Managing the menagerie is a crucial part of our job

It's a finance director's duty to challenge and scrutinise the different types of 'animals' that can be found in a charity, says Helen Simmons, finance director at the Diocese of London

Helen Simmons
Helen Simmons

Sometimes, as a finance director, it is your job to identify and manage wildlife: the ostrich on your trustee board with its head in the sand; the corporate shark circling your charity looking for a lucrative contract; the senior manager going at a project like a bull at a gate.

Then there's the sloth-like employee who lets others cover for him, the passionate but mule-like volunteer who will not change his ways and the serpent trying to tempt your charity off the straight and narrow path to fulfilling your mission.

Perhaps the most common beast of all is the elephant in the room that none of your fellow managers wants to acknowledge.

Wildlife management does not come naturally to all of us. At home, we might choose not to open our post, challenge our mothers-in-law, take our doctor's advice or confront our noisy neighbours - and that's our business. In the workplace, though, it's crucial that we stay on the lookout for elephants and ostriches. Our job is to name them and to press the alarm buzzer.

- Do any of the following situations sound even vaguely familiar?

You are in a meeting. Someone is leading the way and taking people with them down a path towards an almighty decision. They are persuasive and charming, and seem to know what they are talking about - but they are acting outside their remit, they might not even be part of your organisation and you do not know if they have your charity's best interests at heart.

- You've noticed a new volunteer around the place. They are very popular and they seem heavily involved, and they have full access to data and all areas of the building. But you find out through the grapevine that they are being supervised by a staff member who happens to be their spouse.

- Someone is advocating a legal entity that they say is needed. They are in a position of authority and they're determined to push it through. But they haven't given sufficient reasons for needing it, and they haven't explained how it's going to be paid for.

- Someone with a clear job description is repeatedly refusing to do a task that you need them to do. They don't work for you, they are in a different department, but when challenged they are known to be confrontational - some call them "scary".

- A funder has their own objective that they want to achieve. They use the lure of a grant to tempt your charity into providing that objective, even though it does not line up with your own objects.

Accountants are sometimes labelled bureaucrats, party poopers, nerds and naysayers, always talking about the importance of legality, conflicts of interest and legitimacy. There is a good reason why we need to be like that.

This whole menagerie of problem employees, trustees, partners and suppliers forms a major barrier to charities achieving their objectives.

Finance directors are well placed to challenge and scrutinise, and to support and encourage the unveiling of these animals. I would even go so far as saying it's our duty.

Helen Simmons is finance director at the Diocese of London

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