Profile: Steve Dolphin, FD, Groundwork UK

Groundwork UK is a federation of independent trusts. Each trust – and there are 48 of them – enjoys a degree of autonomy in management and finance.

As FD, Dolphin can ‘advise and encourage’ trust finance managers, but he cannot ‘dictate’. He does, however, have the ultimate sway, as he dishes out the money. If a particular trust is not performing to its mandate then Dolphin can cut its lifeline.

While applying the best of his diplomacy, he has to adhere to some of the most stringent rules in financial reporting.

Charity accounting, he assures us, is no poor relation to commercial financial reporting.

He also has to answer to a broad variety of sponsors, including business, government, local authorities and community groups, ensure the goals of the charity are met, raise funds and cover costs.

Also high on his list of priorities is ensuring there remains only a minimal surplus. ‘Sponsors want to ensure you’re financially viable and getting results, but they don’t want you to make a profit!’ explains Dolphin.

In fact, being a finance director of a charity is no walk in the park.

‘We have to comply with company law, charity accounting and different auditors. Sponsors want reports: government wants reports and statistics,’ says Dolphin. ‘We have to explain practical output, how many jobs we created, how many schools we worked with and how many acres of land we improved.’

He continues: ‘Every person that sponsors Groundwork has the authority to send their auditors in. For every sponsor we have to keep their funding separately reported.’

Giving it a private sector parallel, he says, it is like showing each customer and shareholder of a company exactly where and on what their money is spent – ‘a virtual impossibility’.

So beware those nearing retirement who are thinking of applying their financial expertise to the charity sector. It’s as tough as the private sector, if not more in certain areas.

‘With the problems we face in the public sector and the controls we have to comply with, it’s not an easy ride,’ Dolphin says.

Nor are his motives totally altruistic. The rewards that working for this charity bring him far outweigh any desire to return to the private sector, where he has spent most of his career.

After completing a chartered accountancy course that was not so much by design, as a natural progression, he threw himself into the private sector. Here he gained a plethora of financial accounting and management accounting experience at different companies spanning a variety of industries.

‘I was finance director of a food group, also an FD at an electronics group that floated in the mid-1980s. I then went into business on my own with one of my co-directors. We ran an exhibition contractor. Then I ran a furniture manufacturers for five years,’ says Dolphin.

Despite enjoying general management, he returned to financial management, and intends to remain on this side of the fence.

His financial career has been a success that is clearly shown in his work at Groundwork. Last year, the charity turned over £26m, after securing funding of £88m. It was left with a surplus of around £29,000, which Dolphin assures is just about the right balance.

And to prove how well the organisation is doing, its main sponsor, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, upped its core funding by £5m taking it from £8m last year to £15m this year. ‘The funding was increased because we really respect the work of Groundwork. And we’re impressed by the difference it has made on local and regional levels,’ says a spokeswoman for the ODPM.

As part of a £201m boost to Britain’s parks and open spaces, deputy prime minister John Prescott designated £70m over three years to Groundwork.

Of the £70m, the ODPM has made Groundwork responsible for a £30m scheme, Living Spaces, to help local groups make the most of open spaces on their doorstep. This was the largest portion of the £201m given to any one group.

‘We must be doing something right,’ says Dolphin humbly.

And praise for its work has not just come from central government either.

Last year, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation – one of the largest social policy research and development charities in the UK-delivered a mostly glowing independent study on Groundwork. The Foundation did, however, have some criticisms, such as its uneven links to the private sector, insufficient attention to publicity and difficulties in recruiting and also retaining staff.

But given the global economic situation and the skills shortage Britain suffers from, this latter criticism could perhaps be levelled at almost any organisation in the UK at present, be it public or private. Dolphin says: ‘We have to compete very hard with lots of government bodies, local authorities and other charities (to attract and retain staff). But we have very committed staff, who are extremely proud of their work.’

Groundwork’s roots can be traced back to the seventies, but the first trust was officially formed in 1981, amid the backdrop of social turmoil ravaging Britain.

It has come a long way since the launch of the first Groundwork Trust in St Helens and Knowsley in December 1981.

For the time being, Dolphin, together with his boss, Groundwork CEO Tony Hawkhead, is focusing on taking the ODPM’s £13m funding and ‘get to a point where hopefully we can lever it up by 10 times’.

He says the current average is eight times. The hardest thing is getting that first sponsor, he explains, but when the government offers its support ‘it’s surprising how quickly other organisations get on board’.

And, despite the ongoing challenges that environmental regeneration and charities as a whole face, the pride, the closeness of the team and rewards of the job make it worthwhile for Dolphin.

‘Working with a group of people that are very committed to the Groundwork cause is one of the best things about the job. It’s a bit philanthropic, but it is nice not to be at the cut-throat end of a commercial company.’

He can clearly sleep well at night and the variety of the job means his intellect remains stimulated. For the time being he’s just enjoying being between the devil and the deep blue sea.

For a breakdown of Groundwork’s finances, click here


Life as the finance director of a charity can seem a lonely one. In smaller charities, the FD is the finance department, and even in larger ones, there are often few other qualified finance professionals around who can be leant on to test ideas.

But since the beginning of the summer, FDs in the sector have had an online resource that offers a virtual community and ideas database.

Launched by the Charity Finance Directors’ Group, the Charities Resource Network is a database-driven information website that seeks to strengthen good practice in the charity sector through the sharing of information.

Part of the resource offered by the site, in the documents section, are practical working documents that are currently in use by charities, as well as professional guidance and advice provided by firms who subscribe to the CFDG. There are also signposts to other sources of information on many subjects.

Information that the CFDG holds about its members and their organisations is also available to members online, to enable them to search for others from similar organisations to discuss common management issues.

Members will also be able to update their own information on the database.

‘The Charities Resource Network is a really exciting development for the CFDG and the sector as a whole,’ says Geoff Miller, chairman of the trustees of CFDG.

‘If the public sees us working together to improve the management of our organisations we will be playing an important part in raising public confidence in the sector.’

And the CFDG hopes the network will only grow. ‘We have plans to extend the range of information and to make more of it accessible to the charity sector as a whole to help us achieve our objectives of raising public education in the management of charities,’ says chief executive Shirley Scott.

For more information and to join the network, go to

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