Ten Tips on Being a Better Bookkeeper for Smaller Organizations

  1. Plug into the bigger picture. Maintaining the accounting records is a foundational element of financial management, and of the management decision-making process. If you only think about posting entries, then you’re probably not giving the client everything they need. Most small organizations need a bookkeeper who can help them manage their financial statements.
  2. Keep your eyes on the prize. The ultimate goal of bookkeeping is to issue financial statements. Each session should probably end with you giving the client a report of some sort, e.g. year-to-date statements, or at least a progress update describing what was accomplished today. This engages the client in the process, and reinforces your value to management.
  3. Check your own work. The bank reconciliation is a standard verification step. So is checking the invoice detail contained on supplier statements to the invoice detail in the General Ledger. What other steps can you take to prove the accuracy of your work before you issue reports? You may use different techniques in different circumstances, depending on the nature of the transactions.
  4. Read reports before you hand them over. Beyond doing account reconciliations, it’s important for you to read the financial statements before you hand them to the client. This will help you pick up misallocations and other errors that your verification steps may not have caught. It also ensures that you are familiar with the statements as complete documents. This is of much higher value to the client than handling a bunch of individual transactions!
  5. Encourage the client to read their statements. This may be more easily said than done, depending on the client. Clients who don’t read their financials are always bad news. Sooner or later something will go wrong that will require them to respond. If they aren’t familiar with those documents, look out! It’s much harder to explain something “under the gun.” Regular review builds their ability to interpret both good and bad news, and encourages them to understand and trust your work. Reading the statements with them can offer an excellent opportunity for you to share your expertise – and for the client to keep you fully up to date with the organization’s activities as they affect your work.
  6. Be aware of the tax rules. Whether you handle the client’s government reporting, or whether you hand it to an accountant, it’s to your advantage to be aware of the rules. Even the smallest organizations are likely to have some dealings with the Canada Revenue Agency, and perhaps with provincial and municipal tax departments. You’ll almost certainly need to know the basics of payroll and sales taxes. If you’re working for charities or not-for-profits, you need to be aware of the particular filings they may need to make (e.g. T3010BT2 ShortGST/HST rebate claims).
  7. Maintain proper documentation. Ideally, each transaction will be documented by an invoice, contract, receipt, petty cash report, cash register tape, or other third party or internally generated explanation. Decide what you need to retain in the case of direct debits, electronic funds transfers and other online transactions. Know the Canada Revenue Agency records retention rules, which are available on their website at www.cra.gc.ca. In most cases (but not all), you must maintain full detail for the current fiscal year plus six previous. Financial statements and general ledgers must be maintained back to the start of the organization. Make sure that your electronic records can be read for the full retention period. This may mean updating software and transferring documents off old media (remember floppy discs?) onto something current.
  8. Maintain a good audit trail. The audit trail links the steps in the bookkeeping process, from source documents to financial statements. Your software probably enforces a certain amount of audit trail notation – for instance, by making you enter invoice numbers in the purchases journal, to link the entry back to the paperwork. You can strengthen the process by recording the account number and a posting reference (e.g. journal entry number) on the invoice. If the organization hires a chartered accountant to perform an annual audit, they will appreciate the clarity this adds to the records. A good audit trail will also help you to review your work and respond to client questions.
  9. Keep pace with change: adapt your system and processes. “The way we’ve always done it” can’t last forever – or we’d all still be adjusting our eyeshades as we bent over our quills and inkwells! As new technologies emerge, and as the client’s needs for reporting change over time, think about your software, paper and electronic records, office processes, and the layout of the financial statements (chart of accounts). From time to time, it will probably be to your and the client’s benefit to update. Your ability to take the lead in proposing improvements underscores your value to the organization.
  10. Help the client to help you. Determine what you need from them in the way of documentation and instructions. Work out a clear process for getting the information, and for storing records once they’ve been entered. Establish reasonable deadlines – for them providing the raw materials, and for you providing reports. Discuss what reports are required, in what format, and who will receive them. A good bookkeeper can help to create a structured process that makes accounting clearer and easier for everyone – including you!

This tip sheet was created by Heather Young 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.