Help me help my coworker manage our money
June 10, 2010 8:26 AM   Subscribe

Asking for a coworker: Need help with finances (really long, sorry)

I work as a research assistant for a fairly large lab at a university. I have no financial background, but have developed a reputation as the guy to go to if you have some kind of problem. Our office manager sends me this email out of the blue...

I HAVE to come up with a better way to manage all of the grants in “real” time with purchasing, salaries, etc and have no idea where to start.

Right now – we receive “monthly reports” (see attached) from the business office. They pull all of the reports from the financial system and send them to us for review. The reports are always a month behind.

*****Poster's note: the attachment has a list of items by row, with columns of budget, expenditures this month, projected expenditures, encumbrance, and balance (balance is projected expenditures - budget)*****

Every project/grant has a separate report. 9 times out of 10, there are inaccuracies that take months to get corrected. Because of all the inaccuracies of the reports and billing lag, we have no idea how much we are spending and what we have to spend on a grant from month to month. So, what happens is – a month or two before the end of the grant, we have tons of money to spend (or we have to send it back) OR we are in deficit by 50K.

We are constantly shifting things around from one project to another to provide balance.

The charges that hit the monthly report are internal and external. For example, [one particular kind of] charges hit the accounts (about 2 months after the fact). Salaries are supposed to be encumbered for the life of the grant but payroll doesn’t always work that part out.

I keep a running tally of what I spend/purchase and it’s listed on the weekly report. (I’m a little behind on that one).

Then we have what are called “residual” accounts. These accounts are 1 big pool of department funds that they are supposed to keep track of but its like a black hole. – if you take a look at the “reimbursement” attachment – “residual training” tab- you’ll see how I keep track of the spending on those accounts. Then you’ll see the department tabs – we get about 7K each July to spend for travel, books, etc before we have to start charging grants for things…

If you look at the “acct numbers for billing” – you’ll see the various acct info – (I’m working on updating this)

There’s a salary sheet….

I’d like to include the protocols that are tied to each account as well.

Last but not least – there is a “cash receipts” report - see attach “cash receipts” - that shows what checks have been received on each account so we know what to bill, etc….

There’s a whole lot of other stuff but these are the major players…

I would like all of the financial stuff to work a lot better than it does now. Unfortunately, all of the reports come from the business office and they will not allow me access because there is only departmental access and not individual PIs.

So naturally my first thought was that she needs to get some kind of financial software, so that's one aspect of the question. Should she get financial software, if so, what kind?

Quickbooks seems the logical choice, but people seem to be unhappy with Intuit's extortive business practices in reviews I've read. Also, never having used it myself, it feels like that would be an unsatifactory answer from my perspective.

Also, since the lab has to deal with funding from several different sources (the accounts for billing spreadsheet she sent me has about 15 different items), any software should be able to handle that kind of thing.

Any other ideas beyond "get software" would be very helpful as well.

I had some ideas of my own, but again, not having the financial background, I don't know if they're good ideas. Namely...

1) Find a way to stop moving money around so you don't need to keep moving money around to fix the problems we're making ourselves.
2) If software won't be helpful, reorganize spreadsheets (chronologically?), or create an Access database to consolidate. Ideas of how you organize your spreadsheets would be very helpful.
3) Keep better records on our end so that we don't rely on the business office for a total of how much we have, we can just worry about correcting their mistakes

Any other suggestions/critques/comments will be very helpful. I apologize for the length of the post, but I think it's necessary for you to see exactly where I am being thrust into this. I'll be happy to answer any questions as best I can, as long as I can keep things non-specific to the lab/institution.

Thank you so much.
posted by cali59 to Work & Money (6 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
To me-it sounds like you need Project Management software to handle all these aspects. Do you have an IT budget-you might be able to convince the higher ups that it's time to move past spreadsheets!
posted by duddes02 at 8:37 AM on June 10, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for the suggestion. I'm sure we have a budget for something like that, no problem. Can you recommend a particular software package?
posted by cali59 at 8:44 AM on June 10, 2010

I don't have any software recommendations for something of your scale, but I'm sure you'll get some.

What I can suggest is that you can probably solve a lot of the problems you are creating yourself by sitting down as a department (or having your office manager take the lead with all of your suggestions) and putting together:

1) a process flow of what needs to happen with this reporting/reconciliation process. Having something to look at can help you figure out where your weak points are and what you might be able to change to prevent more work. Also seeing the steps in the process and the inputs and outputs all in one place can really help those who aren't necessarily involved in every step in the process.

2) creating a list of requirements for what you need the software solution This will help you choose a package if you end up buying something or figure out how to do it with existing tools in an easier manner.

Sorry if this all seems obvious to you, but though stuff like this is day-to-day in some corporate environments, since academics and non-profits generally have more important other stuff to worrry about, they don't have processes (like the ones that keep me employed) to follow in situations like this.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 9:09 AM on June 10, 2010

I don't know how university research labs work but the problems that your office manager are describing are what in-house accountants deal with at companies. Does your lab have an accounting staff?

If not see if you have a budget for an accountant. This kind of administrative processing and dealing with financial systems is what accountants do; this is not the skillset of an office manager.

Assuming that hiring an accounting manager is not a viable option for you it sounds like this office manager needs to have his/her workflow diagrammed so that he/she knows where communication problems arise.

But, really, get an accountant!
posted by dfriedman at 10:35 AM on June 10, 2010

This is the kind of beef you bring up with your University's treasurer's Office / Accounts payable / receivable department.
posted by WeekendJen at 1:39 PM on June 10, 2010

Response by poster: Good suggestions. I'll definitely explore the process in depth with her and try to brainstorm what can be improved.

Our lab doesn't have an accounting staff. With the exception of a few principal investigators who spend a lot of time obtaining grants, I'd guess that everybody else but this office manager is focused on research full time.

Now that I think of it though, I think keeping track of expenses used to be done by someone else but they left. My responsibilities have kept me oblivious to the financial side of things until this email got to me, but I can find out when the office manager assumed these responsibilites.

I'm almost certain that budgeting $500-$1000 for project management software isn't going to be an issue, but I would think that the ideal would be to solve this problem without absorbing the expense of a dedicated accountant. I'll ask the office manager what percentage of her time she spends on this. She has had assistants in the past, perhaps overwork is a reason why this has become more of a pressing problem.

Along the lines of what dfriedman and WeekendJen suggest, I'll see what resources the university has to assist our lab.

Thanks again
posted by cali59 at 6:50 PM on June 10, 2010

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