I recently had the pleasure of enjoying some hospitality on a narrow boat. While I was chilling out, enjoying the slow pace and beautiful scenery and reflecting on life in general, it provided me with the perfect analogy for the role of an inspiring financial leader at a charity that is having to navigate an ever-changing environment.
Financial leaders are often perceived to be the steady hands - policing the expenditure, looking at what's gone before, delivering on the planned course and ensuring the compliance of their charity. The reality is so much more than that. There is an important role for financial management and compliance, but the sweet spot for true financial leadership comes with being the strategic partner for the business.
While chief executives and boards have principal responsibility for setting the direction of travel, even when the road (or, in this case, the canal) ahead appears to be relatively clear, we need to assess the environment, take in all the information available, consider risks and make adjustments. Change is not something that happens periodically: it's a constant state. You need someone to anticipate what's coming next. This proactivity makes the journey smooth. That's where great financial leaders come into their own.
My own organisation is going through significant change. If we are to inspire a financially confident, dynamic and trustworthy charity sector, we need to set ourselves up with skills and structures that give us the best opportunity to deliver. We might not be very big and our activities and sources of income might not be the most complex, but the invaluable role that a director of resources will provide should not be underestimated.
I'm looking not only for a steady hand on CFG's tiller, but also for someone who can help me look for the opportunities. I don't want someone who will keep us going in a straight line, taking us slavishly down the route dictated by a budget or a plan, but rather someone who can adapt as we navigate the journey. I want a strategic partner to collaborate with me, to negotiate the locks and help me on my journey.
I took on the rather scary challenge of steering a 65-foot narrow boat through an 1,800m tunnel, just wide enough to pass two boats. It was very dark (even with a light), water dripped on me periodically and the seemingly straight tunnel would appear to turn without warning. For a novice, it really got the heart pumping. Beside me was an expert, giving me support, helping me to understand the information I was receiving, giving me confidence and ensuring that we made it to the other end in one piece.
So whether the proverbial boat you're steering is the maximum 72-footer or a more modestly sized one, your need for information, responsiveness and adaptability is just as great. If you cannot afford to buy in the skills of a finance leader, then make sure you have access to those skills through your chief executive, board or other expert volunteers. You won't regret it - in fact, it might just keep you afloat.
Caron Bradshaw is chief executive of the Charity Finance Group