Part 2: Personal to Personnel
In 2019, I came to Lost Valley Education and Event Center (LVEC), first as a student, then as LVEC’s bookkeeper, with no prior training in the craft other than management of my own finances and my stint as an Air Force Intelligence Officer.
LVEC is a nonprofit whose resident staff, renters, and volunteer engage students in ecological, social, and personal growth. Many residents live in a low-income housing community because co-housing with housemates offers them a better quality of life than they would get if they were trying to make ends meet in a more typical living situation, while simultaneously lowering their impact on the planet. LVEC’s ability to continue to offer that housing at below market rates relies in-part on the organization’s ability to make the most of what income it does have.
This case study is a demonstration on how our internal processes directly feed into the external mission. (If you didn’t catch Part 1, read it here.)
Develop Professional Excellence to Foster Trust
The systems I have implemented, the training I have received, and the time and energy I have put into working with staff and residents reduces the chance that income will go missing, or that I’ll have to spend organization money via unnecessary hours on fixing mistakes caused by errors. To accomplish this, I needed to get our nonprofit aligned with that objective. Here are the steps I took.
● Prove organizational support worthwhile immediately
As the Quickbooks class progressed, I developed more confidence and explored more aspects of the software. Clicking on an enticing pop-up one day helped me realize that LVEC qualified for the employee retention tax credit as our entire events season had been cancelled due to COVID-19. We have received a $6k refund for Q2 and the credit will ultimately offer $12k-$18k of unexpected financial support in a year where we sorely needed it.
While engaged in a slow cleanup of old accounts prompted by a class exercise that required identifying and correcting errors, I realized that we were missing $1300 that we had expected to receive from a contest won on behalf of our agroforestry department. The purveyors of the contest had made multiple attempts to directly deposit the winnings into our bank account in November of 2019. No one on the admin or events team kept track of those attempts or realized that the money had never been deposited, though multiple departments had assumed for nine months that the money was available.
The Event Director reached out to the organization with an apologetic hat-in-hand. The contest received our overtures enthusiastically—surprising me, I’ll admit—and sent the money to the correct account within a week. Not only did they send the originally allocated $1300, but they also included an extra $200 just because. The contest winnings were earmarked for our agroforestry department and will allow them to engage in much needed fire-protection and Oak Savanna restoration work.
● Big picture: Encourage a stretch from personal to personnel
Before my proposal to receive training specific to my role, and subsequent successes, LVEC had not budgeted for staff training. Now, our Business Administrator is setting aside $200 for training per staff member in 2021, and our newly hired, enthusiastic HR Coordinator is working with individual staff members to identify their specific training needs and goals. We have an organizational account on the same platform I took my class on, with intentions to provide more education to employees in the future, in accounting, HR, and so on.
● No one is an island
As mentioned in my introduction of Part 1, one of the unique challenges of working for the nonprofit side of LVEC while simultaneously living in community is that I, and other staff members, are forced to shift back and forth between roles multiple times a day. Sometimes, I don’t want to be asked invoice or reimbursement questions at a community meal after working all day. It’s been a process learning to do my job to the high level I expect of myself while establishing and enforcing those boundaries, without feeling like I’m letting someone I care about down. This struggle goes the other way sometimes too—when I have my “Bookkeeper hat” on and really need something from an employee or resident, haven’t seen them all day, and they’re just not in a space where they can help me, it can be hard to set work aside and let things go.
● Seek allies to help you through conflicting roles
In order to balance my conflicting roles, I have found, or sometimes created, relationships with people who understand my specific challenges. When I was in training, I noted that the previous bookkeeper often simply accepted the behavior of other staff members or residents and did not try to educate them as far as best practices went. While in the short term filling out forms for staff, fixing their mistakes, or cleaning up after residents allowed her to move on with her day, in the long term it created more work and stress for her and led to consistent and avoidable problems with financial accountability at every organizational level.
In contrast, I have spent many hours over the last ten months sitting down with individual staff members to try to work out financial systems with them that make sense for the task they are trying to accomplish. Many staff members have been wonderfully patient with this process—I’ve been through three or four different methods of invoicing with our volunteer coordinator—and I’m beginning to see the fruits of that labor. Now, I have regular systems that both help the organization categorize and track income and expenses, as well as systems that staff members understand and embrace as both efficient and empowering.
● Focus on solving the problem, not on being the person who solves the problem
In some cases, staff has taken the lead and created their own systems that work better than what I was trying to implement or was already using. For example, our property manager was working with half a dozen spreadsheets to keep track of the different parts of on-boarding or out-processing a resident, then decided they needed to simplify. They created a consolidated version of multiple spreadsheets, almost a full software program customized to our site management needs, and I embraced it readily in order to support both their own goals as well as my own.
● Educate the customer
Finding allies has also prompted me to work directly with community members. Residents have less interaction with our financial systems than staff, but where there is an intersection I’ve put in time and energy into educating the community. For example, LVEC has been allowing folks to pay their rent via PayPal for a number of years. Not terrible on the surface—but many residents would not label their payments. Some paid on behalf of other residents without notation. Some folks would pay via PayPal from an email address that had no association with their name. When EARTH reconciled these transactions with open rental invoices, these many small problems became much larger ones.
Payments would be misattributed to the wrong person, or recorded as sales receipts instead of as invoice payments, leaving some resident accounts labeled as overdue, with their payments lost somewhere in the system. Reviewing invoices later almost always led to more work trying to track down who had paid and who hadn’t. In the last ten months, each time I’ve seen an unlabeled payment, I have emailed or spoken with the resident in question to ask what the payment is for, and to let them know that they need to label in the future. When I receive payments from mystery email addresses, I send out a community-wide notification so I can identify the person involved, and then I note on their Quickbooks account what email or name they used to pay in PayPal so that EARTH can match the payment with the correct invoice moving forward. A little bit of this effort has gone a long way, and I rarely see unlabeled or shared payments anymore, cutting down on the work needed to reconcile resident accounts later.
Finally, keep it real
In a call-back to my “Innovation is Iterative” point in Part 1, I’ve continued to seek improvement to our rent-payment process, and in 2021 we’re about to make an organizational shift to accepting payments only via check, money order, or via the “Pay Invoice” option that was enabled when we decided to make use of Quickbooks Payments and allow residents to pay invoices directly via ACH transfer or debit/credit card.
While my initial efforts to introduce modern accounting or software systems were frequently met with skepticism or outright hostility from a sometimes tech-and-internet-phobic rural community and have taken months to implement, I have always been honest with my supervisors, peers, and residents about the challenges of our previous bookkeeping practices and the resulting stress that fell on me. In the last ten months, after demonstrating repeatedly how good bookkeeping is the keystone to mission success, financial abundance, and thus an improved quality of life for the whole community, my push to sign people up to make digital payments ahead of our January 1 deadline brought in half the community to the new system within thirty days.
In many cases, embracing software and system innovation has reduced our organizational need to print paper or burn gas. Doing so has also freed up staff time for the crucial practical work of sustainability, like clearing out an acre of land that hadn’t been used as a garden in three years, filling all available housing units for the first time in six years, adding or improving additional housing options, and teaching for our first fully maxed out HSS class, all to the backdrop of a global pandemic prompting many folks to consider, perhaps for the first time, their own fragility in a hyper-connected, unsustainable world.
Laura Reichardt (“See”) is currently serving as the Lost Valley Bookkeeper. She hails from Colorado, but has traveled all over the world. She’s spent the last two years in Portland, Oregon and is now looking to make Lost Valley her home. She was drawn to Lost Valley because of the opportunity she sees to live lightly on the earth within a supportive community environment.
Articles on Blue Avocado do not provide legal representation or legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for advice or legal counsel. Blue Avocado provides space for the nonprofit sector to express new ideas. Views represented in Blue Avocado do not necessarily express the opinion of the publication or its publisher.