Charities & NGOs: give more than money

Having spent close to 20 years in the charitable sector, my observation is
that we have a lot to learn from the private sector and the rigour with which it
runs its back office operations, how it configures and manages IT and web
infrastructure and how it processes information. Whereas most successful
businesses take it as a given that their infrastructure is an integral part of
their business model, charities invariably lack the financial resources, skills
and organisational commitment to put these systems and processes in place –
because, quite naturally, we focus on our vision and mission of raising
much-needed funds and ensuring the money is spent on beneficiaries.

But this problem underpins the way in which we actually meet our mandate.
These competing demands on our time and resources detract from putting the time
and energy into sorting out our back offices and infrastructure. Most charities
have a culture that pushes them to spend as little as possible, seeing
administration as a percentage of their project costs, and this leads them to
commit less than they should to dealing with their processes.

There is an enormous pool of goodwill and support for charities and
non-governmental organisations in the UK. This can range from running a marathon
in support of your favourite charity, contributing as a governor of a school,
sitting on a medical advisory panel or offering financial support to a needy
cause. But one thing we’re badly lacking in the third sector, that the business
world could provide, is a sharing of skills and expertise at the top level –
people who can come in and, with however much or little time they have, look at
the way we do things and suggest ways to do it better. I’m talking about
board-level executives dedicating, say, one day every month throughout the year
to come in and spend time with a charity, helping them with anything from
improving the way the finance function works to getting more out of their IT
systems or even how to make better use of their staff when they need to upscale
(as most of us had to, in super-quick time, when Haiti hit). This would take up
less of an FD’s time and be a lot less pressurised than becoming a trustee or a
non-executive, but carry the same value for a charity. And it would look great
on the CV, as well as being a way to extend your sphere of learning and do
something different and worthwhile.

What I envisage is a buddy system where, for example, a corporate IT or web
specialist links up with an IT manager in a charity and offers technical
support, expertise and oversight in moving the charity forward in that
particular area. I could say that my organisation would warmly welcome that sort
of support to review and re-engineer our business processes and our IT systems –
and as finance directors so often look after those, this is another place in
addition to finance that they could use your help. There are many other FDs
across the sector who would welcome it, too. It is simply a matter of putting in
a call to a charity you admire and offering it.

Even while charities remain at the centre of the response to Haiti, there is
time and space for a senior FD to come and share their skills for our
longer-term good. The generosity of donors in response to the Haiti earthquake
was both impressive and moving. In the case of Médicins Sans Frontières, this
generosity ranged from an offer of a loan of a private jet to transport medical
equipment to Haiti to an elderly couple coming into our offices offering us
their holiday funds. But, it is at times like these that human beings set aside
their differences and prejudices and pull together for a common good. It is
these experiences that make me want to wake up each morning, to go to work and
make a difference to the world we live in. For FDs in other organisations,
volunteering a day or two every month to a charity could add another enjoyable
dimension to their career.

So where does an interested party start? Charities range widely in scope,
from the arts to overseas development, and in scale, from small clubs to
familiar high street brands. Be clear on what type and size of charitable
organisation you want to support. Look at the websites of charities you like and
you will soon get a feel for the culture of the organisation and perhaps where
you can make a difference by giving time, not cash. The National Council for
Voluntary Organisations is a good source of information. The next step is to put
in a call or email to the CFO of that charity and offer your support as a
mentor, buddy, volunteer, adviser from a professional knowledge transfer point
of view – whatever label suits you best.

It may sound a bit cheesy, but my belief is that from a small start, FDs in
the corporate sector will form meaningful relationships with their counterparts
in the charitable sector from which all can benefit. In fact, we may be able to
teach you a few tricks too.

Joe Ghandhi is head of finance at Médicins Sans Frontières UK.

Related reading