Most politicians seem to have ‘answer avoidance’ down to a fine art. So when
Gordon Brown was asked to explain why more hadn’t been done to tackle the £500m
of irrecoverable tax that UK charities pay each year, Nick Kavanagh wasn’t
hopeful of a full answer. But even he wasn’t prepared for the admission that
nothing had been done because it is too complicated.
Kavanagh, the finance director of Save the Children, is broadly supportive of
a government that he says has put a lot of time and effort into promoting and
simplifying tax-effective donations, such as payroll giving and gift aid, as a
way of encouraging more charitable giving in the UK.
The amounts generated by payroll giving rose to £83m for the 2004/05
financial year, plus £12m in employer’s contributions, according to the
Charities Aid Foundation.
‘Where the government has lost brownie points is in its blatant refusal to do
anything about irrecoverable VAT,’ says Kavanagh. ‘The way VAT interacts with
charities means it’s more complex for them to administer than for any other
sector. There’s no bit of VAT law that says this is how it applies to you.’
In the end, the complexity of the system forced Kavanagh to go back to school
to supplement his accountancy training. ‘I did the Institute of Indirect
so I could understand the context and application of how VAT hits charities.
That’s sad. I’d much rather be focusing effort and resources on the strategic
things that are affecting the charity.’
Devoting your evenings to the intricacies of the UK’s tax system isn’t
everyone’s idea of fun. But it does illustrate the lengths to which Kavanagh
will go to rectify what he and many others see as a major flaw in the system.
Wearing his other hat, that of chairman of the Charity Tax Reform Group,
Kavanagh isn’t afraid to stick his neck out on this issue. The lobby group has
400 members, including Cancer Research UK, Amnesty International and the
National Trust, who are united in their concern about irrecoverable VAT.
Like Kavanagh, the CTRG believes actions speak louder than words. It helps to
develop tax-effective giving structures, and spends a great deal of time
lobbying MPs and MEPs. Currently the minister on the receiving end of most of
its correspondence is John Healey, someone Kavanagh describes as ‘good on
listening, but short on delivery’.
‘The government asked us to come up with ideas to tackle irrecoverable VAT
within the current legislation. We came up with three really good ideas. None
would have totally got rid of the problem, but at least they would have reduced
some complexity and provided some financial respite. But they were ignored as
far as the Budget was concerned. And now the VAT gets worse almost every week.
It’s a nightmare, especially for smaller charities.’
Fortunately, the lobbying hasn’t been a complete waste of time. It has
tax relief in other areas, which has helped the charity sector. ‘It means we’re
keeping our eyes on legislation. There was an attempt at a European level to
introduce VAT on donated goods sold through charity shops.
It would have tripled our VAT bill. Hundreds of charity shop volunteers wrote
MEPs in protest.’
But Kavanagh is adamant that Brown’s claim that the area is too complicated
is a poor excuse. ‘There are already rebate schemes, for listed places of
worship, for example. They aren’t complicated and could be equally applied to
the whole charity sector. Rather than waste time negotiating refund rates, a
partial or total refund mechanism is the best way forward.’
Despite some minor victories, Kavanagh admits it has got to the stage where
he feels he’s banging his head against a brick wall. ‘There are days when I
think I should throw in the towel. Then I ask myself: “Should £1m go back to the
government or should it go towards our work for children?”’
Fortunately, not every aspect of Nick Kavanagh’s job is quite so fr
ustrating. In the last year, he’s been spending a lot of time reviewing the
charity’s investment policy as Save The Children looks to underpin it with more
socially responsible funds.
‘There are a lot of investment managers who claim to know about socially
responsible investments, but most of them take your instructions on what’s
called negative screening. So in our case, if funds aren’t in the interests of
children, they’re excluded from our investment portfolio. But at the end of the
day, it’s also about to what extent they work with companies to improve their
In the end, Save the Children went with Newton Investment Management and the
Epworth Affirmative Fund. ‘They know more than any investment managers about how
SRI works. It’s not true that you have to lose money or get less return by
following an SRI policy.’
It doesn’t take long to realise that Kavanagh, despite his gentle,
soft-spoken exterior, is intent on making a difference. It’s no coincidence that
he is one of a group leading Save the Children through a major change programme
a long-term positioning exercise and decentralisation project that will see
employee headcount at the charity reduced by about 100 over the coming months.
‘We need to focus on who we’re targeting. We have clarity about how we want
to focus health, education, food and the effects of malnutrition, and the
right to protection. Now we’re embarking upon a programme to devolve more
accountability and authority to different levels. By November, the size of the
finance department will have shrunk by half. They’ll be out there supporting the
front line. It will be a huge change.’
There will be cost savings, Kavanagh says: ‘But the driver was making us more
fit for purpose in terms of who people report to. It’s a huge deal for staff and
the organisation, but we’ve done this in the right order and based it on what we
need to do to have most impact.’
For someone so driven in his ambitions for the charity, it’s surprising to
hear how he fell into the job. ‘I’m not a particularly ambitious person,’ he
admits. ‘I sort of stumbled into accountancy and it wasn’t something I felt
particularly excited about.’
After university, Kavanagh trained as a chartered accountant at a small firm,
but admits that doing a job focused on boosting profits for the corporate world
did little to inspire him. He was already working as a volunteer in a local
Oxfam shop when he decided to take the plunge with a full-time job in the third
‘I joined Oxfam as an internal auditor then after two and a half years I
worked for VSO in Tansania, running courses in accountancy, bookkeeping and
management skills. I had to teach all of this in Swahili, because their English
wasn’t so good.’
Having picked up a few choice bits of vocabulary (‘urari’ is Swahili for
trial balance), it was time for Kavanagh to move on. He initially joined Save
the Children eight years ago as a marketing accountant.
‘I provided financial, tax and management information for all our fundraising
and funding operations. Then along the way, I was either acting up or seconded
into the FD role twice when the previous FD was on maternity leave, and most
recently when she moved into the marketing director’s role. I’d been acting up
for so long, people said it was time for me to do the job properly,’ Kavanagh
The role of the charity accountant has evolved hugely over that time as
supporters expect more feedback on the fate of their coins after they have hit
the bottom of the collecting tin.
‘We’ve had to become more supporter focused. Today there’s much more of a
requirement for information, and that requires good reporting. So at Save the
Children, if people have funded specific bits of work, we update them on what
On the whole, Kavanagh welcomes the change. ‘The quest for transparency and
good communications is good, and allowing donors to ask questions has to be
right,’ he says. ‘But it can be problematic if a charity needs a specific
support infrastructure. Nothing’s free it’s a case of getting the right
Other aspects of charity life, meanwhile, remain all-too familiar. Collecting
donations continues to be an uphill struggle. The biggest money spinner for Save
the Children is its annual awards ceremony in the City, attended by patron
Princess Anne. ‘In 20 minutes it raises upwards of £1m. This year it raised over
£2m. But a lot of fundraising is a hard slog.’
Fortunately Kavanagh’s belief in Save the Children’s goals has helped to make
the last eight years a hugely rewarding experience. ‘All children have a right
to a decent education, basic health services and a right to be protected. I feel
quite humble to be part of an organisation that fights for the rights of
children to create a better world for them.’
The future of the charity sector may involve taking a few pointers from the
business world, but Kavanagh can’t see himself moving back to a job outside the
‘It’s not about being more commercial, but we have got to be and we are
being more professional in the way we do things. Our approach to procurement
efficiency and risk management needs to be more like a commercial organisation.’
The boundaries may be blurring, but making the career transition to a charity
should not be underestimated. ‘It can be an immense culture shock,’ Kavanagh
admits. ‘There’s no formula. It’s about commitment, but it’s also about having a
lot to offer.’
Stop the war on children
The prohibitive cost of schooling is forcing many young girls in developing
countries to engage in sex work to fund it.
Save the Children research released on Monday to coincide with the first day
of a new term found that in conflict areas, girls who cannot afford to go to
school are more likely to join armed groups.
Around the world, thereare up to 120,000 girls, someas young as eight, who
have been forced to become frontline fighters or support armed groups.
Disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration is the international
community’s current means of trying to ensure combatants are released from armed
But to date, fewer than2% of children passingthrough Save the Children’s
reintegration programme in the Democratic Republic of Congo are girls, and this
number rises to 4.2% in Sierra Leone.
Girls returning home are often marginalised and excluded from their
communities. They are viewed as violent, unruly, dirty or promiscuous.
In order for progress to be made, the international community must place as
much emphasis on the reintegration of girls into their communities as is
currently placed on disarming them.
If the girls are left to fend for themselves in a climate of hostility,
suspicion and fear, they will remain isolated – physically, emotionally and
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