The national centre of the Multiple Sclerosis Society may occupy an imposing building off the Edgware Road in Cricklewood – but a City landscape it isn’t. But then appearances can be deceptive, as Helen Verney illustrates.
If you were under the misconception that a finance role in the charity sector marked a step back from corporate life – think again. That is of course unless you see lobbying at a government level, re-tendering IT contracts and a stringent focus on cost control and performance measurement as ‘a step back’.
Verney is no do-gooder with a blinkered view. The finance director of the Multiple Sclerosis Society has done her time in the private sector and harbours no ambitions to return. ‘I find profit really boring – it’s a formula,’ she explains. ‘In my job you’re constantly questioning where you should put your focus. It’s not just about producing accounts or cutting admin costs.’
Her views may be shocking to some, refreshing to others – but one thing’s for sure, the 33-year-old has succeeded in making waves across the sector.
Behind her unassuming exterior lies an individual whose passion for the sector is infectious. This relative veteran of the not-for-profit world has big ambitions for her charity, the sector and has some pretty clear ideas about her own career to boot.
It’s more than six years since Verney, then 27, stepped into her first charity FD role at Crisis, the charity for the homeless. ‘It was great fun, at the time we were going through massive growth and I could clear up a lot of mess.’
After three years, Verney’s craving for a new challenge took her to Cricklewood and the luxury of having a deputy allowed her to focus on more strategic issues. But in other respects, the job at the MS Society is riddled with the same challenges she experienced at Crisis, and ones faced by Verney’s peers across the sector.
Staff turnover and the inability to keep pace with private sector salaries is an ongoing challenge. And with IT falling under Verney’s remit, attempts to attract the calibre of IT staff to realise some of the charity’s more ambitious projects is an almost impossible balancing act.
‘IT is a nightmare,’ Verney admits. ‘But it’s essentially about finding enough in the job to retain them. Salary won’t do it alone. You need to be able to offer training and enough investment in technology so they feel as if they’re investing in their career.’
A nightmare it may be, but it’s also one of the many challenges that’s kept Verney hooked and adamant she’ll never return to the private sector. ‘What’s interesting about charity and finance is the role itself. You’re constantly questioning where you should put your focus. The definition of the role is never a one liner – “to maximise profit”. Nor is it simply to produce accounts or cut admin costs to allow more to be spent on your charitable activity. You have several hats – risk management, performance measurement. You’ve got to be good at prioritising.’
Cutting admin costs may not represent the sexiest side to the job, but the numbers speak for themselves. It also helps Verney justify her professional existence if, as a paid member of charity staff, she can save her salary in costs. At the MS Society, it took her 18 months to achieve ongoing savings of over £100,000.
Many of the savings were the result of a good hard look at the way the charity had been run for years. The Coutts bank account was one of the first things to go. Retendering for the charity’s investment managers saved £30k.
It’s the strategic parts of her job that really excite Verney. ‘We had quite a detailed business plan with performance indicators but they were lacking financial elements. Now we know how much a helpline call costs, the cost of processing an application or the cost of delivering information.’
One of her biggest bugbears is a desire for the volunteer input of charities to be valued (see bottom of story). ‘It’s important for the sector that our accounts paint a picture of what happens in charities – they’re not doing that at the moment. There are 20 million volunteers in the UK, but you wouldn’t know it to look at the finances. Some charities estimate the value of these volunteer-donated hours, but it’s not consistent, yet some are so reliant on that volunteer time.
‘I would like to see that volunteer input valued and I won’t rest until it’s in the SORP. I’m hearing from the Charity Commission that, intellectually at least, it believes it’s right,’ Verney adds.
The next SORP is currently under review. Verney, meanwhile, believes that realistically it will be at least 2010 before volunteer contribution is an integral part of reporting rules. It may seem some time off, but she admits it’s an ambitious target (bearing in mind any changes would have to be ratified by the Accounting Standards Board) and she isn’t sitting on her laurels. She’s using her role as vice chairman of the Charity Finance Directors’ Group (CFDG) to spread the word among her peers across the sector including some of the biggest charities in the UK.
But it’s a controversial subject and not all charities stand to gain from the proposed changes. ‘There are concerns about what it will do to fundraising ratios and some charities may miss out on funds as a result.’
The CFDG issued Inputs Matter, a series of proposals to improve the quality and consistency of charity annual reports, in November last year. The report is being considered by the SORP review committee, as part of its current review.
Verney also recently gave evidence to the Parliamentary Scrutiny Committee on the charities bill, again wearing her CFDG hat, to lobby for a relaxation of the laws on charities trading and reduce red tape.
It’s all a far cry from her days as an auditor (with mid-tier firms Saffrey Champness and Clark Whitehill), which offered Verney exposure to clients across a number of sectors. ‘As an auditor you get to spend a couple of weeks in an organisation, you see a bit of everything and then you leave. After four years I came to the conclusion there wasn’t one place I wanted to work.’
Having made moves to specialise in the charity sector at Saffrey Champness, Verney was already a regular at the CFDG. But despite her ambivalence towards the private sector, when the job came up at Crisis, Verney admits the transition was a culture shock.
‘I didn’t go in with an illusion that is was going to be all rosy. People say the charity sector is over-consultative and meeting intensive. Taking the FD job at 27 was a bit daunting but I thrived on the energy of the place and the fact that is was so focused on changing the lives of individuals.’
Verney’s public roles in the sector – as FD of the MS Society and as vice-chairman of the CFDG – are only part of the story. She continues to volunteer for Crisis (giving up considerable time over the Christmas period at a Crisis shelter for homeless people).
She’s also treasurer for a small arts charity, fundraises for her local church and is a regular charity donor. She believes all this helps her to be a better charity FD, not to mention put into practice her MSc in charity finance at Southbank University. ‘When I did my course at Southbank I developed a theory about fundraising. I’m not an expert, but we raised nearly £90,000 from my church congregation in one day. I don’t mind if my charity roles change, but they help each other and it helps me understand our treasurer, our volunteers and our fundraisers better.’
She more than understands the desire to feel as if you are making a difference – in fact it’s the reason why she shied away from donating to a large charity ‘where it gets lost in all the direct debits’.
She has little sympathy for those critical of face-to-face charity collectors, whose tactics have proved enormously successful for the sector but which some regard as little more than a public nuisance. ‘So you have to side-step someone on a pavement – so what. You have to ask yourself, who’s complaining? Is it the people who donate?’
It’s not just that Verney has little time for these ‘whingers’. She just doesn’t have time. What with running around after her two-year-old son and fitting in daily visits to the gym before work. Fortunately the flexitime offered by her employer means she can get in early and leave at 4.30pm, although it doesn’t leave much time for sitting around watching telly.
She sees her next move as a ‘small chief executive role’ but admits her career’s not mapped out. ‘As FD, it’s probably the only other role in the charity that looks across everything. The skills I don’t have, I could learn – things like media skills and exposure to the policy side of things.’
For the time being, her only plan is to keep feeling challenged and fresh. ‘There’s a certain arrogance in the private sector that the skills you need to work in the charity sector are a subset of private sector skills.’
Mind you, that’s not the only misperception Verney’s encountered. ‘I think the general public has a strange view of the charity sector – there’s an image issue and we’re not clarifying that enough. I still meet a lot of people who are surprised that we have paid staff. The hippie image still prevails.’
THE STATEMENT OF RECOMMENDED PRACTICE (SORP)
FDs in the not-for-profit sector may boast some quirks in terms of the way their finances are run. But just like their counterparts in the private sector, charities are under increasing pressure to be more transparent and accountable.
Against this backdrop the Charity Commission, the regulator and registrar for charities in England and Wales, in June issued proposed amendments to the way charities present their finances as part of the SORP review.
The latest consultation takes on board some important issues raised in Inputs Matters, a report from the Charity Finance Directors’ Group, offering proposals to improve the quality and consistency of charity annual reports.
‘This report was a very important step and a precursor to the SORP review,’ explains Ray Jones, accountancy policy advisor at the Charity Commission. ‘Virtually all the recommendations it made were taken up by the SORP review – including the treatment of support, management and administration costs.’
But the valuation of volunteers and how their contribution can be measured with sufficient reliability is one of the most contentious of issues in the consultation. Controversial because not all charities stand to gain from the proposed changes.
‘Valuing volunteers presents both practical difficulties and theoretical difficulties in relation to accounting standards,’ Jones explains.
In particular there is concern among smaller charities about how you identify and record the work volunteers do, and that being forced to record their input will add another layer of admin for already over-stretched charities. There’s also an issue of how this would impact on audit thresholds.
But the Exposure Draft does recognise that the issue has moved up the agenda and proposes fuller and more informative disclosure of the contribution made by volunteers in the Trustees’ Annual Report.
The Charity Commission, for one, believes more research is needed on the issue. ‘There’s still a lot of work to be done on the practical issues such as measurement bases and methodologies – not to mention in hearts and minds.’
Comments on the Charity Commission consultation are invited until 30 September.
See www.charity-commission. gov.uk/enhancingcharities/conssorp2005intro.asp for the full consultation paper.