FD in Five Minutes: Rachel Heilbron

Third Sector speaks to the operations director for the charitable think tank Centre for London

Rachel Heilbron
Rachel Heilbron

Why did you choose finance as a career? In my final year of university, the recruiters started coming to our campus to entice people to their companies with offers of big salaries and lots of perks. I wasn’t interested in any of it and avoided all the events. I come from a family of teachers, and the value of "giving back" and trying to make the world a better place came through strongly from when I was very young. In hindsight, it might be more useful to the charity sector if more of us spent time in business, benefiting from the training, striving for maximum efficiency and really understanding the pressure and motivation of profit, which we can then take into charities focusing on social good.  

What made you work in the charity sector? I am in my second role as a charity finance lead, but I’m not a financial professional. Finance isn’t my career; it’s a necessary skill for being the person who ensures a charity is being run effectively and following all duties and obligations. Maybe having a strong grounding in maths led me to my enjoyment of structure and processes. I feel pride when creating systems and processes for my team that are logical and understandable, and which save them time. It makes me very content to build a spreadsheet that is used by my colleagues to help them better understand budgeting and financial reporting. Trying to make sense of numbers can be daunting for non-professionals, but is an essential skill for anyone wanting to progress in the charity sector.  

What do you do outside work? I feel happiest when I am singing or swimming. In the summer months I am a regular at the Hampstead Heath swimming ponds.  

If you were charities minister for the day, what one thing would you do? I would strongly encourage the foundations that are sitting on large pots of cash to start giving it away. The charity sector is so stretched, having taken on so many additional services since this period of austerity began, that it’s immoral there is so much money sitting in bank accounts rather than being used to create real change in our society. At the same time, Centre for London’s research has shown that fewer Londoners are regularly giving their time and money to charity than was the case five years ago. There is a disconnect between the rapidly growing number of wealthy Londoners and their engagement with philanthropy. I’d also do more to encourage wealthy Londoners to give back.  

Are you optimistic for the future of the charity sector? I am optimistic for the sector, mostly because of the people who have dedicated their lives to making society better. It feels like we are still in a period of shake-up in which charities are having to work together more, really understanding where their work overlaps with others and asking ourselves challenging questions about how we use the money we are given to achieve the biggest impact.  I would love to see greater diversity in the charity sector, particularly with more women in senior financial roles.

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