It was one of the poorest countries in the world, and by many standards, the poorest country in the world. I got to see urban poverty up close and personal. It was quite shocking. I had seen poverty in Niger, but it was rural. It was different. That was a big shock to my system. It taught me a lot. There is a lot of work in Bangladesh. A lot of large projects. Even pilot projects could be a thousand people. I got interested in microcredit when I was living there.
I was hired by Save the Children to go to Mozambique to run their microcredit program. That was in 2000. That was right as HIV/AIDS was getting more and more press and importance in Africa. It was being seen as a real problem. After my contract with Save the Children ended, I decided to work in HIV/AIDS with Ovation because I could see the impact on our microcredit clients. It was having a big impact across all sectors of society. I ended up staying in Mozambique. That is where PEPFAR, the Presidential Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, President Bush allocated $15 billion throughout the world. Mozambique got a big chunk of that. I was there when that money was coming in and trying to hit the ground. I was hired with a colleague to support the community groups who were working on HIV/AIDS and trying to get sick people to the clinic to get tested and to get on antiretrovirals. What we found out when we were in Mozambique working with these community groups who were doing fantastic work, all volunteers, going door to door, they were doing such great work. The NGOs wanted to support them by funding them, giving them money to expand and get more people treated. That is where we started to find out there were big gaps in their ability to account for the donor funds they were receiving.
Hugh: Oh my. That never happens in America, does it? Suzanne had to switch computers. Hers wasn’t charging. She has acquisitioned her husband’s computer. Sit a little closer. We have run up the sound a bit so she will be closer to her microphone.
What was the inspiration to start Accountable Partners? Is there a connection between accountability and accounting?
Suzanne: Exactly. As we work with these community groups and saw they had no real ability to account for the donor funds we were giving them, we decided to look around. We knew someone had developed a simplified system for accounting. It shouldn’t be the system we use here in the States, but something simple and with the integrity of true accounting so they could manage their funds and know how much money they had and report transparently back to us, the donor. We looked around our province and got samples of what other donors were asking the community groups were for. It was varied and ad hoc. We were concerned, but we said, “Someone has to have a solid system somewhere in Mozambique.” We looked throughout the country and still didn’t find anything. It was a shock to us. But we didn’t want to reinvent the wheel. So we did a worldwide search. We looked far and wide for double-entry accounting for donor funds for community groups. We found a lot of good accounting programs and systems for individual entrepreneurs and for microcredit groups. There are systems for those two groups. But for donor funds, for community groups to account with double-entry accounting for donor funds, there was nothing. That was a shock to us. We saw that that was necessary for their reports to be accurate that they were sending us.
We took the next few years to pilot and perfect a simplified double-entry accounting system that was handwritten because these groups in Mozambique didn’t have computers or electricity. If they did have computers, they would get stolen or viruses. One person knew how to use it. If you just had accounting in one person’s hands, that opens you up to all sorts of trouble.
Hugh: Wow. For people who aren’t familiar with accounting, explain what you mean by “double-entry accounting.”
Suzanne: Great question. I didn’t know myself when I first started. Double-entry accounting has been- You’ve heard of debits and credits. The way we teach it in America can be quite confusing and counter-intuitive. To boil it down into simple terms, you need to record every transaction, every receipt. Every time you spend money or receive money, you have to record it in two places. Why? Because you want to know where it came from or where it went. If it goes into your bank account, if your donor gives you money, you need to record that money in your bank book. You can keep track of how much money is in your bank. You can get bank statements, but you want to know how much money is in your bank without having to go to the bank. If the donor gives that same receipt, you record it in the income ledger, or a piece of paper showing how much money the donor has given you. You have it in two different places. It will make more sense if I explain costs.
Let’s say you buy something, a phone card so you can make phone calls. Prepaid phone cards are common all over the world. If that money came out of your bank, let’s say you took $10 for phone cards. You’d want to write that in your bank book. $10 out of the bank for phone cards. Then you want to keep track of how much you’ve spent on phone cards. That is called an expense ledger. Another piece of paper. You write phone cards, and how much money you spend on phone cards. That way, we can tell donors and track how much money we spent on different items the donor is funding. At the same time, we know how much money we have at any given time. It’s double-entry because we always want to know how much money we have, and we also need to know where we have spent that money. That is double-entry accounting: knowing how much you have on one side, and the other side is where you have spent the money.
Hugh: Russell has had a varied past. He has worked in the money realm for many years. Russell, it sounds like she’s cracked the code to make the complex simple. What do you think?
Russell: Well, if something’s not easy to access, understand, and use, people aren’t going to do it. We have shared a little bit over coffee. Part of the big frustration for people that fund nonprofits is getting information to make sure that what we’re doing is working the way we thought it would work. Money is just one of the key things to track. Although the systems around it are complicated, it’s probably the easiest thing to track. When you are talking in terms of human capital and making shifts in people’s lives, those are trickier to measure. But money is the one thing that everybody sees, and they want to know where it’s going.
With this system, when you get into areas where you don’t have electricity, you don’t have computers, you don’t have people who have access to those things, you still need the information. Money and resources are still going into these places. One of the things we shared, and I’d like to have Suzanne speak to it, was some frustration, being on the ground in those areas that are remote. Talk a little bit about that frustration with trying to gather that information and how that motivated you to actually build a system you have today.
Suzanne: We started out with an HIV/AIDS group. A beautiful nurse had to quit her job because she had HIV. She was taking antiretrovirals. She was doing very well. She started going door to door in her community and finding other people she thought had HIV and asked them to go to the hospital with her and get tested. When they got tested and got on antiretrovirals, they got better and joined her. Very organically, this group emerged, doing wonderful work. We went to help them. We were sitting under a mango tree. They had no office. It would rain, and we would get wet. On the hospital grounds, there is a beautiful tree we would sit under and have our meetings. We would talk to her about expanding her program, giving the volunteers that were working for her small subsidies to make up the time they were losing by doing this volunteer work, and building an office. We were meeting under a mango tree, and they definitely wanted an office. They were excited about it. We wanted to give them the money, and we had it. We had more money to give them than they could probably handle. That was the frustrating part.
Donors would dole out small amounts of money when the accounting is not great, but there is a lot of trust involved when you could see the good work on the ground. It’s there. It’s verifiable. But donors are so hesitant to fund and upscale good programs when the accounting part wasn’t there. We knew this program could grow and expand a lot if they could show they could account for their money. That is not something we could teach them overnight. Accounting, even simplified accounting, takes time to learn and practice. We were not able. The frustration for us is we were not able to give as much money as we wanted to in the beginning because they didn’t know how to account for it. We were helping them do the books. I don’t know how many people out there have been in this position. The community groups are doing great work, but they don’t know how to account for their books, so the donor steps in and does the reports for them. That is sometimes what you have to do. But it doesn’t build capacity in the community group to understand that system for the next donor.
The other frustration was that because each donor had a different system they were asking for, none of it was simplified accounting or double-entry. Any community organization that was getting money from one donor, maybe they learned their system, maybe it was on one piece of paper and just a list of receipts. When they’d get another donor, that donor would ask for other things. Now they are accounting in two different ways for two different donors. None of it translated. The reason we designed this system so that there would just be one system they had to learn, and it would be adequate for all donors. It would meet or exceed all donor requirements.
Hugh: You got my curiosity up. Can you talk about specifically the ways you simplified accounting?
Suzanne: We started with changing the language. Debits and credits. In formal accounting, there is a T system with debits and credits. We decided we would use normal language in and out. Money goes into the bank, or it comes out of the bank. The money in the expense ledgers, you list the money you spend. You are not debiting or crediting an expense ledger. You are simply listing in your expense ledger under phone cards for instance how much money you spent that month. We took debits and credits out of it. We took the T system out of it. It was just normal language. We redid the system in Portuguese, and again, just normal language. Anyone could understand it.
We also took the chart of accounts and changed it a bit. When donors give money to a community organization, there is a budget. For the purpose of this example, the donor is funding three things: phone cards, rent, and transportation. If that is the budget the donor has given, we take those line items—phone cards, rent, and transportation—and make each of those an expense in its own ledger. It’s its own line item. We don’t say it’s a chart of accounts; we simply take the budget line items the donor gave and make one piece of paper with that expense line item name and track it that way.
Russell: You still have all of your books. It’s a languaging thing. You have cash goes in, and you have phone cards. In simple terms, instead of a debit or a credit, you have something that goes in and something that comes out. That helps. How have donors that have seen this responded to this system?
Suzanne: We were very well-received in Mozambique. The CNCS, the National Community to Fight HIV/AIDS (it’s CNCS in Portuguese), they sent a lot of their field staff to us for training. Particularly donor accountants love it. In the beginning, when I was first starting to explain it to accountants, there were furrowed brows and a lot of skepticism. I would say, “Give me a chance to go through the whole system,” because they would be like, “Wait, no, uh.” I am changing what they know. At the end, they just say, “Wow, thank you so much. I had no way to take what I know as an accountant and give that information to this community-based organization. But you have simplified it. I can take this new system and give it to them.” They are happy in the end despite their protests at the beginning.
Russell: How can this system change the way that funding organizations or foundations measure things? Is there an opportunity here for them to look at measuring things in a way that would facilitate more effective and timely reporting?
Suzanne: Absolutely. One good change that we talked about a second ago was that donors, if they got these reports that were accurate and transparent, could increase donor funding. They could scale up projects in a way they would hesitate to do without those reports.
The other way is that if we had just one accounting system for community groups, that anyone could read on it because it is sound and has integrity, when donors leave an organization and another donor comes in, they don’t have to start from scratch. The first donor to adopt this system with that group, they would teach that group this system. After a year of training and mentoring, because training and mentoring is the heart of this system, it’s not that complicated. It’s a bank book and a cash book. It’s an income ledger and an expense ledger. It’s four books. But really knowing how to deal with all the strange things that come up in the field. What happens when you buy something from a vendor who doesn’t have a receipt? A woman is selling baskets in the village, and you need some. What do you do in that situation? How do you handle cash advances? What do you do when money disappears? There are real-life situations that occur that could feel like an obstacle to implementing the system. That is why it’s about having that long mentoring relationship between the donor and the community-based organization over time so that no matter what happens over the year, they can figure out how to do it. They can keep moving forward and producing these accurate and transparent financial reports no matter what happens. Things happen. Roofs leak, and things get stolen and misplaced.
My system is also not just the physical bank book/cash book/income/expense ledger. We also have a safe handling of money section. We talk about things like every time money changes hands, someone has to sign for it. So much is based on trust in communities. We don’t want you to mistrust anyone, but we say to trust your systems. Even though you trust this person, put in systems so if this person leaves the organization, the system doesn’t crash with them.
Hugh: You talk about not doing accounting on a computer. That is counterintuitive. We all log onto QuickBooks online and print all our stuff. That’s what we do, isn’t it?
Suzanne: Yeah. The program that we developed is clearly for people who don’t have electricity. I also believe that it’s for people in community groups who may have computers or electricity, but accounting may not be appropriate on the computer for those groups. Let me tell you about what those groups might look like.
Many of these community groups are started by passionate, charismatic people from all walks of life. Oftentimes the director of the organization may not be able to use a computer, but someone in the organization can. Why not give them the accounts to do in Excel? There is a good argument for still keeping it on paper, even if one person knows how to use a computer.
One of those arguments is that computer-based systems aren’t that simple. Our system that we created is for anyone in any walk of life. Even with a fifth-grade education, they should be able to use this system. What happens too often in the field is as a community-based organization, there will be one person doing the books. One person knows how to use the computer and Excel. They have a lot of power. You never want to concentrate power on any one person because there are corruption issues that become more prevalent. Even if they are completely honest, and most of them are, if that person, something happens to that person, they get sick or they have to leave that position, the system crumbles because it lived only in that person.
The community groups who don’t have a bunch of different people who understand a computerized system, those are the community groups our system is for. We can cross-train a variety of people in the organization. What happens when four or five people in the organization understand our system? It creates transparency in the system. If you or I could go to an organization and open up a book and see how money was spent last month, just take the book off the shelf, and see how much money was spent on phone cards, that is already an anti-corruption measure. It’s transparent and accessible to ordinary members of the organization. That is one of the biggest pluses of cross-training a variety of people in the organization. If someone gets sick, the main person keeping the books, other people can slip right into that position.
Also, allowing other people to see what is happening financially in this organization. It doesn’t have to be a mystery. Computerized accounting systems and Excel can feel like a black box. We’re not sure what that computerized system is doing. It can sift out information we need, but it’s not transparent. By putting things on paper and making it accessible adds another level of transparency that often isn’t available in computerized systems.
Russell: Those systems are only as good as what information is entered into them. We had an old tech term in the old days, garbage in and garbage out. I don’t think that has changed much. It’s knowing what to put into that system that is lost in the shuffle. I told you a story about a teacher that I had who was a pen and ink type of person when we had lunch. She insisted upon doing that. She was doing that 20 years later much to her students’ dismay. They needed to understand how transactions fit into the system. If you didn’t have a working knowledge of how to move that money around on paper, what you put into the computer system could be a lot harder to untangle. It’s all about accountability. That is the interesting piece we didn’t discuss. The accountability is teaching them how to enter it.
Talk about the accountability and the internal controls, and how this system is able to capture that and set that up offline so you can exercise it.
Suzanne: What’s nice in a paper-based system is for every entry into the cash book or bank book or the ledgers, you have a hard copy receipt. That is your direct link. Nothing goes into the books without a receipt. It’s the paper trail. It’s quite easy to see when you file your receipts at the end of the month how to reconcile. Has this receipt been entered? It has to be entered into two places. If it’s a cash receipt, it’s in the cash book, and it’s for whatever was bought with that cash. It’s a physical, tangible thing. It’s not abstract. It’s not theoretical. There is your receipt. It is in two places, the bank book or cash book, and in one of the ledgers. That directly makes things easier for everyone to understand.
Hugh: Say that again. It has to be in two places. Would you repeat that?
Suzanne: Remember when we said double-entry accounting. Why double-entry, you asked aptly. We need to understand how much money we have. We know that when we write it in one of our books, the money either is in cash or in the bank. There are two places that have monies, cash or in the bank. By adding what you have in cash with what you have in the bank, you know how much money you have. You need to track that.
We also need to track where we spent money. That relates to the reports we generate for our donors. We have to enter it twice. We always have to track money in and out of our cash or in and out of our bank. Always tracking any time we spend money or receive money, and always tracking where that money went. Did it go to buy phone cards, to pay rent? That’s why it’s twice. You have to write where it came from, and track how it was spent, on what line item. That’s why we enter things twice.
Hugh: In addition to donors knowing how we used our money, it’s required in reporting for a grant that you receive. Can you set up an accounting system for each project under an entity? Or is there one accounting system for everything?
Suzanne: For one donor?
Hugh: I’m thinking about a project that would be a grant in a neighborhood. Would you incorporate that into a system holistically, or would you set up a separate system for tracking that grant?
Suzanne: Your cash and your bank, you can have one cash book and one bank book. If a donor doesn’t insist on a separate bank account, you can just have one cash book and one bank book. But you must set up a separate income and expense ledger for each donor. Let’s say in your example there is a community group doing some work for feeding hungry people, a food bank. If they are getting money from another donor to do literacy work, they would need to set up an income and expense ledger to track income from that donor and how that money was spent.
Let’s say the literacy donor said we are going to reimburse you for books, computers, electricity, and some of your rent. Those four things. You would have those four expense lines to track how you spent that donor’s money, and an income ledger to track each time that donor gave you a funding trench, how much they gave you and when they gave it to you.
Hugh: Hmm. In your experience, Russell, you found probably some gray areas. I don’t think it’s lack of intent. It’s probably people who think they are doing good work for others, so they are not diligent in their systems. They are not afraid of it. What does that sound like to you?
Russell: Any time you get a system out there, a lot of the onus in measuring and tracking things falls onto the people who are actually delivering the services. They have real people in front of them. They have problems and issues and real people in front of them. They’re working feverishly to make a difference. The vast majority of them are going to be non-accountants. The way an accounting system works, you have all of these different ledgers.
To answer that question, you have ledgers and a general ledger that everything goes in. You have separate ledgers for different things. You have a ledger for travel, office supplies. But this system, the beauty of this is it backs out of that to boil this down to the lowest denominator that can be used effectively so that all of that reporting is captured without getting stuck in the language and the technicalities of accounting. The best part about it is that when you have something that is simplified and easy to use, people are going to use it. If it’s complicated, people will shy away from it, even if they subconsciously avoid doing it. But with getting the knowledge out, I think that’s an interesting aspect of what you’re doing, Suzanne. You’re getting knowledge out. More people need it. Talk a little bit how it is that the system is taught to folks out there in the field.
Suzanne: I’m a trainer by nature, not an accountant. I worked with an accountant to develop this system, but my heart and soul is in training. I am putting the bulk of my attention on the training. The system is created. Now it’s getting out there to do the training. Accountable Partners is a year-long training program for donors and larger NGOs, where I would go three times to visit that project and train the trainers of that NGO or donor. Those people can then go out to the community groups. I am training the mentors. It lasts a year because as we talked about, things happen. It’s not one and done. I saw a lot of that. I have seen a lot of that in my career overseas. We send people to training for a week or four days, and now you are trained. Go do it. Best of luck. We know people don’t learn like that. We know people learn by repetition, by applying their knowledge and problem-solving when they get stuck, and having the support to do that. Our training, the academy itself, is three trainings spaced evenly over a year, and e-learning through Zoom calls to help people address the obstacles they are encountering as they train their community groups. Things happen in the field. Things come up as surprises. How do you deal with them? It’s a year-long program to get the trainers up to speed as they get their community groups up to speed. The academy is one way to disseminate the information.
There are other organizations that can just completely train online with e-learning. I don’t have to visit them in the field for budgetary reasons. Because I am a trainer, I know that ongoing support is so important. We have a help line so no one is ever wondering what to do. Give us a call to arrange a meeting with you to go over your specific problems. Between our trainings, we have those Zoom calls for the group. To me, the crux of learning is that individual attention, training over time so no one is left to their own devices for very long struggling. We don’t want people to struggle and wonder and be confused. If they have questions, they will get answers.
There are two ways: in-person trainings for larger donors and NGOs, and we can do Zoom calls and online trainings for smaller organizations. The system I have created, I can send people the cash book, the bank book, the income ledgers, and expense ledgers. I can send those to people and customize it to the amount of line items you are tracking and send it to you.
Hugh: I remember some people using accounting that is cash in envelopes with lines on the outside. Why wouldn’t somebody just use Excel for accounting?
Suzanne: That’s a great question. Individually, I think Excel is great. What happens in the field is that there are corruption issues using Excel. One thing we saw happening is only one person knew how to use it, so they would generate a report with changed information and generate a new report. There are ways around that. If a community group is using Excel, I want to make sure several people know how to use it, and there are some safety precautions. Reports are printed out, dated, and signed so they can’t be changed retroactively and reprinted. If someone would use Excel, look at our system, and put our system into Excel, then cross-train four people. I don’t want only one person in the organization having all that power for corruption reasons, and if they leave, the system crashes. I do think our simplified system can be put into Excel. I want four people to be comfortable in Excel, and we should follow some safety protocols in printing them, binding them, and signing them to make sure nothing is done retroactively. Those are some problems we saw with Excel.
To your point, several people have asked me when the app is coming out. This system could be on an app. I think that is the next project for us is to find a donor and work with a donor who is willing to fund an app. The telephone is so powerful right now. So many people all over the world have smartphones. People are doing banking on their phones. There are community groups out there who with an app that mimicked this simple system would be a good option for. Until then, I think handwriting is so transparent and easy.
Hugh: A couple things come to mind. Being audit-ready. Somebody comes knocking on the door and is doing an audit, like the agency with three letters that starts with I. You want to be audit-ready. Having accurate records that are transparent and accountable.
Before that, there are myths we have in the nonprofit world that you can’t spend money on marketing or paying adequate salaries. There is a myth about overhead. Some of the stuff we do is 100% for clients. It’s a pass-through. To say that is overhead is ludicrous. It’s a result of how you classify it in accounting. Have you come up with any wisdom on how to classify what is overhead or not?
Suzanne: The groups we worked with, that is such a good question. I think it’s important. Overhead is important. Someone has to keep the lights on. I think overhead is like a bad thing. Keep it down. I actually do volunteer work for an organization where it’s a one-man show. He is saving so many lives in Tibet. He has two doctors to run a clinic. If you count his salary as overhead, because he is the director and not at the clinic, he is raising the money, you know how many people are alive because of him?
If the work is being done, and the work is good and important, maybe there is overhead. Maybe there is more than 15% overhead. Maybe there is 20-30. But if the work is important and in volume and getting done, I have no problem at all. It took those things to make that happen.
Have I found how to classify overhead? We work with such small organizations that the donors actually in the budget lines aren’t looking. There are no lines for overhead. They fund direct, concrete outputs.
Hugh: Russell, do you have any wisdom here? Being audit-ready or how to classify overhead.
Russell: The person that is delivering the service has to eat. You have to have a location that you deliver the services from in many instances. These are things that are typically lumped into overhead. You can’t really deliver programs effectively without a structure or things to support that. That is particularly troublesome for smaller organizations.
As being accountable has been, but now with this simplified system, and that has gone out there with smaller grassroots, one of the things I’m curious about is how the availability of something that is this user-friendly has changed some of the conversation with these smaller organizations about keeping track of things. What is the impact you have seen?
Suzanne: Donors are more willing to fund multiple times. One of the big obstacles we saw without a system like this is the trust aspect is not really there. You can go in the ground and see they are doing the work. That’s great. The work is being done. They don’t have the receipts. There is no paper trail. There is no transparency. Missing information. The donors wince and hobble along and maybe give more money. But with this system, community groups get more money, and they get more money over time. There is a longer-term partner.
Russell: What have been some of the biggest changes around the people who are delivering the services? Have you seen an attitudinal shift with them? How has that impacted how they do their work?
Suzanne: It’s a big relief. As you said, the people who are running these organizations are good at what they do. They are not accountants. Accounting was always the boogey man. There is stress. Is it right? What am I supposed to do? I’m confused. It’s scary. It makes people nervous. They are not a bad man trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes. They just don’t know how to do it. They’re a nurse or building wells. To create a simple system, we saw lots of smiles. We are cross-training four people in the organization. If I don’t know something, I can look to my partner who might know. When we train community groups, we link them together. There is always someone who gets the system fast. It just clicks. Other people takes longer. Peer to peer learning has been really important. It’s a great resource. They don’t have to call me. They can ask in their own language. We taught this in Portuguese, but people are speaking local languages. They can talk among themselves in local language. I said relief is the biggest component of people using the system.
Hugh: Taking the leap?
Suzanne: Relief. The feeling of relief. Of not being confused about what to do. Is this report what you’re looking for?
Hugh: Confusion and clutter cost more money than people realize. Goodness. This is a lot of useful information that is way over on the practical side. What prompted you to come back to the U.S. from Mozambique? Is that where you were last?
Suzanne: I was in Afghanistan last.
Hugh: Oh my.
Suzanne: I got married to a Brit. I came back to the States for the first time, living here now. I married a Brit. He started his immigration process. We had to be here for that. That was the impetus to leave the developing world and put our roots down in America for a while.
Hugh: Wow. That’s a happy turn of events. You’re in Denver in the 303 area code.
Suzanne: I’m in Boulder, yeah.
Hugh: Boulder. Thank you, Russell for connecting us with Suzanne. She is a social entrepreneur. She sees a need and fills it with value. It’s gratifying to hear your story.
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I did church music ministry for years. One day, somebody heard me singing. “Hugh, what did you do with the money?” I said, “What money?” “The money your mother gave you for singing lessons.” That’s probably a lack of accountability.
Suzanne, what thought do you want to leave with people today? How do you want to challenge them to think at a higher level?
Suzanne: Two things. Paper-based accounting systems, although it may look like going backwards, we are actually going forward to transparency, toward accessibility, toward sustainability. A paper-based system is sustainable when many people in the organization can learn it and understand it. It creates transparency within the organization and between you and the donor. I’m challenging people to rethink doing accounting on a computer for smaller community groups. A paper-based system is often a much better method.
The other thing I’d like to put out there is one of the missions of my organization is to create one single accounting system for all community-based organizations so that different donors will no longer be teaching different kinds of accounting systems to their community groups. We can all agree on one system for all donors and groups. That is a larger mission. If anyone is interested in hearing more about that or joining the cause, we’d love to hear from you.
I want to give an offer to the listeners of this podcast. The offer is that I’d love to talk to you and see if your community group or you as a donor have a need for our system. I’d love to offer a 45-minute call with me to assess the issues you are having with accounting and to see if my system wouldn’t solve a lot of your issues. My email is Suzanne@AccountablePartners.com. Please drop me a line and let me know if you’d like to speak with me.
Hugh: AccountablePartners.com is her website.
Russell: It’s been a remarkable broadcast. Suzanne, thank you for sharing some time with us today. Like she mentioned, a lot of you are out there doing remarkable work. I know that here at home, a lot of us have access to computer systems. I would give a thought to looking like a simple system like this so that everybody is thinking about how to account for things and money, something that is simple. It can help improve the information that you’re getting and the understanding of measuring what it is that you do. The better you can measure and explain and show donors and funders the value you’re bringing them, the more money they will want to send you.