When Brandon Combs was promoted to Young Life’s Director of Camping Budgets and Finance, he’d already spent nine years at the Christian youth mission as a camp manager. The experience taught Brandon the importance of planning as a team—from management all the way down to the boots on the ground at the camps—because those folks know better than anyone how to run their operations efficiently.
However, prior to implementing Vena, Young Life's planning process did't involve enough collaboration. Camp managers prepared budgets in silos without gathering much input from their department heads, making it tough to plan effectively and forecast with any real accuracy.
“There are so many moving parts to a camp budget with so many different stakeholders. You’ve got the facilities team, the transportation team, the food service team, housekeeping, you name it,” says Brandon. “When we were budgeting with manual Excel templates, only the camp managers really had their hands on the dials. The department heads themselves didn’t have much to do with it and didn’t really understand the forecasted numbers as a result. We might’ve missed some chances to make better use of our funding, because it can’t just be a guy in an office telling you how much toilet paper to buy for your camp. It needs to be the person who’s actually making that purchase.”
At the corporate level, manual consolidations and reporting caused issues for Brandon as well. After all, Young Life has about 35 camps around the world, each with its own unique budget. Rolling those all up into a consumable set of financials was tedious, manual and prone to human error—making it hard to empower leadership with a holistic view of the camping division and ultimately ensure that funding decisions were based on reliable numbers.
“Excel-based budgets were flying around via email, version to version. I think a lot of finance teams today can probably relate to how painful that is,” says Brandon. “Currency conversions in particular were a big challenge for us too. For our camp in the Dominican Republic, for example, the funding comes in USD but the buying power of the Dominican Peso is changing daily. Actual spending would always be different than what we budgeted for, so putting that all together and painting an accurate picture for leadership was tough.”
Young Life partnered with Vena in early 2017, right before Brandon stepped into his role on the finance team. His goals with Vena were simple: Build a repeatable planning framework that includes stakeholders at every camping operation and streamline financial reporting with advanced automation and workflows.
Brandon and his colleagues achieved all that and more with the power and flexibility of Vena’s Extended Planning solution. Today, instead of planning in silos, camp managers work together with all of their individual department heads to build highly detailed budgets that reflect their operational requirements. Brandon attributes this success to Vena’s custom workflow engine—as well as the overall simplicity of Vena’s native Excel interface.
“We have varying levels of ability among our 200+ Vena users, but everyone knows how to fill in a spreadsheet,” says Brandon. “It was such a small lift for our stakeholders to start budgeting with Vena because we could keep our existing Excel templates and map them back to the Vena database. Now our boots on the ground are more involved with their piece of the budget. They just have to log into Vena and everything they need is right there.”
Vena’s automated ETL function also made it easy to load in transactional data from Infor Smart Office (ERP) on a daily basis. Now managers and budget contributors have one source of truth for up-to-date reports—even for Young Life’s overseas camps where currency conversions are automated—and forecasts update automatically based on any new inputs or funding changes.
“We’re really seeing the value from this in our forecasting process. Our department heads can always see where they’re heading for the year and manage their spending accordingly,” says Brandon. “We’ve also been able to show them how the reporting rolls up to the trajectory for the entire camping division. Now more than ever, our stakeholders really understand how their activities affect the mission as a whole.”
Now that cross-functional budget owners are active participants in Young Life’s planning process, Brandon sees a higher level of stakeholder engagement and professional development. It’s led to stronger, more collaborative planning cycles at the camps and also at the corporate level—which makes it easier for leadership to focus on delivering an awesome experience for youth.
“I can go to our vice president and say, ‘These are the projects and initiatives we have coming up. This is what each camp needs and this is the value it’ll bring for the kids.’ Then they can go make strategic, well-informed decisions,” says Brandon. “But now our people on the ground are a part of that process too. They feel a lot more valued because they’re a lot closer to the business and I’d definitely say they’re delivering more reliable budgets as a result."
This new collaborative approach proved to be critical in 2020 when Young Life’s summer camping operations were shuttered by the global pandemic. Brandon and the rest of the camping division were able to adapt quickly as a team, which he insists “wouldn’t have been possible” without Vena’s real-time reporting capabilities.
“It’s been a tough year, but Vena has been a total game changer for us,” he says. “As things got worse and revenue continued to plummet, we created some custom templates so stakeholders could communicate their revised targets and show us where they planned to make spending cuts. That way, we didn’t have to sit around and wonder what was going to happen. Vena made it really easy to achieve a real-time view of our operations.”
As a result, Young Life’s losses weren’t nearly as bad as expected in 2020—and Brandon says there’s lots of optimism for the camping program moving forward. As Young Life continues to evolve and do even more with Vena in the future, his advice to other finance leaders is simple: Design collaborative planning processes with solutions that work for your business.
“As we stared down major deficits, Vena really helped us determine which pieces to move on the chess board. It helped us stave off some major losses because we were strategic, not reactionary,” says Brandon. “We often talk about ‘agile planning’ in the FP&A environment and I think that’s especially important now. As society advances and technology become more prevalent, we have to adapt our business models. Young Life is no different—and that’s what Vena has helped us with.”