Expert view: Is an accountant all you want to be?

Charity finance director should be managers, not accountants, which means moving outside the accounts comfort zone and start tackling strategy and leadership.

The concept of socially responsible investment can cause confusion among trustees. In particular, more left-oriented and socially aware trustees and staff tend to feel unhappy about the pragmatic stance that is inevitably embedded within SRI strategies.

Especially important is the need to compromise on holdings and to understand the complex risk issues involved in constructing an appropriate portfolio that balances investment aims against the costs of screening.

In such situations I have often noticed that the finance director does anything but take a leadership role. On one occasion a finance director observed to me: "It's waffle and politics, and I just concentrate on getting the figures right." I felt like replying: "In that case, you should be called chief accountant and not finance director."

I have constantly thought that charity finance directors should take on leadership roles and move outside the accounts comfort zone. The difference between being a good accountant and a manager is thrown into relief by strategy, governance and how people understand issues such as diversity and the complex policy environment in which charities operate. Being an active and contributing member of the management team and the board of trustees in discussions over matters such as socially responsible investment should be central to the role of the finance director.

Many of the people who have made contributions to this column over the past few years have helped to construct an appropriate financial and management education development programme for all charity sector financial personnel, including auditors and advisers.

At the end of last year Chris Harris, who chairs the charity panel at the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, described the foundation stage of just such a programme (Third Sector, 2 August 2006).

The other side of the equation, for those senior and aspiring people wishing to move beyond being accountants to become managers, is now in place. The Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales' post-qualifying award in charity financial management, which is being provided by the Cass Business School, begins this year (Third Sector, 8 November 2006).

The educational and qualification framework to engage charity finance professionals, and take them to the very top of the sector, is now in place. It's up to you to use it.

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