Profile: Melvin Coleman, UK FD Amnesty International

Profile: Melvin Coleman, UK FD Amnesty International

Working for Amnesty International, Melvin Coleman's concerns are deeply humanitarian, with violence against women and other human rights abuses top of his agenda. But as a financial director he also has one eye on next month's Budget.

Since 1990, there have been 35 recorded executions of child offenders in countries around the world. Over half of them were carried out in the US. Earlier this month, 14 suspected Maoist activists and two civilians were shot dead by Nepalese security forces. Armed uprisings in Gonaives, Haiti, reportedly resulted in 15 deaths, including police officers and local residents.

Meanwhile, in crisis-hit Sudan, between 68 and 80 civilians were reportedly killed after their villages were attacked by militia groups aligned with the government. Thirty girls were allegedly abducted by government soldiers in a separate attack.

It’s facts like these, and the opportunity to do something about them, that leads UK finance director of Amnesty International Melvin Coleman to say he has the ideal job. While being a finance director in the private sector is centred around the bottom line and investor relations, that’s just a small part of his role.

‘There are two things that I need from my job – intellectual challenge and doing something really worthwhile that’s going to change the world,’ he says with complete conviction. ‘I think it would be very difficult to do this job if you weren’t able to demonstrate a commitment to the objectives of the organisation. We all get involved in taking part in campaigns.’

One of the organisation’s more recent campaigns is an attempt to control the transfer of small arms around the world. Bringing Amnesty together with Oxfam and the International Action Network on Small Arms, Coleman describes it as ‘a big, ambitious project’.

Next month will see the launch of a similarly ambitious global project on the issue of violence against women. ‘That’s a campaign that will run for a long time across the world, with a different focus according to the situations in different countries.’

For a global organisation with offices in 10 countries and a presence in more than 70, its UK headquarters is reassuringly rough around the edges. Volunteers wander around the corridors looking as if they might be more at home at a rock festival than a central London office.

Yet appearances are deceptive, and Coleman respects them all. He is acutely aware of the difficulty in trying to attract people to a sector that pays far less than similar positions would in the commercial world. ‘When I joined in 1996, we were almost at the bottom of the league in terms of salary levels. We were very poor compared to the rest of the charity sector. We’ve since addressed that.’

But this doesn’t take away from the fact that staff will have to sacrifice their earning potential for the greater good. Coleman did exactly that, moving from a job in publishing, following a stint with an oil company. ‘I took a big drop in salary,’ he says, laughing.

While he obviously enjoys his job and takes a huge amount of satisfaction home at the end of the day, if not a fat pay packet, working in the not-for-profit sector is certainly not without its challenges.

‘I think living with ambiguity is the key thing that traditional finance people find very difficult,’ he says. ‘There’s not actually a focus on bottom-line profit.’

And it is not just ambiguity over the organisation’s income. Another fundamental problem is how to measure Amnesty’s impact on regions of the world and the governments it lobbies.

‘How do we assess whether the resources we spent on a particular campaign are actually making a difference in changing the world?’ he says. ‘Do you absolutely know why somebody got released? We believe it, but who knows what’s at play overseas.’

It is a pertinent point in a world where donors want to know exactly how their hard-earned cash is being spent. For Amnesty it is particularly important. It is one of the few organisations in the not-for-profit sector that relies solely on small contributions from individuals.

‘It seemed to me to be one of the very last of the true volunteer-led, membership-led organisations left in the country. It’s an almost unique institution with thousands and thousands of members being active on behalf of human rights and actually leading the organisation,’ he says.

While the vast majority of charities and not-for-profit organisations will accept large handouts from business, Coleman is adamant that Amnestyis different and should never follow the same route. ‘The advantages are that you are only accountable to your own supporters,’ he says. ‘They tend not to make you jump through all those ridiculous hoops, and they tend not to withdraw their money through a fit of pique, or because they’ve decided to give it to somebody else.’

Which is among the biggest banes for any not-for-profit organisation. But successfully predicting future levels of income is something Amnesty has been able to improve during the last six or seven years, because 83% of its supporters now contribute via direct debit. Coleman describes the situation as offering ‘fantastic security to go forward’.

The charity has been able to get to this position due to the recent growth in face-to-face campaigning. While the practice has been the subject of intense debate (click here for more on this), Coleman makes no bones about the important role that it plays in the organisation’s financial stability.

‘We have grown our supporter base from 130,000 to 200,000 in a period of about six or seven years and a lot of that has been through that activity,’ he says. Next month is doubly important for Coleman. One side of his job will be satisfied with the launch of the campaign to stop violence against women. But he will also be keeping a close eye on Gordon Brown’s Budget on 17 March.

‘I dream that the chancellor will actually deliver relief on VAT,’ he says. ‘It’s got to be the key issue for the sector. What government gives with one hand through Gift Aid, it takes away massively with the other.’

Coleman is by no means alone in lobbying the government to allow charities to recover VAT. The Charity Finance Directors’ Group has been lobbying hard for some years, claiming irrecoverable VAT costs the sector in excess of £400m a year. But Coleman does not hold out much hope, saying he sees ‘no sign that the government is interested in taking this one on’.

‘I would love the chancellor to come out from behind the European Union,’ he says. ‘He should recognise that the UK charity sector in its size and scope is far more important than it is in continental Europe. It’s such a major part of the fabric of our society.’

To make matters worse, Customs & Excise has announced that it will walk away from an extra-statutory concession that it granted some years ago. As a result, Amnesty International will be hit with an inflated irrecoverable VAT bill of around £500,000, and a hike of about £350,000. ‘I don’t think the donors appreciate just how much of their donation goes straight into the exchequer,’ he says.

Coleman will go to any lengths to keep expenditure down. He has recently secured new premises in east London that came VAT-free. He described the search as like trying to find ‘rocking-horse droppings’.

Yet even after securing a very competitive loan through the Co-operative Bank, the move will still cost £3m. Coleman is, of course, hoping the cost will be covered by donations.

A large part of Coleman’s problem in running the organisation is because Amnesty International is not actually classed as a charity. ‘In the early eighties, Amnesty tried to become a charity. There was a very famous High Court decision that said we couldn’t because some of the work we did was deemed political with a small ‘p’, and that’s the business of persuading governments to change law or policy.’

So certain aspects of the work Amnesty does was separated into a charitable trust – and now there are three separate organisations within the UK arm of Amnesty International.

‘It is actually like working in a multinational, but without the support systems,’ he says. ‘You’ve got to know a huge raft of things. You’ve got to know a lot about the law. You’ve got to know the VAT and tax issues, the regulatory issues and so on. That’s been one of the challenges of the last year ð trying to get some sense out of how human rights is treated.’

He says that the situation can cause ‘credibility issues’. Which is one of the arguments the organisation is using in its attempts to persuade the government to change its stance. Amnesty meets all the criteria required for charity status, in terms of transparency and reporting publicly, yet certain activities do not benefit from Gift Aid.

‘The commission’s position at the moment is that we’re allowed to promote human rights in countries that have adopted a relevant convention into their domestic law, like the Human Rights Act in the UK. But he can’t if they haven’t,’ he says.

‘So not only are the very places where you really need to be campaigning the places which haven’t adopted conventions, but we need a team of international lawyers working out whether, say Azerbaijan, has incorporated. It’s crackers.’

Looking through Amnesty International’s circular magazine and delving into its website makes for difficult reading. While nobody can claim to have a more worthwhile job than the next person, the work Amnesty International does is hard to beat.

One of Coleman’s biggest fears is that the brutal killings in Congo will continue. Listening to fears like that can be a humbling experience.

  • If you wish to join or donate to Amnesty International visit the website at or call 020 7814 6200

Charity warfare
Walk down any British high street and you’ll no doubt be confronted by a myriad of clipboard-wielding youths after your cash.

Popularly, and rather unkindly, nicknamed ‘charity muggers’, many see them as the scourge of modern society and little more than a reason to cross the street on the way to work. But to Coleman they are invaluable.

‘It’s been a great source of our growth over the past six or seven years. It has been a fantastic thing for us,’ he says.

‘We can reach younger people, we can reach socio-economic groups that don’t traditionally read The Guardian or The Observer where we’ve historically recruited people.’

The government and the Home Office is actively involved in discussions over how best to regulate charity face-to-face activity. And while Coleman is aware of the public’s perception of face-to-face fundraisers, he would be devastated if the activity was hindered.

‘It would be a tragedy if it becomes over regulated to the point where it stops becoming useful,’ he says.

‘It’s been a fantastic thing for us. On the financial front, we’ve grown our supporter base from 130,000 to 200,000 in a period of about six or seven years. A lot of that has been through that activity.’

And because most of the contributions through face-to-face campaigning come via direct debit, Amnesty can face future decisions with far more financial security.

‘We have got over 83% of our supporters on direct debit, which is fantastic security in going forward,’ he says.

‘I would say over the last five years it’s been a large proportion of all our supporter recruitment. My guess would be that well over half of our current supporters have come through as a result of that kind of activity.’

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