Interview: John O'Brien Chair, Community Accounting Network

John O'Brien hopes that every small charity in the UK will one day be able to get help from members of his network.

"That's the ultimate goal," says O'Brien, who chairs the Community Accounting Network, an umbrella body for accountants who provide training and advice to community organisations.

Charity accountancy skills came under the microscope last month when the Charity Commission report Charities Back on Track claimed poor basic accountancy was at the heart of most charity malpractice.

Tom Fitch, chief executive of Cash, which provides accountancy training to small charities, responded by saying too little money was being invested in teaching these skills, and that government and charity umbrella bodies should take some responsibility.

O'Brien's network, which has about 50 members, last week launched a website that provides free information on issues such as cash flow and reserves policies.

Charities can also call members of the network for financial advice. But whether or not they get it for free depends on whether the people they seek help from get funding or have to charge for services. Some councils for voluntary service pay for members to provide financial support to charities, often through funding from local authorities.

"Financial support is patchy," says O'Brien. "It's good where I am in Nottingham, not bad in London but not so good elsewhere."

He says it isn't easy getting funders to support something as dry as voluntary sector accountancy skills. "You have to try to get the message across that if you want a thriving local voluntary sector it's worth giving money to services like this," he says. "For now, we're trying to raise awareness of our service.

"We'd like to get to the stage where a small group in, say, Penzance that needs help can contact community accounting services in Cornwall for free. At the moment they either pay a lot of money or they go without. If they are lucky, they survive.

"Too often you see someone with a love for their cause but no aptitude for finance run into trouble because they didn't balance the books."

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