What is a database? A database is a means for organizing, storing, managing, and retrieving information. Your fundraising, box office, sales and accounting software are all considered to be types of database software.
Bookkeeping packages (e.g. QuickBooks, Simply Accounting) spreadsheets (e.g. Microsoft Excel) and database software (e.g. Sumac) are electronic tools for delivering a narrative on your operations and programs. It is essential that you pay attention to the stories they tell; it is equally important that these different sources communicate effectively with each other in order to deliver a meaningful tale.
- Who’s doing the talking? It is important to be consistent when communicating financial information. Decide which system will do the talking and which will do the listening. Having information flow in one direction will reduce errors, confusion, or missed transactions. Multiple databases in a single organization should be used simultaneously and reconciled to each other on a regular basis. Integrating your databases into your daily routine will help to support sound management.
- Speaking the same language. When communicating financial information from one system to another it is important that the allocation is the same in both systems. For example, if you are tracking donations that are associated with a certain project or event in your database software, make sure you make the same allocation in your accounting software. This will help in the future when pulling reports from either system or doing reconciliations.
- Doing a little bit at a time. Errors more often happen when you try to condense information. While it might be more efficient to do weekly reports, errors may occur if financial information provided by the database software doesn’t match what is in the bank. For example, if you are doing daily credit card batches, than weekly reports may not catch the information you need. Batch totals and generated reports need to have the same time parameters. Keep things simple and work on a consistent basis. While it might take a little longer initially, it will make it easier to identify errors, saving time in the long run.
- Take time for the details. It might be easier to group contact information together when going from one system to another, but it can contribute to errors. Make sure whatever information you are tracking in one system is communicated to the other system. For example, record individual names and donation amounts rather than a batch total.
- Keep an eye on things. Try doing regular reconciliations and comparisons between your database software and financial software. Tracking as you go will make doing a year-end reconciliation go smoothly, and will help you know where you are in regards to budget vs. actual.
- Remember what you did. You are only as good as your information. (Garbage In/Garbage Out). If your database software gives you the option to record communications, such as emails, memos, or notes, try using the function with regards to financial transactions. If you have special notes relating to a transaction, record it in the communication notes for that contact for easy reference. Storing important information pertaining to donors or other contacts will contribute to organizational history and make staff transitions easier.
- Don’t leave it to the last minute. We are often leaving grant reports and year-end audits until the last minute, when it can be a headache to go back through months of activity to get the information needed for the report. Track as you go in both the database software and financial software. Doing it in both will act as a double check to make sure the numbers are correct, as well as take some of the stress of that last minute report.
- It’s okay to anticipate. It is common to anticipate transactions, especially those reflecting revenues (eg. Held tickets, pledges, and confirmed grants). Make sure that if you are entering an anticipated transaction into your database software as a receivable, that you communicate that information to the financial software. Not doing so could result in double counting the revenue when the money does actually arrive. Be sure to compare receivables list from all databases on a regular basis.
- Break it down. Most database software packages will allow you to break out details on transactions. Breaking out gross amounts, taxes, and any service fees applicable will help eliminate errors or the need for further calculation when entering data into the financial software. Make sure you have taken full advantage of all the setup features to automate standard charges (eg. service charges and sales taxes).
- Where it all belongs. Similar to your financial income statement where revenues are tracked on a yearly basis, it is important to do the same in your database. Most database software doesn’t have the concept of deferred revenue, so you may have to indicate what year funds are allocated to. For example, allocating things like donations, grants, and ticket sales to your 2009-2010 season will make reconciling and reporting easier. It will also help in the budgeting process when you are able to pull up reports with precise data pertaining to certain years.
This tip sheet was created by Samantha Zimmerman of Young Associates. Founded in 1993, Young Associates provides bookkeeping and financial management services in the charitable sector, focused on arts and culture. Young Associates also provides consulting services in the areas of data management, business planning and strategic planning. Heather Young published Finance for the Arts in Canada (2005), a textbook and self-study guide on accounting and financial management for not-for-profit arts organizations.