are there user-friendly tools for displaying accounting info to non-accountants for review?

no, I don’t mean the “show me the federal budget” type of tools. Let’s start with something simple, like the local condo association. Or a small club/charity. A small organization of this sort might have a budget, some sort of operation plans, collections of receipts obtained from carrying out these operations and so on. Well, people more competent than me in such matters can elaborate and fight my ignorance along the way.

Well, so the question is, suppose the non-selectmen, non-accountants, and non-managers, i.e. just the plain old club members from whom that budget is presumably collected, would like to keep better track of what the hell is happening with the operations, the money, the universe and everything. They don’t want to get a degree in accounting, hire an auditor or rely excessively on explanations from Mr. Office Holder (as long as there is no real way for them to verify any such claims by evaluating the documents in a reasonable amount of time, any such claim is clearly suspect).

In short, I will sum up my hypothesis here as “it would be really cool if there were a reasonably simple technology-assisted way to keep track of operations and finances of small organizations for a person of sufficient intelligence without experience in organizational management”.

Well, are there in fact systems of this nature? Or are there simple ways to achieve similar results using existing technology and ways of handling the documentation, such as by having the club vote on the “instant rectification of all wrongs and the establishment of total clarity” edict? Or am I incorrect in assuming that the way small organizations document their activities nowadays are sufficiently hard to understand (or even access) for the uninitiated as to warrant reform?

No it should not be hard at all.

Your association, club etc could and should be providing the members with a summary of what money was collected and where it was spent. This can also be presented in a comparision to the budget.

Revenues…Actual…Budget
Member Dues
Rentals
Misc

Total Revenues
Expenses
Repairs
Lawn Care
Utilities

Total Expenses
After all the accountants job is to collect, process and report financial date in an accurate and usable form. Emphysis on usable. If people can’t understand it you are wasting your time and the clients, employeers money.

Powerpoint is a great way to put together data for a presentation to people.
You can also do graphs in Excel.

We use Crystal Reports to pull the data into reports, summarize it and group by various elements. In some cases the paper report is all we need to give the big bosses. Sometimes our staff transfers the figures into powerpoint. They create charts, graphics, text, all sorts of things to try and make our presentations easy to understand.

I like Crystal because it’s something a staff person can easily use. I can train a new employee to run a report in just a few minutes. Some of our staff even makes small changes to the report themselves. They may only want a specific dept reported, or perhaps a different total. They do changes like that ad hoc all the time. Takes a big load off my IT shoulders. I write the more difficult reports in SQL.

My (very tiny) church hands out a 2-or-3-page budget every year that pretty much is how Dano describes it. I can’t imagine our accountant (who may be doing the accounting for free) spends any more time than necessary on creating it and it’s dead simple to understand.

what you are describing sounds like a “secondary source”. First things happen, then the accountant writes a summary of it based on aggregation of the primary documents.

I guess what I had in mind is closer to a primary source where the data about events (whether human actions or financial outlays) is collected at the moment the event happens (e.g. documents are scanned in and brief summaries are input for the common ones) and then is accessible to members for review ever after. This might have also tie in closer to the pre-agreed plans of future operations. I.e. you can call up the plan that was established a month ago and review the various events that happened in carrying out its various items.

Incidentally, it sounds like what I described above belongs to the class of ERP software. Unfortunately I cannot find any straight dope about how usable is ERP even for the larger companies that use it, let alone for small, transparency-minded organizations.

I thought you said you wanted something simple for a small organization in op.

I once kept books for a mechanic. He had a sign that read "work done cheap, good and fast. Pick two.

Sounds like you have a decission to make.

In the late 80s & 90s I was the treasurer on a co-op board. At the beginning of the fiscal year the accountant would present his budget at the annual meeting. Each month thereafter the management company would send me a summary of that month’s expenditures. I created a spreadsheet that showed both the (predicted) annual amount of the budget, last years actual annual amount and this year’s year to date for each line item on the budget. I found that this information gave the board a good idea of where we were headed year to year and where we were this year (over budget?, under budget?). It did not reveal why we over/under budget, but it gave the board a reason to ask questions. This required a certain amount of data entry on my part, as all the information was provided in hard copy. Nowadays I would expect an accountant/manager to provide the data in spreadsheet form (although I don’t know how common this is). I would like, for instance, to be able to see all payments made on a budget line (by expanding or collapsing that line), or all payments made to a single vendor. All this is fairly straightforward to do with a spreadsheet, and I guarantee you that the management company (as well as the accountant) has that ability internally and can, if pressed, provide it to you. If you are self managed, you would need to come up with something yourself, or use an automated bookkeeping package like QuickBooks (I have no experience there).

At some point someone needs to make the data presentable. Entering into the accounting database and running the appropriate reports is probably the simplest thing to do.

If you scanned source documents (e.g. invoice?) then you have a bunch of documents you need to wade through instead of a report with some line items with a short description and a dollar amount.

The straightdope on usability of ERP software is: it depends

There is a continuum of complexity in ERP applications, and at the same time variety in the ability of the software vendor to hide complexity elegantly. However, even small organizations have enough complexity that the software that models the business must match that complexity - so there is almost no way to get around the fact that “you” (the organization) need to understand a bunch of stuff to use the software that mimics the business.

Transactions and functions can be made to automate many tasks/steps, but the spiderweb of inter-dependencies in the organization is very difficult to simplify and that spiderweb must be modeled.