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A legacy that will live on

After eight years on CFG’s board of trustees, Gary Forster has bid farewell to CFG. Talking to Emma Abbott, Gary reflects on his time as chair, the many highlights, the changes he’s seen and a membership and sector that never fails to impress him.

When Gary Forster became chair of CFG’s board of trustees in 2019, he told CFG members and partners that he felt like an imposter, despite being no stranger to the sector.

Four years previously, Gary joined the board as a trustee. He was CEO of Transaid UK and sat on the board of disaster relief charity RedR where he was chair of their Resources Committee.

Eight years on, Gary leaves the CFG board having attended more than 30 meetings, equating to reading at least 3,000 pages of board papers. He has attended countless CFG events and has successfully steered CFG through a restructure, a pandemic and the early days of the cost-of-living crisis. He has even raised money to support CFG – by shaving his own legs!

Does Gary still feel like an imposter?

“Yeah, I still feel like an imposter. I even said in my last CFG board meeting to the new trustees that I’m living proof that there’s no such thing as a stupid question.

“I think we’re all imposters in a way. But what matters, I think, is being conscious of our own blind spots.”

No barriers to success

Gary’s career began in logistics with Proctor & Gamble, but he soon got a taste of the not-for-profit sector when he put his skills to use volunteering as a mentor for young people.

He wasn’t much older than those he mentored and enjoyed encouraging his mentees to develop their leadership skills and become trustees – something he remains passionate about to this day.

“There’s no training course in the sector that can teach you what it’s like to run an organisation, other than being on a board. And it doesn’t matter how young or inexperienced you are.

“Most organisations work with a breadth of service users and beneficiaries, so why shouldn’t they have younger people? All perspectives are needed.”

The power of financial leadership

“I really enjoyed my time with RedR, it was fascinating and great work," shares Gary.

So what appealed to him about CFG? How did a logistician end up in an umbrella body championing financial leadership?

"RedR were also supporting the sector, doing a huge amount of training for humanitarians, training I’d done myself. So, the idea of an organisation that exists to make us all stronger appealed to me.

“When I saw the opportunity of becoming a trustee at CFG, I’d been on a bit of a journey. At the time, the organisation where I was CEO was growing, as was the work needing to be done in finance.

"Although we had a passionate finance person in post, they were only just about holding everything together. We didn’t have good reporting to the board, we spent a lot of time making mistakes in our reports and we spent an awful lot of time talking about numbers rather than strategy, and certainly not impact.”

The decision was made to bring in a finance director – a decision that helped the organisation move forward.

“The new finance director just revolutionised everything,” recalls Gary. “Part of that was taking away a lot of the discussion about finance and replacing it with conversations about strategy. She would say ‘look, we can go into the numbers, but what do the numbers actually mean for us as an organisation?’.

“We could talk about whether we had capacity to do new things, and when we needed to be more cautious because things were a bit tight.”

In a short space of time, the finance director willingly took a seat at the board table and the organisation’s new financial literacy and leadership was “revolutionary”.

“She joined the organisation because she cared about what we did. And she wanted to be in all those meetings to talk about strategy and objectives and so on. She freed me up as a CEO to just focus on impact, and growth and strategy.”

Gary on stage at CFG's Annual Conference.

Championing the cause

This early lesson in the positive role that finance can play in transforming an organisation, and leading an organisation through a period of change, led Gary to apply to become a CFG trustee. And it’s a lesson he’s gone on to amplify ever since.

“We all benefited from the input of that financial skill and knowledge our finance director brought to the organisation. I think that's something that's maybe misunderstood in the sector.

"Sometimes finance professionals can get pigeonholed. But they rarely join a non-profit to just do balance sheets and processing. They want to make the organisation stronger from within.

“Some of the most passionate people you meet in the charity sector are finance directors. To think of them as being anything other than leaders who care about strategy, to think of them as being, you know, the bean counters, is fundamentally wrong.”

Gary says that those days were already coming to an end when he applied for the trustee post. Nevertheless, CFG’s mission resonated with him and he could see how he could support it.

“What excited me about CFG was that they were going after this financial leadership goal, and they explicitly asked for people to join the board who maybe had less finance experience and more leadership experience running organisations.

“That’s when I saw a perfect fit. I didn’t – and don’t – have a deep financial understanding, and I’m not a governance expert, but I can see how great leadership from finance can be transformative.”

The rest, as they say, is history. In his years as a CFG trustee and as chair, Gary has travelled thousands of miles to attend and chair dozens of CFG events – all in the name of championing charity finance.

Eventful moments

“I’ve enjoyed it all,” says Gary. “There have been so many highlights. And some weird moments too! One that comes to mind was at one CFG event on cyber security a few years ago. A speaker started hacking into the systems of different organisations by guessing username structure. He was on stage, guessing names and just doing it right there. It was just profound!

Gary recalls the joy of returning to in-person events after the pandemic as a particularly special time for everyone: “We can be coming out of a pandemic and heading into a recession, but then you have CFG’s annual conference or another event, and you come out just feeling absolutely over the moon!

“And I loved the last annual conference [in 2023]. It was incredible, there were so many people – it was so lively! It was so exciting, right? You feel so positive and so excited. CFG members are amazing. I don’t remember ever going to an event where I just wasn’t bowled over by the members, the sponsors, everybody.

“Then there’s CFG's funders, corporate partners and supporters – those people who came to us during the pandemic who said they wanted to see CFG do okay, to help us. It all amounts to an incredible amount of goodwill and generosity. It really means a lot.”

Gary Forster with Stevie Spring, CBE, Chair of Mind and British Council.

Collaboration not competition

CFG’s events and meetings haven’t been the only highlights for Gary during his years on the board. To this day, he remains impressed by the sector’s collective sense of purpose and its readiness to share knowledge and information.

“The extraordinary thing I’ve seen time and again at CFG is the willingness to collaborate – it’s extraordinary among members.

“I’m on a CFG discussion group email list and when someone in the group asks something – ‘hey, I need a new system…’ or ‘what do you think of this?’ – everyone just piles in and is willing to share.

“Sometimes it feels like quite sensitive stuff, and sometimes it can be warts and all. It’s always super useful. I just think that kind of openness and honesty, which includes acknowledging your faults but also being clear on what you've done well is… cool!

“There’s almost no ego. No one takes themselves too seriously. And that positivity, that energy, you can really feel it.”

On a macro level, Gary also welcomes the sharing of knowledge and opportunities between organisations that might have traditionally viewed themselves as competitors. He acknowledges that tough times have led to some difficult conversations around the space CFG occupies, and how.

“It has been amazing to see how almost all the umbrella bodies have gone through a transition in the last five or six years,” he states.

“The end result of that is a sector that now seems more coherent, more aligned, more open. And there’s less overlap and duplication. It’s now more powerful and impactful and we’ve seen how that played out with our policy and advocacy wins during the past few years.”

Board discussions about ‘the competition’ would always conclude the same: “Our response was always ‘be open, talk to people, understand what they’re doing, work closely with them’.”

Gary with CFG's trustees Stella Smith and Kelly Ryder.

Shaping culture

Promoting the values of openness and support has been central to the culture Gary has inspired at CFG alongside CEO Caron Bradshaw. And he hopes that that spirit will remain in years to come.

“I never want competitiveness in any sector. It’s so destructive,” he continues. “Everything becomes less than the sum of its parts and I feel like right now the charity sector is more than the sum of its parts because everyone’s working so well together.”

He cautions however: “I wouldn’t want anyone to read this and think ‘oh, charity people are soft’. It’s not like the corporate world, no, but there’s a fierce determination to do the right thing.

“The people we work with don’t suffer fools and they’re extremely smart. They know when they’re being sold to and they like helpful information, not just wishes and dreams.

“They wear so many hats, from finance to IT to HR and so much more. Their suppleness and the flexibility, to just deal with so many different issues and do it well, whilst remaining focused on the goal... incredible!”

“This is the way we wanted to do things on the board. We never went into a meeting with arrogance. That's not what works for our members, it’s not what serves them, and I think everyone's super conscious that we have a real duty to operate in a way that reflects members’ values, with humility.

Demonstrating that same humility, Gary doesn’t lay claim to owning these leadership lessons. He continues: “My view on organisational management isn’t my own, I've just stolen a lot of it from the Jim Collins’ books ‘From Good to Great’ and ‘Built to Last’.

“Collins talks about humble leaders and I’m a big believer in the idea that we just have to do it a bit better every time. It’s not about coming out with some flashy thing that then fails behind you when you leave the organisation.

“The idea that you are the clock builder, not the time teller – you build the systems and processes in your organisation that will outlast you – is what resonates with me completely.”

With more time on his hands, Gary intends to wind down by focusing on his other great passion – cycling. And while he’s pedalling a new path, CFG will continue to build with a new chair and a board that’s as equally passionate about CFG’s mission and future.

Will Gary’s legacy of steady improvement, openness and humility last at CFG? We’ll make sure it does. Gary might still feel like an imposter, but we all know he’s the real deal!

From the CFG staff team, board, members, partners and all supporters, we thank Gary for all he has done for the CFG community and wish him well for all his future endeavours.


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