Last week was the CFG Annual Conference – our biggest event of the year. As ever, it was packed with fascinating insight and opportunities for reflection.
One key theme expressed by many speakers at the event was the importance of culture. If your organisation has a poor culture, delegates were told, you can have all the policies and strategies you like, but you will still have a poor organisation.
Having said that, it was also clear that compliance and process drives culture. If poor structures and processes are in place, that will incentivise poor decision-making by staff, and make it far harder to have a strong culture. So the finance department, which does much to set the tone in that regard, is essential for the effectiveness of the organisation.
It's this idea, of the balance between detail and process, and strategy and culture, which motivated so many of our speakers. We look at some of the key messages, below.
It’s not just where you’re going, it’s how you get there
Pesh Framjee, Global Head of Not-for-Profit,Crowe UK, spoke about the vital role that effective governance and leadership play in setting organisational culture, and how both board and senior executives should have culture as an item to be addressed. He outlined that if strategy points in one direction but culture in another, an organisation will struggle.
He also warned that charities can become focused on the end goal of their cause, rather than paying enough attention to how they get there. But he said that charities often advocate good behaviour as a key message, and so it is particularly important to ensure that in a charity, behaviours are ethical at all levels of the organisation. How we carry out the journey is as important as the destination.
And he also spoke of the importance of challenge as an element of voluntary sector culture. He said charities tend to trust people, and can therefore be slow to tackle poor performance. But sometimes, we all need a wake-up.
“I received a useful challenge from a member of staff recently,” he said. “They said to me: ‘Pesh, you say your office door is always open, and it is. The trouble is, you’re never in the office.’ I realised I had to make myself more available.”
If you want change, you need targets and budgets, not just warm words
One issue of charity culture which is much under debate at the moment is whether our sector is inclusive to all. At a panel on diversity in the sector, speakers suggested that there has so far been more talk than action on this subject. Charities have often preferred to use soft skills to address the issue of inclusiveness, but panellists warned that the sector needs to set clear targets and allocate proper budgets, if we want to seriously tackle this problem.
If we fail to hold ourselves to account, set targets, and ask why our organisation is less diverse than the general population, we will not see the change we want, said Cordelia Osewa-Ediae, Senior Consultant at Green Park.
Becca Bunce, Co-Director of IC Change, outlined the importance of the finance department in tackling diversity issues, because it cannot be tackled without being part of the strategy and being allocated a budget.
“There’s a lot of talk about diversity, but we need to have some action,” she said. “We need investment, we need resource, we need to be putting in money. If you want to respond to the equality, diversity and inclusion agenda, show me the money.”
You can only lose your reputation once
Whose job is it to ensure that your organisation has a good reputation? Is it the comms department? The chief executive? The trustees? Well, maybe. But none of them, ultimately, is responsible for ensuring that your organisation is free of fraud, mismanagement and dishonesty. None of them is in a clear position to identify where poor performance or dishonesty or recklessness is endangering your charity. That is the job of the finance department.
If you are a finance director, said Colin Kerr, Director of Finance at The Children’s Trust, you had better guard your probity carefully and stick to our ethics.
“You get one shot at this,” he said. “You can only lose your reputation once.”
Good culture starts with listening to people
At the Quakers in Britain, the finance department was operating in a silo, hindered by outdated, bespoke systems and a lack of communication. On a mission to change this, the team spent a long time listening to others, and trying to find out their needs, finding it was this focus on helping others that made the most difference. The finance team got out and about, trained and supported colleagues, and demystified the whole process. One key lesson was the importance of breaking down barriers and engaging with other staff, as well as standardising processes and developing simple systems.
Another lesson was that it was important to acknowledge when things had gone wrong, and needed change, without encouraging blame and negativity.
A finance department which has a culture of keeping itself apart, the conference heard, is not one which is serving the organisation.
The CFG conference can save you more than £1m
A few years ago, said Stephen Baines, Director of Business Finance at the British Heart Foundation, came to the CFG Annual Conference and listened to a talk by CLIC Sargent about how they had implemented Lean Six Sigma, and found cost savings and new income worth more than £1m. As a result, he decided to do the same at BHF. So far, the continuous improvement department, headcount 2.5 FTE, has saved his charity more than £1m, too. All by simplifying and improving processes, without cutting services or reducing headcount.
The continuous improvement team work with departments in the charity which want to solve a problem or streamline a process, and identify the problem the team is trying to solve, and the processes and technology involved in doing so. In one case, it was able to remove more than 100 steps from the process of supplying heart equipment to schools, and cut down approval times from two days, to two minutes.
Being an introvert is not the problem
One issue to be considered when thinking about culture, particularly in the finance department, is how introverts should approach leadership. Clearly, there are a lot of introverts in charity finance departments, because this was a packed session.
The broad lesson from Nick Waring, Director of Finance at Women for Women International, is that you must be true to yourself, and your strengths, and not try to be someone else. Introverts, he said, offered calm, focused opinions and deep expertise. He quoted a line from Susan Cain, the author of Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.
“There is zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas.”
Be driven by passion for your beneficiaries
The final session of the conference brought us back to the point that the absolute key to success, in a charity, is clarity of vision and mission. It was here that the conference ended, with a speech by Duncan Dunlop, Chief Executive of Who Cares? Scotland, an organisation for individuals with experience of the care system.
His message was how utterly children in care are failed by the system, and how love more than anything is what those children need, left many delegates struggling with something in their eye.
The truth is that the UK is a country containing many people who deserve a better deal, from the state and the system, and it should be the job of some charity, somewhere, to ensure that they get that better deal. Every VAT return and variance calculated in a finance department is a tool to make that happen.
It may not always feel glamorous, but those people who change the world need a long enough lever and a solid base enough base on which to stand, and the job of charity finance workers is to offer them those tools.
That job is vital.
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