‘Working at Friends of the Earth is really important to me. I can’t imagine working anywhere else because I believe heart and soul in what we’re doing,’ explains Fiona Shaw, finance director at Friends of the Earth, as she sits in her tiny but airy office at the charity’s headquarters in the East End of London.
The absence of a City smart suit and other corporate paraphernalia that typically surrounds an FD belies Shaw’s hectic schedule and weighty responsibilities.
And yet she views her position at FoE, the now famous environmental pressure group, as a means to an end. ‘I’m helping Friends of the Earth to achieve its goal,’ she says with an unassuming air. She gets as frustrated with having to follow financial procedures and internal controls as her campaigning colleagues.
Finance in the charity sector is definitely not for the faint-hearted.
The workload is on a par with that of the corporate sector, but the pay packages do not come even close.
However, those who do work in this sector will argue that the rewards far outweigh anything achievable in the corporate sector.
Mention the accountancy or finance professions and nine times out of ten, people will conjure up images of men in grey suits enjoying six-figure salaries at leading multinationals. But finance permeates all sectors, and the charity sector is as much in need, if not more, of stringent control systems, a fluid cashflow and financial accountability. Donors expect nothing less.
But they also expect a certain amount of altruism on the part of those who work there: donors do not like to see their money being spent on salaries and administration.
‘My salary is significantly less than a financial director of a similar sized company,’ says Shaw without a trace of bitterness or nostalgia.
In fact, she says since she joined FoE 12 years ago, she has never looked back.
She goes on to explain that even her worst days are not enough for her to turn on her heels and step over to the corporate world. ‘The next day there is always some news about what a local activist group has managed to achieve. It’s inspiring,’ she says.
But there are consequences. And Shaw says that it is extremely difficult recruiting skilled individuals into finance departments in the charity sector. ‘You immediately lose people who look straight at the salary in job ads,’ she says. Quickly she counters this by acknowledging that anyone who chooses a job at a charity would be doing so for their beliefs and not the cash.
ACCA-qualified Shaw has had experience in the corporate sector. She worked as an accountant at the RAC for a number of years, and she says of this time: ‘It just didn’t feel right. You can only do so much number crunching just for its own sake rather than for something you actually believe in!’
She has had the opportunities to move up the ladder. Despite her unconditional belief in FoE’s campaigns and her own professional enjoyment she is frustrated at what she believes is a false public perception of the charity sector.
‘The public and the media look closely at the costs in charities which is the flip-side from the corporate sector which doesn’t come under the same level of scrutiny,’ Shaw says.
‘There’s also this assumption that charities can run on a wing and a prayer and you don’t need to incur costs to run it. It’s a communications challenge for the sector.’
She has even fewer kind words to say about the government’s treatment of charities.
‘The irrecoverable VAT suffered by the charity sector is huge and not something that people are aware of. Local authorities have much more generous tax advantages than charities do. We have to work really hard to get whatever benefits and exemptions we are due. You’ve got to convince the Customs officials that you are entitled to that exemption. Who needs that level of hassle?,’ Shaw asks rhetorically. ‘It’s just ridiculous!’
Her main desire at the moment is that Gordon Brown will have delivered some positive changes to the charity sector in last week’s Budget. ‘I hope he recognised the amount of effort and therefore cost that is put into these activities,’ says Shaw.
But with charities now having to cope with an additional national insurance burden, she will have been disappointed.
Shaw sees her biggest achievement to date as a charity FD as getting around £500,000 worth of VAT refunds, ‘which,’ she says wryly, ‘on an annual turnover of around £7m was quite helpful. We had to really fight for that. They (Customs officials) made us battle long and hard.’
Besides working for a charity in which she wholeheartedly believes, Shaw says there is never a dull moment or a typical day for her at FoE. She is also responsible for the office facilities, support service departments and works closely with fundraisers.
‘The more I understand the better I can help them,’ she explains.
When not at her desk sorting out payroll, month-end and year-end accounts for FoE and its trust organisation, Shaw can be found – not as often as she would like – getting involved in the bigger issues.
‘It depends on my workload whether I can fit things in. But there are always calls to come to this agm, or wave flags or go to the Hague and build a big sand dyke,’ she laughs.
‘It’s very unglamorous you know, sleeping bags on church floors,’ she explains. ‘But they are really good for helping you get back to why it was you wanted to work for Friends of the Earth. ‘You can lose sight of why you’re actually there so going to events like that can be really stimulating.’
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