Monday, February 5, 2018

Oranges Are More Important Than Apples

Lately, I've been spending more time than usual on my association's financial operations. After many years of outdated practice, I've decided to bite the bullet and redo my association's account codes and reporting system so that they are better aligned with the current strategy and programmatic focus of the organization.

Now, don't get me wrong. We've been building and maintaining the ability to track and report numbers in strategic categories that make sense at the Board table and in the operation of the business, but we've done it only through the creation of an elaborate and increasingly interdependent series of spreadsheets and translation matrices. Sure, we keep coding our expenses to our old and no longer relevant codes, but when we download the financial data and enter the relevant numbers into an enormous spreadsheet, the programmed formulas sort the right numbers into the right categories, giving us the picture we're looking for.

Our motivation for building and maintaining this system has been legitimate: the desire to be able to compare apples to apples. Years of financial information is in the old format, and when the first change occurs, no one in their right mind would suggest scrapping the system that supports and maintains that information. Better in that case to create just one workaround. Yes, I know that we don't do this conference anymore, but this new conference we're doing is kind of similar, so let's just use the old conference's account codes to track the new conference's expenses. We'll just make a note in the financial statement that up to Year A the expenses on that line item reflect the old program, and starting with Year B the expenses there reflect the new program.

You've just placed the first orange in your apple crate. And if you'll permit me, let me finish this blog post in that particular idiom. You've painted your orange green and you've glued an apple stem on top of it, but it is still an orange. And, as the years pass and the association continues to evolve, you'll find yourself adding more and more of these apple-painted oranges to your crate. Each time, it will seem like a logical decision. After all, our association has always used this apple crate. And just because we've started growing some oranges, the foundation of the organization is still based on apples. If we want to compare what we're doing this year to last year, and the year before that, and the year before that, we'd better keep squeezing these oranges so that they fit in our apple crate.

Expect one day someone -- a Board member, a staff member, the association executive -- will step back and wonder which is more work for the organization -- all this painting and squeezing of oranges so that they fit in an old apple crate, or simply building a new crate designed for oranges. For years, perhaps decades, the answer to that question has always fallen in favor of the painting and squeezing, but eventually -- and perhaps inevitably -- there will come a time when the shorter path to victory is building a new crate.

And the thing, I contend, that tips that balance is not the number of oranges in the apple crate, but rather the realization that oranges, in any quantity, are more important to the organization. Comparing one year's finances to previous ones has undeniable utility, but as soon as allegiance to that functionality gets in the way of driving new initiatives effectively forward, it should be mercilessly sacrificed.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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