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Case Study: Onward We Learn

Case Study: Onward We Learn

Founded in 1989 as the Children’s Crusade for Higher Education, and relaunched as Onward We Learn (OWL) in 2022, this federally funded nonprofit engages students in urban school districts (starting in middle school) and provides college readiness, career exploration, and academic support programming through high school and into college. 

Onward We Learn’s mission is to prepare and inspire young people through Rhode Island’s most comprehensive college readiness program for middle school and high school students in the state’s urban school districts. Simply put, they help students (and their families) to complete the FAFSA Federal Student Aid applications and assist with college scholarship applications. And for many students, they become the first in their families to attend and complete college. 

Onward We Learn’s finance team is led by Chief Finance and Administration Officer, Susan Mansolillo, who oversees the finance and administrative teams.  Over the years, Susan’s role and impact have advanced beyond older methods of budgeting with spreadsheets like Excel, while taking their budgeting process to more productive, collaborative levels with Martus Solutions.

Martus’s cloud-based budgeting, forecasting, and reporting software enables nonprofits like Onward We Learn to create, execute, and analyze their budgets in a fraction of the time it takes to set up and organize a spreadsheet. In fact, organizations that use Martus cut their budgeting time by 50% over traditional spreadsheets with increased accuracy and greater buy-in from their team!

According to Mansolillo, most of the funding for Onward We Learn comes from their application for a seven-year education grant from the federal government, with individual donor support filling in the gaps. 

Reflecting on the past, Susan recounts the challenges of managing budgets through Excel. “In terms of budgeting, we used to create Excel sheet upon Excel sheet – one for every single department, and then each department head would review their budgets, make changes, and then those would all roll up into other Excel sheets, which then would roll up into our one large overall organizational spreadsheet,” said Mansolillo.  

“Clearly, it was a challenging situation, with complex spreadsheet models being changed regularly. And security has always been an issue – what to share between departments, confidential numbers, etc. So, we felt an urgent need to get our budgeting process under control and make it more streamlined.” The cumbersome process of managing multiple spreadsheets and ensuring data security prompted a search for a better solution.

The transition to Martus represented a significant shift in how both OWL and Susan approached its budgeting process: “When I first joined Onward, I had to learn their financial software (which is Sage Intacct), then their payroll, and HR software. Then it came time to learn their budgeting software, which is now Martus. I scheduled some training time with Glen from Martus, who patiently walked me through the system. And while Excel sheets can be useful in and of themselves, they don’t offer other software integration capabilities that I now get with Martus. With Martus, we no longer need to share and keep track of revisions and iterations to many Excel files.” This training marked the beginning of a new era for OWL, moving them away from the isolated use of Excel sheets to a more integrated, collaborative budgeting environment.

Susan quickly discovered the advantages of Martus over traditional spreadsheets. “What I found was that Martus just makes collaborative budgeting and forecasting easier. You can easily understand how spreadsheets influenced the development of the Martus software. But with Martus, it becomes all the things you wish a spreadsheet could do – but it’s built right in,” said Mansolillo. 

Susan’s journey with Martus has been one of continuous improvement and adaptation. “In the time since I’ve been working with the Martus software, the enhancements and improvements have been amazing! Useful features, quick response times from Martus support, and well-tested features are making the product even more usable.” Martus has worked to continually update our budgeting tool for customers like OWL to help them budget better and easier, consistently innovating and adding new tools.

Martus wants to help budget managers easily report and present to their teams and leadership, regardless of their financial experience. “I see a bit of the ‘deer in the headlights’ look when it comes time for our annual budgeting process. So, this year, I tried very hard to clean things up, update all the dimensions, and make everything as simple as possible,” added Susan. “We’re now looking into the ‘special purpose’ worksheets, an interesting feature that Martus provides. We’re just in the process of understanding how department heads might use these worksheets for conferences or special events, and then move on to more creative collaborative budgeting uses like grant allocations.” 

One significant advantage Martus brought to OWL was the facilitation of collaborative budgeting, as Susan explains. “We’re finding that, compared to using Excel, the process is more like ‘participatory budgeting’ with Martus.  By that I mean, with Martus in the Cloud, and having department heads distributed remotely, we can more easily actively participate in building, reviewing, and changing our budgets in a structured, reusable process.” Collaborative budgeting not only leads to a more accurate budget and creative strategic plan, but it fosters healthy communication, inclusion, and flexibility for budgeters.

Susan pointed out: “The most important thing about getting into new software like Martus is you can set it up simply or spend more time upfront understanding what you need to get the reporting results you’re looking for. You’ll certainly learn a lot as you go, but it’s rare to know upfront what you actually need when you first start.”

“There are a variety of private schools, associations, nonprofits, and some private schools using Martus for budgeting, and I would think public school systems could use it similarly.  Martus has many clients that use older accounting software, which does not interact directly with Martus. But there are now easy ways to import actuals into Martus, which help to quickly create the necessary budgets, and get meaningful reports as a result,” Susan remarked.

Susan’s experience with Martus offers invaluable insights for other organizations grappling with the challenges of budget management. Her takeaway is clear and compelling: “My final advice I would give to someone who’s still using Excel and thinks it’s a headache is: take the time to learn Martus – it’s a much better way to approach collaborative budgeting. Take the leap of faith. It’s worth the time and effort you have to put in to learn it and train your staff. But it’s definitely worth it in the long run. To use a simpler phrase, making the switch to Martus over other budgeting options is worth it because ‘the juice is worth the squeeze.’” 

Susan let us know how they’re looking toward the future with Martus as well. “For now, all our budgets are set up in Martus through 2030. Of course, we’ll rework some numbers here and there, but by 2030, it won’t be my problem when it needs to be changed in Martus again. I’ll be retired by then,” Susan added with a little smile. As OWL looks to the future, the nonprofit is well-positioned for continued financial success.

This story of transformation at Onward We Learn highlights the powerful role that specialized budgeting software can play in enhancing the operational efficiency of nonprofit organizations. By choosing Martus, OWL has not only optimized its budgeting processes but has also strengthened its mission to empower young people in Rhode Island, setting a precedent for fiscal management in the nonprofit sector.

For more about Martus’ Cloud-based, flexible budgeting software for nonprofits, businesses, churches, and more – schedule a demo today!

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