Feature: Inside the Chartered Accountants' Benevolent Association

by Calum Fuller

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22 May 2013

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CABA's Wendy Saunders and CEO Kath Haines

IT'S UNLIKELY TO BE AT THE FOREFRONT of practitioners' minds at any given point, but no-one is impervious to turmoil.

That admittedly is pretty bleak, but for an accountant to go from living a comfortable, successful life, to one where their ability to work and pay the bills is taken away by dint of a personal tragedy and/or money problems is at the very least a stark experience. Many struggle to cope.

Clearly, accountants aren't immune from the vagaries of life and business, but in the absence of any welfare state, in 1886 - six years after the ICAEW was founded - the Chartered Accountants Benevolent Association (CABA) was set up with the aim of providing a safety net for chartered accountants in need. A profession establishing such a body was very much in-keeping with of the philanthropic culture of the time.

Today, it not only provides support services to ICAEW members, but their dependents as well. The last year has also seen a dramatic increase in demand for its services, and so, with interest piqued, Accountancy Age paid its Rugby head office a visit.

It should be pointed out that CABA is not a charitable arm of the ICAEW, but an entirely independent charity providing financial aid, training, advice and counselling to the institute's members. Having spent most of its existence as a charity, it was incorporated as a company in 2005 and ceased solely providing monetary aid. Instead, it moved to provide a far broader range of services in 2008, including counselling and career advice, as well as signposting to other aid organisations.

Estate development

It is able to do so largely on account of a bequest made in 1958 by ICAEW member Henry Charles Merrett following his death. Merrett donated his estate, with a probate value of £198,802. In 1962, CABA governors reported they had received £26,046 from the estate - around £428,000 in today's terms. The following year, £141,354 - equating to £2.275m today - was received following a court-approved variation of the will trusts.

In 2005 the estate and additional land acquired by CABA was sold to developers for a cool £65m. In 2003, its value was estimated at under £500,000.

For the bulk of its existence, CABA was indeed based in London, but the decision was made to move to the midlands - first to Daventry, then to Rugby in 2007 - in order to be more accessible to large areas of the country.

Since 2009, following receipt of the last instalment for the estate, CABA has taken what it calls an "holistic" approach has been taken towards cases; the idea being that the problem members present them with are often a symptom of wider - and often deeper - problems.

"We don't want to just offer a service necessarily where people come to us when the problem is acute. So we're trying to encourage people to come to us when the problem is still a relatively minor issue and manageable," head of operations Natalie Worth tells Accountancy Age.

As part of that universal approach, courses and personal advice on financial issues such as income maximisation, benefits entitlement, budgeting and debt management are offered alongside professional advice on career coaching and adaptability, and more emotive issues such as physical, mental health and support for carers are also provided for.

Based on its latest impact report, the effect is significant, with 1,694 people assisted in 2012 through the association's in-house enquiry channels, a 70% increase on 2011. Some 657 people benefited from its services, it says, up from 2011's 450, while 106 carers were supported, a 40% increase over the same period. As far as financial support is concerned, £602,000 in grants and donations were provided to 255 ICAEW members.

Difficult times

"These are also especially difficult times for accountants, as they are for many people," says chief executive Kath Haines (pictured right). "There have certainly been increases in the number of people contacting us about recession-linked issues such as unemployment and the fact that they feel they are facing increasing pressure at work and are struggling to cope."

That may be the case, but it only goes some way to explaining such a substantial jump in numbers in such a short space of time.

In spite of that increased demand, though, the office is a surprisingly calm place, with those manning the phones able to manage the call volume with minimum fuss. There are no visible signs to represent some of the distressed situations they have to deal with daily.

"It's partly awareness, partly new services, partly demand," explains Worth. "Things like the institute advertising our career coaching has really helped.

"Potentially there is more need, but what we find is that people have known about CABA for many years, and there's either a campaign or an event in their lives that drives them to us."

Increasingly, the fund is helping provide mobility equipment and adapting properties for members living with disabilities.

Stair lifts and wheelchairs form the bulk of the apparatus CABA has helped provide over the past year, in what is becoming a growing service.

"Some of our clients, by virtue of their job and lifestyle, are out of the reach of local authority grants because their income is too high," service manager Kelly Feehan says. "Actually, though, for the piece of equipment or adaptation that they might need, they'd have to save for a number of years, so we'd step in there. So we've funded stair lifts, downstairs wet-rooms and electric wheelchairs."

Indeed, even if a member is eligible for local authority support, if the waiting list means they are likely to have to wait, then the charity often helps regardless.

"Our ethos is, if it means to get it [equipment or adaptations] they have to wait, say, two years, we would say that's unreasonable and step in.

"It is case-by-case, though," Feehan carefully points out, before adding: "We do have to be careful of unreasonable requests."

Reaching out to accountants' families

Chief among the challenges for CABA is reaching members' dependents and helping them realise the full extent of the help they're entitled to receive; in many cases, spouses and other dependents are either entirely unaware or only have a vague idea.

Although a significant online drive to reach members has yielded noticeable results, there is still a place for printed information. An example frequently referenced by staff is what they colloquially refer to as the ‘sock-drawer story'.

"An elderly woman rang in in a terrible state, and the question was ‘how did you hear about CABA?'," head of development Wendy Saunders (pictured left) tells me. "Her husband had died, and she just didn't know what to do, where to turn or how to understand the paper work. He apparently had said to her that we had sent him a leaflet many, many years ago and he'd told her ‘if anything happens to me and you need help, go to my sock-drawer and there's a leaflet in there'. And that's what she did - there's still a place for printed material."

Another issue is simply encouraging members to ask for help when they genuinely need it, especially if until that point, they have enjoyed a healthy, successful life. Problems that can affect a member's social standing - or at least, problems they feel have the potential to - can see problems go unaddressed.

"Accountants can be very proud people, who do not want to ask for help, and so some have, perhaps, issues that they are less likely to seek help for," explains Feehan.

"People are less likely to admit to mental health problems if the members of their personal or professional network would find out about it. We have to work within that understanding."

Strict on debt

More than exercising sensitivity to peer pressures, some issues can have wider implications. In particular, debt problems can affect institute membership.

"Our clients usually come to us when they've reached crisis-point with their debt," debt support officer Paul Day says. "What we first do is look at the initial issue that has caused them to come here, but usually in the background, there's something that's gone wrong, so it's important to look at the whole picture.

"The institute has strict guidelines regarding debt management as a whole, and can make you liable to disciplinary action. There is a huge stigma out there and it's a huge barrier to people approaching us, but the key thing is it's confidential," he adds.

It's all a delicate balancing act for CABA, and with the sluggish economy and job security not what it once was, it's a service which, sadly, is likely to remain popular, and has plenty of potential to grow.

The role the charity plays has seen exponential growth over the past year, and while it's unlikely further jumps of the proportion seen over the last 12 months, its wider range of services will undoubtedly attract an audience. While falling on hard times can be grim, with the net cast wider than ever before, ICAEW members can be confident that help is available.

Image credit: CABA

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