Having spent close to 20 years in the charitable sector, my observation is that we have a lot to learn from the private sector and the rigour with which it runs its back office operations, how it configures and manages IT and web infrastructure and how it processes information.
Whereas most successful businesses take it as a given that their infrastructure is an integral part of their business model, charities invariably lack the financial resources, skills and organisational commitment to put these systems and processes in place – because, quite naturally, we focus on our vision and mission of raising much-needed funds and ensuring the money is spent on beneficiaries.
But this problem underpins the way in which we actually meet our mandate. These competing demands on our time and resources detract from putting the time and energy into sorting out our back offices and infrastructure. Most charities have a culture that pushes them to spend as little as possible, seeing administration as a percentage of their project costs, and this leads them to commit less than they should to dealing with their processes.
There is an enormous pool of goodwill and support for charities and non-governmental organisations in the UK. This can range from running a marathon in support of your favourite charity, contributing as a governor of a school, sitting on a medical advisory panel or offering financial support to a needy cause. But one thing we’re badly lacking in the third sector, that the business world could provide, is a sharing of skills and expertise at the top level – people who can come in and, with however much or little time they have, look at the way we do things and suggest ways to do it better.
I’m talking about board-level executives dedicating, say, one day every month throughout the year to come in and spend time with a charity, helping them with anything from improving the way the finance function works to getting more out of their IT systems or even how to make better use of their staff when they need to upscale (as most of us had to, in super-quick time, when Haiti hit).
This would take up less of an FD’s time and be a lot less pressurised than becoming a trustee or a non-executive, but carry the same value for a charity. And it would look great on the CV as well as being a way to extend your sphere of learning, do something different and worthwhile.
What I envisage is a buddy system where, for example, a corporate IT or web specialist links up with an IT manager in a charity and offers technical support, expertise and oversight in moving the charity forward in that particular area. I could say that my organisation would warmly welcome that sort of support to review and re-engineer our business processes and our IT systems and as finance directors so often look after those, this is another place in addition to finance that they could use your help and there are many other FDs across the sector who would welcome it, too. It is simply a matter of putting in a call to a charity you admire and offering it.
Even while charities remain at the centre of the response to Haiti, there is time and space for a senior FD to come and share their skills for our longer-term good. The generosity of donors in response to the Haiti earthquake was both impressive and moving – in the case of Médicins Sans Frontières (MSF) this generosity ranged from an offer of a loan of a private jet to transport medical equipment to Haiti to an elderly couple coming into our offices offering us their holiday funds but it is at times like these that human beings set aside their differences and prejudices and pull together for a common good.
It is these experiences that make me want to wake up each morning, to go to work and make a difference to the world we live in. For FDs in other organisations, volunteering a day or two every month to a charity could add another enjoyable dimension to their career.
So where does an interested party start? Charities range widely in scope, from the arts to overseas development and in scale from small clubs to familiar high street brands. Be clear on what type and size of charitable organisation you want to support. Look at the websites of charities you like and you will soon get a feel for the culture of the organisation and perhaps where you can make a difference by giving time, not cash.
The National Council for Voluntary Organisations is a good source of information. The next step is to put in a call or email to the CFO of that charity and offer your support as a mentor, buddy, volunteer, advisor from a professional knowledge transfer point of view – whatever label suits you best.
It may sound a bit cheesy, but my belief is that from a small start, FDs in the corporate sector will form meaningful relationships with their counterparts in the charitable sector from which all can benefit. In fact, we may be able to teach you a few tricks too.
Joe Ghandhi is head of finance at Médicins Sans Frontières UK. He was head of finance for WaterAid