The Challenge: Accounting

When looking for an accounting solution for Sarapis, we checked out the popular free, libre, open source GNUCash. GNUCash is the most popular FLO accounting software program out there and its community is clearly proud of the program’s ability to meet the needs of individuals and small businesses.

We need easy nonprofit account software that can keep track of operating expenses, manage donation inflows, account for cash-on-hand and manage project expenses. Right now, we need something relatively lightweight and easy to use—something that allows us to  get a big-picture sense of our financials without a lot of software training or accounting know-how. And, of course, we want it to FLO.  Not only do we want the tool to be free and open, but we want people to be able to see our accounting records in real-time.

Shouldn’t there be an easy solution for new nonprofits so that (a) people can more easily start their own organization and (b) people with less access to power and resources can incubate their own projects?

GNUCash looks good (if you like the look and feel of Windows 98), but it would require a certain amount of accounting know-how and software configuration to convert the “business accounting” template over for non-profit purposes. I have more skills than the average person starting a nonprofit in both these areas—but it still feels like an overwhelming undertaking to me. For someone starting from scratch, the configuration required would likely be a barrier to entry so high as to completely discourage them from using the software. (If creating a nonprofit template in GNUCash is something you’d like to help us with, or if it exists somewhere and I missed it, please let me know.)

As people who think there should be FLO tools available for people who want to help each other, we found the lack of an easily-findable accounting solution for nonprofits to be a big problem. We need software that lowers the barriers to entry so that more people are empowered to start their own organizations. The choice of having to either (a) spend a bunch of money on proprietary software, (b) spend a bunch of money on an accountant and/or (c) be an accountant yourself in order to start a nonprofit organization is ridiculous.

Why haven’t the big foundations funded the development of FLO accounting software designed specifically for nonprofits? Or, at the very least, a module on existing FLO accounting software that could be used for such purposes—something that doesn’t require a lot of configuration for nonprofits but instead defaults to the kinds of accounts and disclosures that non-profit organizations need to have and produce?

Anyone have any ideas?

Our Solution

For now, we chose instead to go with a spreadsheet template we found on Google Docs. Google Docs software is free, but not libre or open source. The template itself could be considered FLO: it has no cost (free), we have the right to change it however we see fit (libre) and the equations are all accessible (open).

I attempted to export the template into Calc in OpenOffice which, unlike Google, is free, libre and open source. Unfortunately, I found that the template didn’t render correctly in Calc: the template takes advantage of database functionality that doesn’t translate to the FLO software options.

So, I rolled up my sleeves and built something that does. I also produced documentation on how to use the template and configure it, which includes a wishlist of features that were beyond my Calc ability to configure.

All in all, a bigger job than I’d expected—but one that ended in a truly free, libre, open source solution that anyone can use, modify and understand free of charge.

In that way, we turned a local challenge into a FLO solution.

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  1. But there are already so many different FLOSS options besides GNU Cash. I haven’t explored them all, but what about Skrooge, KMyMoney, and, well there’s a bunch of others that I can’t think of off the top of my head…

  2. The Free Software Foundation, the Free Software Conservancy, and others ran a campaign to raise money for this. They’ve got something now it appears, but didn’t quite meet the fund raising goal. I would suggest checking that out as a possible better solution to a non-profit accounting solution:

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