Armanino Blog

Foundations: Best Practices for Technology Implementations

August 09, 2019

Technology systems are integral to achieving the greatest mission impact from your foundation's grant dollars. But if you're like most finance leaders, the current state of your technology infrastructure remains a barrier to these goals.

Foundations need robust systems that accommodate the fluidity inherent in the grant-making process. Yet they are often hamstrung by systems that are inadequate for their needs and do not integrate natively, leading to data silos that don't meet their decision-making needs.

Having several dozen technology platforms — from email and productivity tools to accounting and enterprise resource planning (ERP) to grants management — requires monumental effort to manually reconcile the various data silos so you have a single source of truth. These manual, inefficient workarounds overwhelm your staff and pull them away from higher-value functions. And when you have to wait each month for the books to close, important grant-making decisions are often delayed or made with out-of-date information.

APIs (Automatic Programming Interface) allow applications to communicate with each other across operating systems and services. Systems integration projects use APIs to map fields in multiple systems so that data entered into one system is automatically input into another on a set schedule without any manual intervention. The time required to generate reports goes from days or weeks to seconds.

When embarking on a software integration project, foundation executives can position themselves to achieve the greatest return on their investment by keeping the following best practices in mind:

  • Start with a plan. Every system's implementation or integration begins with a plan-and-analyze phase. Come to the table with a clear understanding of why you are undertaking this project and what your desired outcome is. This vision will set the stage for the rest of the project.
  • Prioritize data. You don't need to sync up every single field. Consider what information is critical to achieving your organizational goals. For example, if your goal is a single version of the truth regarding your foundation's financial health, then you will need any data that is important for financial compliance and regulatory reporting. You might look at the ERP as your general ledger and your other systems as subledgers. You can allow stakeholders outside the accounting department to have access to these systems (as long as they comply with data management protocols) while restricting access to the ERP to key accounting staff.
  • Create a shared language. When the integration team has to translate between systems (e.g., a field is called one thing in System A but something different in System B), the project price tag increases. Before deployment, make sure everyone who will be entering data knows the naming conventions and how data should be tagged. Also, establish a clear policy for how to handle transactions that are entered after a period has been closed.
  • Communicate changes that occur after scoping. One common problem in such projects is handling changes that occur after the project has been scoped. For example, if you add a new classification of transactions but don't update the integration, the integration may fail. After the integration has been deployed, making changes is not only more expensive, but the team might have to take the entire system offline to fix the problem.
  • Allow adequate time for the project. Never rush an implementation or integration. Organizations trying to hit an arbitrary "go-live" date tend to bulldoze their way through the project. Focusing on speed rather than thoroughness can lead to oversights, errors, and added project scope. Remember: You are (hopefully) going to live with this system integration for a long time. So take the time to do it right.

Although API-level integration is a significant investment of time and money, the results are typically many times greater. Automating tedious and repetitive tasks, eliminating data silos and freeing up the accounting and finance department for higher-value analysis lets your foundation make a bigger impact.

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