What matters is your desire to change the world, not the skills you bring to the party

CFG's new Chair, Gary Forster has spent most of his career in logistics before becoming a CEO in 2011. With this transition came a realisation - like logistics, finance is often overlooked. In this, his after-dinner speech at CFG's Annual Fundraising Dinner, he celebrates the accountants, financial controllers, FDs and book keepers that underpin the great work of the voluntary sector.



Post byGuest blogger

Good evening lords, ladies, gentlemen, actually let me just say good evening to everybody – no matter where you are from, no matter how you self identify, no matter what you believe, you are absolutely welcome here, we’re delighted to have you, thank you for being with us tonight.

So, here we are, the CFG Annual Dinner, and hasn’t it been absolutely brilliant so far. If you’re wondering what I’m doing up here, that makes two of us. But let me try and explain.   

A few weeks ago the CFG Team said “Gary, so the CFG Annual Dinner is coming up and we thought it would be nice for you to do the after dinner speech, you know, introduce yourself, tell our members why you love CFG, and maybe, you know, make them laugh”. Brilliant.

My name’s Gary Forster, I’m the new Chair of CFG. I recently took over from the extraordinary Nicki Deeson. I’ve been on the board since 2015, and I am proud and delighted to be here in front of you tonight representing this important and inspiring institution. But hang on I hear you say, this guy isn’t a qualified accountant, doesn’t work in a finance role, nor HR, nor IT. So how did this imposter end up here?

My third-sector career started kind of by accident, around 15 years ago, back in 2004. I was living down in Bournemouth, near where I grew up, working for a big multinational, Procter and Gamble. My job was in the logistics department - making sure that trucks full of stuff got to where they needed to go. Then one day someone from a charity called Young Enterprise turned up at our offices looking for staff members who could mentor local groups of school kids as they attempted to start their own businesses. It’s a great concept – students raise capital by selling shares to their friends and family and then use this money to bankroll a small business.  I was assigned to two groups – the first was a bunch of well-to-do sixth formers from some of the better schools in the area. They’d come to us on a Wednesday evening, sit in our board room, and we’d help them along as they devised business plans, break even analysis, and advertising campaigns.

The second group was altogether very different. Every Thursday lunch time I would drive to the local girls school where a group of ten thirteen year old girls, deemed too disruptive to join PE at that time in the week, had been assigned to the Young Enterprise programme. Their business was bracelets. One week we made them, the next we marketed them, the next we sold them. It wasn’t all plain sailing – thirteen is a tough age at the best of times, and these girls didn’t come from the most supportive home environments. Some weeks the entire session descended into unproductive chaos, other weeks there was an extraordinary level of focus and the business really took shape. By the end of the year the group had made enough money to pay back all of the shareholders who had brought £1 shares in their company, and they had enough profit left over for a party. For the final session of the year I arranged for them to come to our site and sit in our board room so we could review their successes and lessons learned. We had flipcharts, we had catering, we had big black spinny office chairs, it was brilliant.

At the end of that final session, one of the girls, Lizzie, completely unprompted, told the group she wanted to be an accountant when she grew up. This was Lizzie who at the beginning of the year did not engage at all, who most of us thought couldn’t even add up let alone do the multiplication necessary to manage the finances of the business for nine months. And of course wanting to be an accountant goes down well in a room like this but that’s not the point, she could have said any job, what matters is that she was a different person than the one I’d encountered less than a year earlier. She was confident, capable, and now she aspired to something.

And you know what, right then, at that moment, was when I realised I was hooked, it felt great, I wanted to do more, help more, give more. I volunteered for the local Youth Cancer Trust to help them fundraise, I signed up for more Young  Enterprise groups the following year, and then one day I googled the words 'logistics' and 'charity' and found a small international organisation based in London using logistics expertise to help people in Africa.

I offered to help them out in any way I could. I helped them fundraise, I advised on technical issues. Then after being in touch with them for around 18 months I was offered a three month volunteer placement in Zambia, an opportunity too good to refuse. This three months turned into two years in Zambia, then two in Nigeria, with countless trips to other countries to support the organisation’s work. And this was maybe not your typical work. Logistics is a relatively unknown and perhaps misunderstood discipline. Not unlike finance perhaps it can seem complex, abstract. It’s not an end in itself, but a means to an end. But the next time you go into your local supermarket to pick up some milk only to find none on the shelf because of a driver shortage, you’ll get it. Now let’s replace milk with medicines, or vaccines. Instead of going to the supermarket you’re going to hospital, but you have no car, nor any public transport, and the only ambulance within 50 miles has broken down for want of a single $3 part.

When it works well logistics goes unnoticed, taken for granted, and in developed countries the worst that might happen is you have to eat dry Weetabix. But when it goes wrong, and especially in developing countries where there are few other options, children don’t get access to the life saving medicines which cost pence but can mean life or death for those with acute malaria.

I had moved to Zambia in 2006. In 2008 I moved to Northern Nigeria– living under Sharia Law in a city of ten million people working in a part of the world that would, while I was there, succumb to the horror of Boko Haram. In Nigeria I was the logistics advisor assigned to a British Government funded maternal health and immunisation programme in an area of the world where the maternal mortality rate, that is women dying in childbirth, is 150 times higher than it is in the UK and where when we arrived the routine immunisation rate for children, in some places, was as low as 3%. My job, as the logistician, was different to most other folk. I wasn’t a doctor, or a reproductive health expert. But when we worked hand in hand with obstetricians, pharmacists and community health workers, designing ambulance services which used the surplus capacity of local taxi drivers to provide a prompt and affordable shuttle to local health facilities, we built health services that ended up being used by hundreds of thousands of pregnant women.

Over the next ten years I supported international NGOs in South Sudan to manage their project vehicles. I helped international donors and the Sierra Leone government rebuild their ambulance service in the aftermath of the ebola epidemic. We set up projects in rural areas of Namibia, Malawi and Zambia to provide bicycle drawn ambulances to community volunteers who would pedal pregnant women to health facilities, sometimes up to 40 miles in one go, reducing maternal mortality rates to zero in the communities where we worked. It was fascinating work, and I was part of a small organisation so it was often the case that you would have responsibility for designing, budgeting, securing funding, implementing and donor reporting. It was a great way to learn.

In 2011 I was appointed to the role of CEO of that same organisation. Up until that point my exposure to financial matters had been relatively limited, mostly to project budgets. But as I took the reins what struck me was how those with skills that were seen as more technical, less fluffy, more structural, like finance, IT, and HR were not as visible within the cause as the ‘frontline’ staff.  This reminded me of being a logistics advisor on that health project in Nigeria. Yet our impact is no less critical.  I started to learn that what matters is your desire to change the world not the lens through which you do that or the skills that you bring to the party. And reflecting on this, wondering how I was going to speak to a room full of people who perhaps have been on very different journeys to me, I realised that we’re not so different after all. I did fleet maintenance, supply chain management, transport planning, you chose accounting, IT, HR. Sometimes these disciplines are not seen as important as the cause -  but they are the cause!  The people in this room want to change the world -  you just happen to be accountants -  I want to change the world -  I just happened to have logistics skills. It’s about using the skills and qualifications you have for the heroic mission or cause you are drawn to.

As a CEO I soon experienced just how core good financial management is. I experienced how much bandwidth could be absorbed by financial management problems. I saw technical teams being drawn away from where they work best to deal with budget constraints. I saw how much senior management time, including at board meetings, could vanish into discussions about cashflow and overhead recovery.

Over time, by getting the right people in place, improving our processes, investing in systems, and upskilling the financial understanding of the wider team, I started to see the other side of the same coin. I saw just what can be unleashed when financial leadership is at the heart of an organisation. Board meetings started to focus on strategy and impact. The Senior Team started to look up and forward, planning for the future, comfortable that the day to day was under control. Our technical experts were free to focus on what they did best. The whole rhythm of the organisation changed and soon our finance team were leading the way, identifying opportunities for savings, lightening the reporting burden of our team.  

Today, I’m the CEO of the Global Campaign for Aid Transparency and trust me, we see a lot of financial data, not all of it indicating good financial management unfortunately. Last month I returned from the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. There are 1.3 million people in those camps, people who have fled unimaginable horror in Myanmar and who are now entirely reliant on humanitarian assistance. In 2018 the response cost more than $800m. In such a response inefficient financial management can lead to delays. Delays in procuring materials. Materials to build shelters. Shelters in preparation for the monsoon season. Shelters for a mother and her three young children. And I’m fully aware that this pressure is not unique to the humanitarian space, that charities here in the UK, working across such a broad spectrum of issues, have to work with a sense of urgency and utmost efficiency just to be able to try and meet demand.

I feel extremely lucky to have been able to work in this sector. I can’t think of another career to which I could have committed myself so completely. And I feel extremely privileged to have been entrusted with the responsibility to contribute to some pretty important goals. As Caron said earlier, the charity sector is so much more than the sum of its parts – it underpins our society, fills in the gaps, fights the important battles. It’s not easy, it takes guts, tenacity, and a shit load of coffee.

Having had a taste for how important good financial management is to our sector, when I saw that CFG was looking for trustees in 2015 I applied. My application opened with the following sentence, and as you’ll see, I wasn’t funny in 2015 either. I wrote:

“I am passionate about charity finance not because I enjoy a good income recognition policy, or because I like to relax with a glass of wine and the latest SORP guidance, but because I can see the link between strong financial management and impactful charities.”

Today I believe this more than ever. I believe that financial leadership within charities of all types and sizes has the ability to unlock extraordinary potential. I believe that financial leadership can not only support the achievement of your charitable objectives but can accelerate their attainment. I believe this is the case no matter what your cause – humans or animals, research or service delivery, education or homelessness. And where does CFG fit in? We are here to help you realise your potential. We are here to support you, and to learn from you. That is why I believe in CFG, I believe in our mission, our team and our board. But most importantly, we, believe, in, you – the accountants, financial controllers, FDs and book keepers that underpin the UK’s charitable sector.  

Thank you for coming tonight, for helping us raise funds to support our ongoing efforts, and for just being the amazing people you are. Thank you."

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