Running a nonprofit organization comes with some very specific challenges. Running a nonprofit organization that spans three distinct categories and finds itself competing with for-profit companies comes with even more.
For the Bonneville Environmental Foundation (BEF), which markets renewable energy certificates, delivers solar education in schools and manages renewable energy and watershed programs, finding a system to manage its diverse lines of business proved to be one of its biggest challenges.
Lime Wind, a project that BEF helped fund through the purchase of a 20-year strip.
BEF’s primary business is the marketing of renewable energy certificates to the voluntary market. Businesses concerned about their carbon footprint can purchase one of these certificates, sometimes called a Renewable Energy Credit, to legally claim they have purchased renewable energy, even if such types of renewable energy – solar, wind, etc. – are not available to them. In a market that includes for-profit enterprises BEF to date has been able to keep 6.8 million metric tons of carbon from the atmosphere and generated more than 5.5 million megawatt hours of clean energy.
BEF also runs a similar program for businesses seeking to minimize their water footprint as residential, agricultural and industrial requirements put increasing strain on sources of fresh water around the globe. BEF’s Model Watershed Program currently supports 14 watersheds in six western states.
Finally, BEF’s Solar for Schools Program, provides a renewable energy curriculum for schools from kindergarten to grade 12, in which it provides teachers with training and a curriculum for how to best teach about the benefits and science of renewable energy.
Yet, those diverse and noble goals come with complexity. It left the nonprofit struggling with its business management software. A mix of QuickBooks, Excel spreadsheets and FileMaker Pro created a system that was “haphazard and all over the place. Individuals were doing their own thing without a systematic organizational goal,” according to Felicia Phillips, CFO and vice president of operations for the foundation.
For instance, the organization has approximately 400 customers and gets some revenue from grants, but primarily it operates off of fees for services, such as consulting contracts and educational programs. That requires visibility into financials. It also treats its carbon credits as commodities, which demands careful tracking.
Yet, multiple sources of customer data that was hard to reconcile, tedious to maintain and error-prone, had a serious impact on operations, particularly servicing customers.
S4RS Teacher Lab. Photo Credit: Bonneville Environmental Foundation
BEF turned to NetSuite and now has a unified system for customer records, inventory, sales data and financials. And, as a grantee of NetSuite.org, NetSuite’s corporate citizenship arm, which offers a software donation and pro bono training, it receives a deeply discounted license, allowing it to feed more funds back into its mission.
It’s led to some significant efficiencies and savings in time and money. For example, under the previous system, orders for renewable energy certificates would come in in March and staff would have to get them completed and sent out by the end of the month. That meant downloading the information, creating a certificate, reconciling the data, printing out the certificates and matching it with the names in the system.
“We’d have this big three or four day marathon where staff would match data to certificates and mail them out,” Phillips said, “It was inefficient and everybody hated that time of year.”
Now, certificates are built into the NetSuite system itself. When staff members fulfill a sales order the certificate is created in NetSuite and emailed to the customer. Now, rather than having six people spend three days to get certificates out, one person can handle it on their own with greater accuracy.
BEF has also been able to customize NetSuite to some specific needs. Because most of what the foundation does is as a fee for service, most of its projects require contracts, about 150 a year. Previously, those contracts were managed through an Excel spreadsheet, which made determining things like mass contract liability or tracking deadlines for expiring contracts, difficult. Phillips, working with one IT staff member, was able to customize NetSuite so that all new contracts are built into the system and routed through an approval process. Staff members can now go into the record and see the status of a contract, whether it’s been mailed out or approved and signed contracts are uploaded into the system.
“NetSuite has made things so much easier and efficient to manage, across inventory, customer contacts, sales orders and invoicing,” Phillips said.