During the 1980s, the Rambo movies were the ultimate action movies. The pinnacle scene in all these movies was when John Rambo prepared for war. The music in the background, the sound of Rambo stripping up his gear, loading guns, marking his face and then tying a red strip over his forehead prepared him for battle. Rambo had infinite bullets, bullet proof skin and luck always on his side, despite all this, he still had to prepare for battle and war. Preparing and planning is a key ingredient for taking on any challenge, mission or objective. Regardless of the size and reach of a charity, they too have to prepare and plan. The work of some charities is too important to fail. Unlike Rambo in movies, charities in real life rescue the vulnerable out of hunger, poverty, desperation and disadvantage. The budget process in a charity should represent preparing and planning process.
Trustees with no financial background often are put off by budget presentation and engagement. When this happens then it is not the trustees that have a weakness, it is the budget process itself that is flawed. I professionally grew up in KPMG UK working in the Government and Public Sector division. My work required reviewing how local councils of all sizes utilised their resources, part of this was to review their budget setting and monitoring processes. This gave me a unique insight of how elected councillors with no finance background engaged in this process – I saw where it went well and where it did not go as well. The charity sector has much to learn from local government. Simple communication is important
When appointing a CEO and the finance lead, the trustees should not only look for budget setting and monitoring skills, the presentation and communication skills are as important.
The CEO and more importantly the finance lead should be able to present finance information in a way that makes sense to the Trustees with no finance background. The role of finance is often misunderstood in charities and this often impacts the type of staff recruited in finance positions. The finance department is not just an accounting and cash transfer function. It has an important role to play in planning and strategy development. Strategy has to mean something
Trustees are often most engaged in strategy development. Strategies should be about how the organisation plans to run and achieve its objectives. This process should not be just a feel good marketing ploy that has no reference to underlying charity resources, ability, strengths and weaknesses. I see this too often. This is where the budget process starts to go wrong. Strategy setting and business setting become two different processes – the left hand does not talk to the right hand. The budget process becomes irrelevant to trustees with no finance background.
Budgets should be linked to strategy and trustees should be engaged to discuss the below.
Staff structure, ability and reward
IT and facilities infrastructure required to deliver strategy
Marketing strategy and plans
New markets and development considerations
Trustees should endorse strategic objectives and budget framework in this context. Only then the budget becomes relevant to trustees with no financial background. The devil is in the detail
The finance and accounting profession is technical and regulated. To expect Trustees with no financial background to grasp this in a budget presentation is wrong.
The role of trustees is high level scrutiny and strategic direction – this is what should be expected of them. The details should be left for the employed finance professionals, Executive and those trustees that have a financial background. Trustees have a duty of care and thus should seek independent financial advice when required there is no requirement for trustees to form opinions based on their own lack of skills and understanding – The bigger the charity, this becomes a bigger problem.
In charities where this happens, this reminds me of Rambo and the reality of it. An actor that acts like an action hero when in real life he is not – This only works well and ends well in movies. Charity finance, accounting and budgets can be complex. Trustees need to ensure all the right bits are in the right places for it to work. Preparing is key – regardless of size, risk and complexity of charity.
Author: Nasir Rafiq is a widely experienced Chartered Accountant and a Financial Governance Expert. He has led and directed large finance function in large and complex charities. He is the founder and director of Dua Governance, a charity finance specialist accountancy and business advisory firm.