David Levy has been the Chief Financial Officer for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) – responsible for accounting, finance, financial reporting, and HR – since 2012.The company has grown substantially in the last six years. According to the company website, NAMI is “the largest grassroots-based organization helping families and those affected by mental illness in the United States.”
When Levy joined NAMI, all budgets, forecasts, and financial reports were done on spreadsheets. They did have a single-user license to a budgeting product, but the license was limited to that individual. Their Excel-based budgeting process was cumbersome and chaotic. The fourth quarter of each year saw ten budget managers, each responsible for about eight programs, exchanging up to five excel spreadsheets each back and forth more than a dozen times with the national office. Levy would then consolidate spreadsheet information and upload to his budgeting tool at the time to create reports for senior management. In 2015, that process broke down and Levy realized they could no longer rely on their old processes alone.
For context, NAMI consists of three different divisions: the national office, state organizations, and affiliate groups. The national office in Arlington, Virginia, serves 50 state and 700 affiliate organizations of varying sizes by providing educational programs, building capacity, and advocating at all levels for individuals and families affected by mental illness. The national office supports the state organizations as well as the affiliates, but all three are “tied together as part of this alliance that is dedicated to improving the lives of those affected by mental illness,” Levy said.
Levy could see that the limited amount of information program managers had on their budgets made it difficult to track their spending, and without the proper tools, they weren’t invested in making sure they were hitting their budgets. So much of the budgeting process required his attention that the spreadsheets were called ‘David’s Budgets.’ He was also unable to do any forecasting throughout the year, and without a usable tool, Levy ended up manually creating spreadsheets each month for his financial statements.
“I came to realize that I was spending 80 percent of my time on the files and 20 percent of my time – if that – actually looking at numbers,” Levy said. With too many variables, no way to check accuracy, and no version control, he was never sure if the file he uploaded was the correct one. He managed to get the budget done but decided he needed to approach senior management about a better system.
Levy’s manager came on board with the plan to find a solution with only one caveat: it had to be easy to use. Levy first looked into expanding the number of licenses they had to their current budgeting tool, but the cost was significantly more than his desired budget. In addition, the program’s limitations would require hiring consultants to get the formatting he wanted. He was also concerned about the learning curve for his staff, most of whom are non-financial managers. “So, with my CEO’s caveat ringing in my ears,” Levy explained, “I looked at other programs.”
Consulting a Gartner survey of software applications, he said, “Vena Solutions name popped out, and what really struck me was that it was Excel-based.” He started conversations with Vena’s account reps, talked with some of their current users, and came to the conclusion that it could meet his needs as well as the organization’s. Cost was also a consideration, and for the price of one license from his old program, Levy would be able to get twelve licenses for Vena. “So I took a leap of faith and went with Vena. I haven’t regretted it.”
Vena is an enterprise budgeting, planning, and revenue forecasting solution that allows users to continue working with Excel, but without its limitations. Because it is based on a familiar platform, training time and implementation is minimal, and cost of ownership is lower than traditional financial software. Scalable, flexible, and easy to integrate into existing models, Vena is a unified enterprise solution that leverages a company’s investment in Excel while eliminating the inherent risks of an uncontrolled spreadsheet environment.
Vena offers several levels of support during the implementation process, and Levy made the decision to do some of the training himself to minimize startup costs. An implementation specialist worked with Levy onsite for three days to show him the system and how to train users. The training process has gone smoothly, he said, “Because it’s Excel-based, so people are not afraid of it.” He said that another concern of his staff was that they might accidentally delete rows or columns, but he was able to assure them that only he had access to the underlying template.
To get staff up to speed, Levy does a two-hour training session with the first hour dedicated to getting participants familiar with Vena and how they can retrieve information from it. The second hour is focused on adding and changing information in the system. “And that’s it, pretty much.Sometimes I get a question about something, but from my perspective, two hours to train somebody is pretty amazing,” he said.
Previously, his Excel-to-budgeting software workflow required that he manually translate the data from Excel into a format accepted by the software, and the upload of that reformatted data alone took an hour of his time. “Now it’s a five-minute process every month.” His file prep consists of downloading a CSV file, renaming it, and adding a date. Vena formats the data in the proper rows and columns, color-coded and easy for non-financial managers to understand. “And I don’t worry that I’m not looking at the correct numbers,” he said.
Because he no longer needs to check and re-check data on spreadsheets, he is free to use his time for decision-making and insights. “Now I spend 20 percent of my time on getting the information into Vena, and 80% of my time actually looking at the numbers.” Customizable templates give Levy the tools to empower budget managers to own their departmental budgets because they can see the impact of their changes in the numbers.
Levy noted, “They can see the cost of a program in totality. It’s not just supplies, travel, and printing, which is what they were focused on before. Now they can see salaries plus the overhead cost.”
He said that having a clearer picture of the programs has expanded the way managers look at their work, because they can now see the impact of their spending. Managers had been required to re-forecast on a quarterly basis, but now that they receive monthly budgets-to-actual reports, some more ambitious managers are re-forecasting on a monthly basis. “Now they’re responsible for the budget,” he said.
“We’re much better at predicting how we’re going to do than we were before Vena, because we have all that information, year-to-date actuals, and forecasts in Vena.” Levy said he can now tell managers to update their forecasts, and he is able to bring an updated report to the CEO the next day.
Levy says because of its similarity to Excel, he’s constantly thinking of new ways to use Vena, and he’s interested in expanding the kind of data they bring into Vena. Tracking program attendance and other engagement measures could illustrate the impact of the programs they offer, because, “It’s not just knowing how much you’re spending on a program, but also knowing what kind of impact you’re having.” He’s also looking into using Vena to track grants.
Levy started with 12 licenses when he rolled out the program out in 2016. Since then, he’s expanded to 27 users, and he’s still looking for ways to expand the use of Vena. His budget managers feel a sense of ownership for their programs, and Levy is now confident that his numbers are accurate, so he is free to focus on the insight those numbers provide. And best of all, he said, “This is no longer ‘David’s budget.’ It’s no longer ‘David’s forecast.’”
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