Improvisation could be a useful approach to budgets

Maybe a new approach would allow staff to focus on the objectives, not the detail, says Helen Simmons of the Diocese of London

Helen Simmons
Helen Simmons

As we approach 31 March, the end of the financial year for most charities, how many organisations are spending a disproportionate amount of time worrying about whether they have met their financial budgets, rather than whether they have conquered their outcomes for the year?

In too many organisations the budget becomes the primary focus. To achieve objectives, there are only sparse disjointed operational plans and sketchy output targets, rather than a focus on outcomes.

I was stewing on this the other day when I discovered how my favourite TV show, the US sitcom Curb Your Enthusiasm, is made, and thought it might be a good analogy for a way an organisation could be run.

I knew the show involved improvisation, but I had not previously realised how much. I'd imagined there was a detailed script that actors would then be allowed to embellish in a limited way as the mood took them.

The truth is different: Larry David, the show's creator and lead actor, tells the cast the rough story for each scene and what they are aiming to achieve. There are no scripts at all.

What if our leadership team could behave like Larry David? If we took this idea into our budgeting processes, would we achieve a greater focus on the outcomes? The leadership could remind staff and volunteers what we hope to achieve in the weeks to come, with reference to an outline plan for the year that everyone has contributed to.

Money could then be spent with no reference to budget (shock, horror) - and then, at the end of each month or quarter, we could assess what's been achieved, where we have got to and, lastly, check what we've spent, concentrating on the bottom line rather than looking into the detail.

HBO, the US television network that produces and broadcasts Curb Your Enthusiasm, lays down some fairly limited boundaries inside which the entire production must operate: similarly, the trustees could set some lines that should not be crossed in order to prevent things such as reputational damage.

The second lesson that could be learned from the show is that, through the use of improvisation, the cast members are encouraged to take big risks with the humour: as a result, there is often greater impact in terms of laughter.

It also means that sometimes they fall flat. Here the analogy fails - they can use up to seven takes to get their final cut, but there is no such luxury on the front line. However, the occasional calculated risk can be very rewarding for organisations whose beneficiaries might have become victims of the staff or trustee's risk-aversion.

Of course, one risk is that all the financial directors become so worried and distressed at the loss of control that they go grey and lose their hair, becoming Larry David lookalikes in the process. Judging by the view from the back of the hall at the last Charity Finance Group conference, however, it's possible that ship might already have sailed.

Helen Simmons is finance director at the Diocese of London

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