Finance leaders in the charity sector form a vital part of the organisation’s driving force, the senior leadership team. What issues can a new finance leader expect to face when joining a charity? What tools and resources are available to smooth the transition?
Liz Hazell and Claire Wills explored these themes in their session at the CFG Annual Conference earlier this year. They were joined by Adam Daniels of JW3 and Victoria Fakehinde of RAF Benevolent Fund, who shared their experiences of the challenges that can arise when taking on new leadership roles.
What qualities are required in a finance leader in the charity sector?
The role of finance leader varies hugely depending on the organisation. The size and complexity of the organisation as well as the size of the finance team are all factors. Often in the charity sector it’s an all-encompassing role that includes human resources and IT; there are a great many variations.
We reviewed a selection of job descriptions and considered the roles of various finance leaders we encounter as auditors and advisers. Five key attributes were consistent across the board, as follows:
This really is key. The ability to step back and think about the organisation as a whole and see the bigger picture, often working with, or perhaps providing challenge to, the chief executive in terms of the direction of the organisation.
The ability to plan ahead for key dates, such as board meetings and year end, for staff requirements, and for cash flow. Identifying and clearly communicating the financial impact of strategic decisions and the actions which need to be taken to achieve them.
Sometimes the finance leader is the one making the decisions, but often they will facilitate the decision making of the senior leadership team or the trustees. Standing your ground, speaking up and being credible are all important for the role.
Statutory accounts and VAT returns are just the start. Ensuring a charity complies with all the legal and regulatory requirements needs a good understanding of the charity and often falls to the finance leader.
Being seen as an important member of the senior leadership team. Leading and providing direction, coaching and development to the finance team and other trustees and staff that don’t have a financial background.
Tools and strategies for hitting the ground running
From our discussions with Victoria and Adam it was clear that effectively working and communicating with people in the organisation is key: it’s who you know and not what you know. The trustees are very important in this but also the senior leadership team, the finance team and all the other people in the organisation that the finance team needs to communicate and build relationships with.
Presenting a confident, assured and credible image is essential. A finance leader is the expert in the organisation, and trustees and chief executives will be looking to their finance leader to provide reassurance, guidance and to highlight issues. A huge part of this is confidence and knowing when to speak up, making sure your voice is heard. This doesn’t come naturally to everyone, so identifying and developing this is very important. Both Victoria and Adam mentioned the benefit of mentors and coaches. Finding the right person to be a sounding board and assist in developing one’s confidence when in front of trustees is invaluable. There are various programmes available, many professional bodies offer mentoring schemes or trustees may have suggestions and contacts.
During the session at CFG we addressed some questions on mentoring, with one attendee helpfully pointing out how useful a good relationship between the treasurer and the finance leader can be. Agreeing potentially contentious issues in advance of any formal meetings so that a united front is presented (or differences are understood) will put other trustees at ease and build the finance leader’s confidence.
Another tip is to not be afraid to build and use a network of contacts. From school friends who are now lawyers to other charity finance leaders, all of these people have a wealth of experience or contacts of their own to share.
There’s no such thing as a stupid question
The ‘first 100 days’ is often referred to in the context of American Presidents; Adam referred to this concept when he said “after the first 100 days you can no longer blame your predecessor”. Those first days in the role are your chance to ask as many questions as possible, to meet all the key stakeholders and have meaningful conversations. This will build your understanding, develop your ideas and enable you to really get under the skin of the charity.
This article was first published in CFG Finance Focus magazine.
Claire Wills, Director