African Wildlife Foundation Working Efficiently with Serenic Navigator and Help from Capital Business Solutions

"Instead of spending their time on data entry and chasing down paper forms, they can concentrate on budget management and other more important duties.”

- Jeff Chrisfield, CFO at AWF

In order to help save endangered animals - such as mountain gorillas, elephants, leopards, bonobos and more - and preserve wild lands across the continent, the AWF has to tackle all kinds of tough business challenges.  “Right now, we are administering about 70 or so active grants,” explains Jeff Chrisfield, CFO at AWF.  “Our grants come in all sizes. We accept and track restricted grants starting at about $25 thousand dollars, but of course they go up into the multimillions. And that’s 70 grants spread across different programs that span nine geographical regions. Our challenge is weaving together the tapestry of funding.” 

Just a few years ago, the AWF finance team was getting by with a system cobbled together from a Canadian edition of QuickBooks (“...because the Canadian version could do multiple currencies,” says Jeff), an antiquated enterprise accounting system, and a separate reporting package -- because the enterprise software couldn’t handle their reporting requirements.

All of this failed to solve some important challenges, and required time-intensive manual work and data entry at several different points in the process.

Naturally, they wanted to find a more sophisticated solution. “We reviewed a few possible solutions, but there weren’t any that handled things we needed done like Serenic Navigator,” says Jeff. 

Initially, says Jeff, he was very interested by Serenic’s ability to replicate data from one server to multiple geographically disparate servers. “Of course it was fine to work over the Internet here in DC, but historically, we had people in our Nairobi office dialing in; access wasn’t always steady, and speeds could be very slow. The replication functionality we got with Serenic helped us out there.” Capital Business Solutions (CBS) presented Serenic to AWF. “I was impressed with CBS right away. It was like they were really trying to find a solution that fit the way we worked, not trying to fit us to a solution,” says Jeff.

But just a couple of years down the line, the reality has changed. “There are new fiber optic lines that have improved speed and Internet reliability in Nairobi.” And AWF, with help from CBS, has adapted to take advantage of the improved African Internet capabilities. “We’ve consolidated and merged all of our operations to one server in Nairobi. And having that one database in Nairobi has allowed us to centralize our treasury and procurement operations there, and split our general ledger team between Nairobi and Washington DC.” 

“Today, we have about 25 or our DC personnel on the system,” says Jeff. “We’re adding about 50 in Kenya. By the time we’re all done, we’re going to have about 150 to 200 people in the system on a daily basis. But because it automates so much manual work, it allows us to keep a very small, focused accounting infrastructure. Our central finance team is still about eight people. We haven’t had to staff up.”

So how have the benefits stacked up for AWF?

“Where are we now compared to where we were when we implemented Serenic? To begin with,” Jeff says, “we’ve collapsed 11 company profiles into just one, eliminating the need for that entire monthly consolidation step. Everyone is actually in the same system, budget rules apply to everyone across the board. Plus, it’s sped us up significantly; we have real time access to data.” 

Jeff says that one of the biggest benefits for AWF was allowing them to restructure the way the organization works. AWF has two main offices - one in Washington and one in Nairobi, but operates field offices across Africa based on specific grants and projects. “These offices have always been - by necessity - very independent,” says Jeff. “They had a finance officer, and maybe an assistant, a program director, and program people. But that wasn’t ideal. We were lucky we never ran into a problem, but it made for weak internal controls -- these people are in isolated offices, working altogether day in and day out, with program people basically acting as signatories and as control checks from an accounting standpoint. Plus, they’re busy implementing their programs, and they’re not really trained in finance. So you can end up with a single person doing more in the system than they should do. Again, we’ve been lucky, but it exposes you to the risk.” 

Jeff says that Serenic has allowed AWF to eliminate this exposure.”It meets that need for a control process without having to hire lots of overhead finance people for each field office,” he says. “With Serenic, you get the segregation of duties by distributing the responsibilities. It centralizes procurement away from the field office. Most large cash disbursement moves out of their purview and leaves them able to concentrate on managing their budgets and with the day-to-day logistics of getting people from point A to Point-B across the African landscape - which can be challenging. That’s very meaningful to us.”

Serenic Web Portals

Soon, according to Jeff, everyone in his organization is going to be using the Web Portal they’re currently rolling out. The Web portal will function as both a requisition and expense-entry and -approval system. 

As a Requisition Portal

With the advent of AWF’s new Serenic Web interface, when staff wants to make a purchase, they will go to the Serenic Requisition Portal and enter all the relevant information. “And as they enter it,” says Jeff, “it puts that data directly into Serenic so it never has to be entered again.” 

Once the requisition is entered, the approval flow is all handled by Serenic. Emails are automatically generated and sent to the people responsible for approving the requisition. “Then, when those people log in,” explains Jeff. “They make the approval electronically. The approval automatically goes to a procurement team in Nairobi who decides how to handle the purchase, and then they issue the purchase order. No one has ever had to re-key any data, no paper forms that have to get shipped around. The original requisition has most or all of the pertinent information on the transaction so when it gets to procurement, it’s pretty much done. They may have to supply a couple of terms, but they don’t have to re-key any lines or budget codes. When it goes to Treasury, they just convert the PO to an invoice - maybe they have to correct or add tax or shipping, but effectively all the data is already right there, in the system.”   

"Instead of spending their time on data entry and chasing down paper forms, they can concentrate on budget management and other more important duties.”

As an Expense Portal

“As the expense portal, it has a lot of the same automation advantages,” says Jeff. “For instance, we do a lot of advances for staff travel expenses - in Africa it’s very common to give cash advances for travel. So entails an expense report after the fact. 

“All of that used to be done via an Excel form,” he continues, “that would get printed out, staff would fill out the form, attach their receipts, and send it to accounting, where the whole thing had to be re-keyed. Now, through the web portal, it’s already done the first time, the data is living in the system. It’s just a huge time savings.” 

AWF is also using the Serenic and the expense portal to automate credit card reconciliation. Finance downloads records monthly from their credit card provider, then uploads the data to Serenic. “Then every month, all card holders have an expense report generated for them by Serenic -with all the transaction dates and amounts and all that information already there,” says Jeff. “And we’ve even created a process to furnish the account code it should go to. So all they have to do is collect their receipts and select the budget line.” 

An assistant scans in the receipts, and from there, the rest of the approval process is automated - there’s no physical paper being tracked or moved. “And since we’re not all in one place - but all over Africa and Washington,” Jeff observes, “moving paper around is not only a pain, it can be really expensive.”

Grant Restriction Dimension

The majority of AWF’s funding comes in grants and donations from the US and European governments, foundations, and individual donors. “The grants are generally based on proposals we’ve sent out,” says Jeff. “The proposals lay out what we plan to do, and how we plan to use any funds.” And the funds normally come with restrictions that stipulate they’re spent according to certain aspects of that proposal. 

“That’s how we’ve used the dimension code in Serenic’s Award Vision. Each restriction is basically a promise to a donor about how we’ll use their funds - and we’re accountable on that. So we code each restriction in as an award restriction,” says Jeff.  “And we budget based on that.”  

“We can really track grant-by-grant each commitment we’ve made for every dollar we budget.” 

“And another thing that’s good in Serenic,” he says, “is the way CBS structured the award restriction dimension with us. Now when staff enters against that award dimension, we’ve already layered in geography codes - which tell me where the activity is taking place - and an activity code, which categorizes what kind of thing that is. They just enter the award restriction, and it automatically fills in that information that I need for my financial statements without burdening staff with having to deal with a bunch of different codes.”

Multiple Currencies

AWF works in 11 African countries, plus the United States and the UK, pays vendors in Europe, and has employees based in Europe. They are dealing with more than a dozen currencies a day, which makes it critical that they have the ability to conduct transactions in those currencies. “The US pays grants in US dollars,” says Jeff, “but those grants are going to be implemented across Africa in various currencies. And then, we have to convert it all back to report it in US dollars. On top of that, grants come in different currencies. While grants may come in Euros, we report that internally in US dollars and then issue donor reports back in Euros. We even have a donor who makes grants in Kenyan shillings. Since we’re US-based, we must have the US Dollar as our base, but it’s absolutely critical to have other currencies - and award currencies. I’ve never seen a product that can handle that outside of Serenic.”