Seattle Jobs Initiative Case Study

By The Center Team on November 19, 2020

How Center helped a Seattle nonprofit streamline financial processes, improve decision-making, and meet the need for its services due to COVID-19.


Since the COVID-19 outbreak created both a health crisis and economic uncertainty, people have needed services from Seattle Jobs Initiative (SJI) more than ever. Center helped SJI streamline its financial processes and meet rising demand during Washington State’s first ever work-from-home order. With CenterCard and Center Expense, SJI improved its spend and expense management processes for employees working remotely and provided the leadership team more visibility into expenses.

The Challenge

For the past 25 years, Seattle-based nonprofit SJI has worked with low-income populations and organizations to help people find living-wage jobs with career pathways so they can support themselves and their families. When COVID-19 hit, city and state governments looked to SJI to deliver even more services in response to the faltering economy and soaring unemployment.

SJI wanted to meet this growing need, but they needed to know precisely what their expenses were and what additional funding would be needed to expand their services. At a time when other small businesses and nonprofits were conducting layoffs, SJI needed to be confident about its finances before deciding to grow programs. At the same time, the finance team’s abrupt shift to working remotely following the state’s stay-at-home mandate revealed gaps in their expense processes.

Like many organizations, SJI used monthly, spreadsheet-based expense reports. This involved shared workbooks and emails back and forth for corrections, approvals, and receipts. While the system was clunky, it seemed to work well enough when people were in the office. It didn’t work once the team relocated to work from home. In addition, many expenses had to be paid by paper check, and these invoices were piling up at the now-empty office.

The SJI finance team realized they needed to change the way they operated to navigate the new working environment and come out stronger. They looked for a solution that could help them:

  • Improve visibility into all expenses
  • Move from cutting checks to vendors to immediate electronic payment via credit card
  • Improve the expense processes for employees, managers, and the executive director by moving away from monthly, spreadsheet-based expense reports and email communications.

Achieving these goals would empower the organization to serve more people.

The Solution

The SJI team selected Center for its spend and expense management solution, citing these specific advantages:

  • Real-time visibility into expenses, so they could know precisely where they stood
  • Expense allocation and live analytics to help them predict future funding needs
  • A corporate card and mobile app to streamline purchasing and simplify receipt capture and expense submission for staff
  • Excellent customer support, including dedicated deployment resources and live user training
  • Price: Center is free, allowing them to use their funding for serving the community instead of overhead

With Center’s integrated spend and expense management, SJI can see expenses as they occur and make important decisions about taking on additional projects, expanding their services, and making new funding requests. Center’s automation has freed up the team to take on more strategic work.

Real-Time Visibility into Expenses

When Sandy Brewster, Director of Finance and Technology at SJI, was examining other options for spend and expense management solutions, she was drawn to Center’s real-time visibility capability.

The old process was painful: “We used to have a Bank of America Visa, and we had to wait until they sent the statement before we could see any transactions. It took four to six weeks past when that expense hit. It was a major reconciliation project for our accounts payable person.”

In the middle of the COVID-19 crisis, four to six weeks to see expenses wasn’t going to cut it. Like many nonprofits with very efficient operations and very little buffer, getting a better understanding of expenses could mean the difference between making layoffs or not.

This enhanced visibility improved understanding and decision making, as well as the processes for the accounting team. Brewster explained, “The reconciliations are already done, so it’s a huge time savings. If you’re in the middle of month-end, and something comes in late, you can capture it and easily update your accounting system.”

Detailed Expense Allocation and Live Analytics

SJI is funded by government grants as well as private support, and the organization needs to know which expenses are tied to each grant, including expenses that are split across multiple funding sources.

That’s where Center’s expense allocation engine and live analytics came in. SJI used real-time reporting and insights to understand where they stood on expenses for each project and initiative.

“As soon as somebody puts something into the Center system, whether it’s through the card or employee reimbursement, you see it right away,” Brewster said.

SJI uses the live analytics platform to see spend and trends and to drill into details, like specific merchants or employees. This reporting is available to the finance team and the executive director at any time.

A Better Employee Experience

SJI previously used several shared workbooks to track employee expenses. Brewster described the challenge of using spreadsheets and email: “We were afraid we were losing information. And we wanted to get away from like 55 emails to get approvals for different expenses.”

SJI issued CenterCards to their executive director and their direct service consultants, as well as a shared procurement card to be used for general expenses and recurring transactions. “We immediately created an efficiency because our employees are more willing to follow the new process with CenterCards and Center Expense. Now our employees doing direct service outreach are really good about getting expenses in right away.” With the help of the Center customer success team, they also analyzed which vendors they could move to CenterCard, simplifying their AP processes.

Brewster especially appreciates the built-in approval reminders, which keep everything moving.

And the new expense system was a big hit with the executive director: “When I showed him that you can just take a picture of a receipt with your phone, he said, ‘I love it already.’ When he’s happy, we’re happy.”

A Smooth Rollout

It can feel overwhelming to deploy new expense management software and issue new corporate cards in the middle of a pandemic. SJI was pleasantly surprised at the smooth rollout, which took about two weeks. Brewster handed off their account codes, and the Center development team took care of the rest. Full deployment, support, and training are included for every customer using Center.

“Center did a training with all of our employees, one on one, and they gave us the recording to use as a reference, so our employees have that information. It takes the burden off accounting because we can’t always be there to answer questions right away.”

The Right Price: Free

SJI certainly appreciated Center’s price—it’s free. While small and mid-sized businesses and even enterprises can appreciate free, for a nonprofit, it can mean the difference between empowering their teams with time-saving software and sticking with spreadsheets.

Nonprofits face particularly tight budgets, as they try to devote as many dollars as possible to their mission and keep overhead to a minimum. This helps organizations increase their impact and improve their standing in transparency reports like Charity Navigator—choosing an expensive legacy expense management software solution could mean the difference between a 4-star rating or something less.

The Results

The most significant result, according to Brewster, is that they have been able to not only avoid layoffs but hire more staff. Being able to hire and expand their services means that SJI can respond to COVID-specific emergencies in Seattle and beyond, including rent assistance and worker retraining for small businesses. SJI has also been able to invest in new forms of curriculum to embrace virtual learning—for example, bringing their career training to YouTube.

For the finance team, moving away from a spreadsheet and paper receipt-based process to an electronic process puts them several steps ahead for their next audit. “Last year, we had to go into the office every night and get documentation for the audit,” Brewster said. “Center putting all this information into the cloud is going to be great for our audit next year.”

If your company is ready to simplify expense processing for the entire team, improving operations and compliance for the finance team, and saving time for employees, it’s time to explore a modern spend and expense management platform like Center. Check out our free Expense Management Kit for Non-Profits, and get in touch for a customized demo today.

*Photo courtesy of Seattle Jobs Initiative Facebook Page