Profile: Bob Humphreys, finance and IS director, Oxfam

“I’ve put five years on my life expectancy from not having to wear a tie and another five years from not having to fill in timesheets,” says Bob Humphreys as he stands in the Drury Lane Oxfam shop for a photo shoot, sporting a Gucci linen jacket available in-store for just £145.

The recently appointed finance and IS director of Oxfam (Humphreys started at Oxfam in September last year) has clearly found that his new role fits him well, despite having made the switch from practice relatively late in his career.

Prior to his appointment, Humphreys spent almost 26 years at PwC, and its various former incarnations, but was eager to step out from the protective blanket that a massive accountancy partnership can offer.

“I had a fantastic time with PwC, but it’s all relatively one dimensional. As an adviser you’re never the person on the spot who has to take the decisions. So, to have the chance to jump over the table and be the person who has that responsibility is enormously empowering and invigorating. In retrospect, it was exactly what I needed at my time of life.”

The 53 year-old is conscious that his appointment at Oxfam probably represents his last major career move before he joins the semi-retired accountancy set in the world of consulting and non-executive directorships. But it was also probably the biggest and most suitable role he could have envisaged given past experience.

For the four years prior to landing the position, Humphreys headed up PwC’s charities group with a portfolio of clients including Cancer Research, the British Heart Foundation, the South Bank Centre and the National Theatre. Fortunately, Oxfam was not on his list, otherwise conflicts of interest could have seen this opportunity pass him by.
“There are very few charities that I genuinely feel I could both learn from and add value to and enjoy working with in the same way as I do with Oxfam”, says Humphreys. “I was incredibly lucky that the role was available at the time that my thoughts were forming [about leaving PwC].”

And enjoy it he has. Almost immediately he had the opportunity to see for himself how the work he carries out benefits others.

“I had the chance to go on an overseas visit before Christmas and visited our east Africa region. I went to a village in the [Democratic Republic of] Congo where we had recently provided a clean water supply from a spring in the hills, piped down into the village. Previously they had taken dirty water from a nearby lake. We’d also built latrines so that human waste was kept separate from the areas that people lived. We asked the people there what the results of that had been, and they said ‘its quite straightforward – the incidents of cholera have decreased already by something like 60%’. Lives are better, lives are being saved because of the work that we do.”

Humphreys approach to entering the role was different to that of many aspiring executives looking to stamp their mark on the organisation. Not for him a plan to engineer massive change during his first 100 days in situ.

Instead, Humphreys took the opportunity to explore the organisation, meet the people there and understand what makes such a large and well-known charity tick. And with good reason.

“One of the mistakes that people can make when they are considering moving into the charities sector from commerce is assuming that there will be some easy wins, that they will be able to sit down and immediately be able to say ‘I can see what’s going wrong here’. In many cases there are no easy quick wins.

“It’s all about modifying some processes here, reviewing governance there to make sure it’s really sharp. Reviewing whether we are duplicating some of our processes, whether we could automate some of our processes, whether we could potentially outsource some of our processes. In most cases it’s about evolution rather than revolution.”

He adds that there “were no burning platforms” that required immediate attention waiting for him on his arrival.

Humphreys’ main priority in his role, as it is for everyone at the charity, is to squeeze every last penny of value from the donations that Oxfam receives. He talks about the various levels of clothes sorting that go on, the most saleable items going into branches across the country, others going overseas where they can still produce a return. On a more personal level, he has to show where the money is going and how effectively it is being used.

“Our aim to satisfy our mission objective in a way that’s most relevant to our beneficiaries and cost effective with the funds that our supporters are good enough to give us,” he says. “But we all struggle with how to demonstrate and measure that. We have seminars about it, we have people writing endless academic publications about it, but the fact remains at the moment that we are all faced with that enormous challenge.

“In commercial organisations everything feeds back to shareholder returns. You have about four or five key performance indicators that you can measure performance against, but we don’t have that.”

Oxfam can have up to 800 different projects running concurrently across the globe, in locations without the basic infrastructure most of us take for granted. It is dealing with the measurement of these projects that can cause the most problems for charity FDs, as Humphreys discovered during his trip to Africa.

“Theoretical approaches to data management, data flows, performance reporting and accountability may sound absolutely fantastic sitting in a meeting room in Oxford, but when you translate those to a program running 50km away from the nearest communications outpost, questions of accountability, of procurement process, of reporting just have a very different dimension.”

There is also the challenge or working alongside 14 other Oxfam affiliates across the globe, several of which are often involved in the same projects. Humphreys feels that he can help those affiliates to work together better.

“Providing a more coordinated framework inevitably has implications for support services, for finance, for treasury, for audit, for purchasing, for legal support. Those are all areas that fall into my areas of responsibility, where I can have a direct influence on the outcome.”

The recent recession has hit many charities hard, but Oxfam escaped relatively unscathed. Direct debit donations fell, operations at head office were cut back 10% and project managers were warned to expect changes in coming years. But revenue from its chain of shops held up surprisingly well, the charity received some large one-off gains from legacies and new methods of fundraising – such as an online shop – helped limit the losses.

While it may be enjoyable, it’s certainly not a simple life for Humphreys, and the last thing he needs is external forces making things even more complicated. And, in this respect, Humphreys’ frustration is directed at HMRC.

“HMRC appears to try its best to make things more difficult for charities. It introduced a reverse charging regime, which increased the cost of irrecoverable VAT for many charities. It also introduced the requirement that tax filings need to be in XBRL format. We just cannot for the life of us see any benefit for the charities sector and it’s going to result in an additional cost to have our accounts put into XBRL format.”

Humphreys would simply like HMRC to think of the impact on charities whenever they consider such changes, or even better “actually consult with some charities before they make that change”.

Despite these obvious irritations, Humphreys says that he is sure he has made the right decision, as he bikes to work with a smile on his face every day.
In the Drury Lane Oxfam shop, browsers brush by Humphreys and the photographer, oblivious to the unusual set-up, simply looking for the latest bargain. Having changed into clothes from the shop for the shoot, Humphreys wonders aloud whether his own attire will have been snapped up and sold by the time he is through. I suspect if it had, he wouldn’t have minded too much. Anything for the cause.

Charity accounting

Humphreys has some very strong opinions on the issue of charity accounting. There are currently discussions about bringing the sector more in line with commerce, and this means IFRS, in particular IFRS for SMEs. For the Oxfam FD, this is absolutely the wrong way to go.

“It deals with none of the charity specific issues we need to consider, treatment of grants, treatment of donations in kind, format of reporting statements. It doesn’t touch the sides. It doesn’t even deal with narrative reporting.

“If you’ve ever picked up a set of charity accounts, one of the most important things in it is the trustees report. That’s where you’re going to be told the story of what’s happening to the money. The numbers are there and yes, they’re important, but what’s really important is the story. To me that’s the central accounting issue that charities are going to have to deal with over the next couple of years.”

He adds, talking about the SORP currently governing charities accounting and reporting: “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it, and I haven’t heard yet anybody explaining what’s broke about it.”

Helping Haiti

Humphreys modestly talks down his role in helping out with the major humanitarian disaster that struck Haiti on 12 January. Oxfam has a “well oiled machine” that springs into action during such times, he says.

“My concern was mainly about making sure our people had the right support, that we had IT teams flying out there to set up temporary communications. We had special measures being put in place to make sure we could get cash out there.

“Clearly the banking system was down so we had to make sure that everybody who went out there was able to take an amount of cash with them to help make sure the operation could continue until the banking system was up and running.”

Oxfam will be dealing with the devastation the earthquake caused for years to come and Humphreys will play his part in handling the finances to improve life for those affected.

“It’s not just about saving lives at the point of the earthquake, it’s rebuilding those lives and hopefully rebuilding them better. So the focus now is on construction, draining, sewerage, on the water supply. To build the infrastructure back better than it was before.”

Related reading