May 2014
Finance and Administration

Accounting Software: Finding the Right Fit

Building Teams on Trust. Lay-Clergy Partnerships. Entrepreneurial Clergy. Empowered Laity. Effective Communication. What do all of these things have in common?

a) They are all subjects of recent Vestry Papers articles
b) They are all critical to re-imagining ourselves as church
c) They are all highly dependent on clear, accurate, transparent financial information to make them effective
d) All of the above

If your answer was d), congratulations! All the more reason you need financial accounting software that serves you, not the other way around. So what's in your toolkit? Need a few suggestions? Here you go:


ACS (from ACS Technologies) [www.acstechnologies.com]
ACS is a very popular, higher-end, church-specific modular system with the potential to take care of your church management and financial needs from soup to nuts, depending upon how many of the modules you choose. Along with that comes pricing flexibility, with the ability to choose modules from basic accounting to sophisticated financial, property, and member-relations management, commensurate with your budget.

Users particularly love its comprehensive database capabilities for tracking both members and pledges, its full integration with the financial modules eliminating double entry and errors, its ability to send pledge statements by email directly from the program, and its ability to provide clear statements for such problematic items as amounts pledged in one year and paid in a subsequent year while seamlessly accounting for and reporting on those amounts properly. Fund accounting capability, accounting controls, and financial reporting are also strengths, as is built-in capacity for church-specific reporting such as the Parochial Report. Finally, customer service gets raves as well.

Caveats include cost (not posted on their website-you need to speak with someone for a quote) and complexity. This is not an intuitive program. It involves significant setup and some level of bookkeeping sophistication to reap the value it's capable of providing. If you don't have sustainable, consistent access to qualified users, this is not the software for you.

QuickBooks (from Intuit) [www.QuickBooks.com]
One of the most extensively used accounting software packages on the market, QuickBooks is a midrange system with all accounting functions fully integrated. While add-ons are required for such items as member-relations management, QuickBooks’ huge market share ensures there are many choices with which it will integrate, including a long list of new apps that Intuit has designed for the QuickBooks online version. While it offers a version tailored to nonprofits, it is not church specific, and while it is not set up for fund accounting, its class-tracking system can be used as a workaround in many situations.

QuickBooks’ immense popularity stems primarily from the highly intuitive nature of how it functions. Even volunteers with little accounting background can maneuver through routine accounting functions with very little training, and many people are already familiar with the program from having used it in business.

This vastly increases the pool of potential financial volunteers within any congregation. QuickBooks is also one of the most reasonably priced systems on the market. Combine those two key benefits and it’s easy to understand why QuickBooks is so popular with our small-to-medium sized churches.

Standard reporting is as easy to use and navigate as the routine accounting functions, yet highly customizable for those who wish to tailor reports to specific needs. Users also give high marks to customer service.

Two main drawbacks exist. First, some workarounds are necessary to do church-specific functions (like pledge statements) directly from the program without integrated add-ons or apps. One very good resource to help you learn QuickBooks is Lisa London’s book, “QuickBooks for Churches and Other Religious Organizations.” Check out two tools from that book which Lisa has recorded on YouTube: Using QuickBooks for Churches and Donor Thank-You's in QuickBooks. Second, transactions in QuickBooks can be edited very easily, including transactions in prior periods. This is wonderful for users who don’t have to worry about closed periods when posting, but a cause for concern among accountants and auditors who must take extra steps to ensure consistency from one period to the next.

Church Windows (from Computer Helper Publishing) [www.churchwindows.com]
Another long-time player in the Church Management software market, Church Windows started out with a definite focus in the member-management area, gradually adding and upgrading its financial accounting capabilities. It seems to seek to combine the modular approach of ACS (without quite the same level of sophistication) with the intuitive appeal of QuickBooks (without quite the same level of user-friendliness). Its market share and company size are much smaller than either of the previous two, but it still receives very good overall ratings for functionality and customer service.

In my experience with our congregations in the Diocese of New Jersey, these are the three most popular programs currently in use. But they are far from the only choices out there. For a great comprehensive analysis of the wider market, including links to each individual website, visit Capterra.com. Then find the right tools to turn your system into the resource you and your congregation deserve!

Phyllis Jones is chief financial officer for the Diocese of New Jersey, serving in this role since July 2010. Prior to that time, she spent 15 years in public practice as a tax consultant and CPA. This was followed by 10 years in private industry as CFO for Jet Set Sports, a leading provider of VIP hospitality for the Olympic Games. A lifelong member of St. Matthew's Episcopal Church in Pennington, NJ, she served on their finance and audit committees, as a lay Eucharistic minister, perennial mission trip participant, and youth leader. An honors graduate of Rider University, she and her husband, Michael, recently celebrated their 31st wedding anniversary and have two grown children.

Try This: Are you familiar with The Episcopal Church’s Manual of Business Methods in Church Affairs? Canon 7 of The Episcopal Church: Of Business Methods in Church Affairs? Episcopal Church canons have very specific requirements for how congregations manage their monetary assets. For a quick overview, read William Doubleday’s “Knowledge is Power.” The next step is up to you.

Resources

  • ACS (from ACS Technologies)
This article is part of the May 2014 Vestry Papers issue on Finance and Administration

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