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What Is A General Ledger?

by Alex Acree

Intro To Nonprofit Accounting: Lesson 4

A general ledger is a list of transactions by account. In this lesson, we will take a deeper look at transactions. We’ll discuss what they are, how and when to record them, and how they impact your nonprofit’s accounting system. If you have set up your nonprofit’s chart of accounts, and are ready to take the next step, this lesson is for you.

What Are Transactions?

In the previous lesson, we learned what accounts are and how to create a chart of accounts for your nonprofit. This is the foundation of any nonprofit accounting system, and once established, it allows you to begin building on that foundation.

Accounts represent the things your organization owns, owes, receives, and spends, and its overall worth. These accounts gain value through recording transactions, which essentially are the “happenings” within your organization. Receiving money, spending money, purchasing inventory, paying bills, and transferring money between your banks are all examples of transactions that happen on a daily basis in your nonprofit.

What is a general ledger?

So how do you record these transactions using your chart of accounts? Before we take a look at some methods of recording these transactions, it is important to learn how your accounts work together. Once you understand these relationships, transactions begin to make a lot more sense.

Double-Entry Accounting

The relationship between accounts plays a crucial role in recording transactions. This relationship is comprised of debits and credits. This does not refer to debit and credit cards, but rather how an account is increased or decreased. There are five types of accounts, and a debit or credit increases or decreases each one. See the chart below.


As you can see in the chart, if you are increasing an asset or expense account, you would use the debit column. For increasing liabilities, income, and equity, you will use the credit column.


For every transaction there are always at least two movements, which means at least two accounts are used. This is what is referred to as a double-entry system of accounting. In a transaction, the debit and credit columns will always equal one another.

For example, let’s say you purchase some supplies that cost $50. When recording this purchase, you will use one of your expense accounts, since they represent money spent. In this case you choose Office Supplies. What is the other movement to this transaction? If you purchased these supplies with money from your checking account, your checking balance is being reduced. Therefore, the other side of this transaction would be your asset account, Checking. Your expense account was increased and your checking account was decreased.


Welcome to recording transactions. This process of recording both sides of a transaction is called double-entry accounting, and it is a necessary part of any accounting system.

Let’s look at another example. Suppose you receive a donation for $100. Because your organization receives this money, it is income. In this case you would use the Contributions Income account. Since income accounts are increased by credits, you will put the value in the credit column. What is the other movement? If you are depositing this money into your bank account (i.e. Checking), that would be the second movement. Since assets are increased by debits, you can see this works out in our transaction.


As you think through and record transactions, the debit and credit chart will help tremendously. Typically, if you can remember the relationships between accounts and their debit and credit columns, everything will begin to fall into place.

How Do You Record Transactions?

Now that we have a general understanding of what a transaction is, let’s take a look at how these are recorded. Whether you’re keeping track of your finances by hand or with software, there will always be some form of the journal and the general ledger.

The journal is where the transactions are first recorded. They will show the information like the examples above. In addition to the accounts used and the debit and credit values, the journal will also have information about the transaction. This additional information would be anything else relevant to the information you’re recording. For instance, using the above example of the $50 spent, it would be helpful to know the date of the purchase, where the purchase was made, and what was purchased with the recorded amount.


The ledger is a more detailed breakdown of each account and its balance, so it is a running balance for each of your accounts. We won’t get further into the general ledger in this lesson, since bookkeeping software typically automates both the journal and ledger.


Next we’ll take a look at how software can help with the recording of transactions, and largely replace the need to know everything you just learned. Just kidding! But in all seriousness, time to take a breath. The hard part is done.

Using Software For Your Journal And General Ledger

As mentioned previously, software typically streamlines the journal and the general ledger. Software allows you to record the details of your transactions, while automatically keeping your account balances up to date. It also automatically compiles the information from your transactions into reports, which we will cover in the next lesson.

When choosing a software, you will want to make sure it has the following elements for a nonprofit:

  • Fund Accounting
  • Nonprofit Reporting
  • Integration With Donations

With the above elements, you will be able to set up a nonprofit chart of accounts, record transactions, and compile the reports necessary for your organization. Also, with integrated donation tracking, the software will automatically keep your accounting up to date when you enter donations.

What Next?

Now that you know what a general ledger is, and you have learned how to set up accounts and record transactions, let’s take a look at how to compile and share this information through reports. We will take a look at the most common reports, as well as reports that IRS guidelines require from nonprofits.

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Charlotte Hougland August 9, 2017 - 12:52 pm

Is Aplos a double entry accounting program?

Clay Harmon August 9, 2017 - 2:42 pm

Hi Charlotte,

It certainly is! We support double entry on our journal entry screen within the software. If you have further questions, give us a call at our toll-free number (888) 274-1316 as well!

Mustafa September 5, 2017 - 9:31 am

Thank u It was very useful for me

Lucy January 20, 2018 - 6:14 pm

Hi there, several questions please:
1. it’s a on cloud software? we need remote access by several persons
2. how much fee each year?
3. what services can you provide?
4. does it fit for a new established political organization?
5. can it be typed Chinese when needed?

Thanks, Lucy

Christy Qualle January 23, 2018 - 4:26 pm

Hi Lucy, Yes, this is cloud software and it can be shared by multiple people at the same time. Standard accounting is $40/month, but there are some other options that you can do to customize your subscription. I recommend checking out our full list of features and pricing for nonprofit accounting. This can work for political organizations that need to track their money for designated funds. The software also has the ability to be viewed in alternate languages from the setting screen. I recommend starting a free trial to test it out for your organization.

PHILOMINA October 2, 2019 - 9:09 am

What is general ledger module?
The role ICT plays in general ledger module?
The importance of ICT in the general ledger module

Stepan October 19, 2019 - 8:55 am

Hi! I am struggling to make a journal entry for the following case:
1. AP invoice on the amount of 2,000EURO not including VAT received on May 5, 2018 and was paid with postpone check (due date May 15, 2018). Vat rate 17%.
Is there any chance you could help me with that?
Thanks in advance!

Clay Harmon October 21, 2019 - 3:13 pm

Hi, Stepan,

We would suggest contacting your CPA for these kinds of questions. I’m sorry we couldn’t be of more help.

All the best,

Leonie Venter March 25, 2022 - 4:11 am

Hi, How much will this software cost me in South Africa and how would it be available to me.

Aplos Success Team March 29, 2022 - 11:33 am

Hi Leonie,

You can go here to view our pricing options that apply to all regions: https://www.aplos.com/pricing. We also offer special discounts for small organizations, if that would apply to yours. You can request that discount after you create a free trial. If you have any other questions, feel free to email support@aplos.com.


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