Newsmaker: The backroom boy

Mathew Little

Keith Hickey, Chief executive, Charity Finance Directors' Group - Committed to working in partnership with other umbrella bodies.

Keith Hickey is soon to be the public face of a rather shy breed.

They don't rattle tins, they don't devise campaigns to make poverty history and they rarely receive invites to Downing Street receptions. But in many ways they are the people who make charities tick. They are the sector's backroom stalwarts, the finance directors.

Next month, Hickey, currently finance director at Help the Aged, will take the reins at the Charity Finance Directors' Group, the umbrella body that has become synonymous with Shirley Scott, the woman who has led it since 1994. When Scott joined CFDG it was a network of 300 members. Hickey will inherit an organisation nearly four times the size, with members ranging from part-timers in small charities who combine the role with that of chief executive and fundraiser to directors of corporate resources at the largest charities, whose salaries sometimes exceed those of their chief executives.

CFDG also represents a group of professionals whose role has radically shifted since the body's inception in 1987. The charity finance directors of 2006 are no simple accountants. They are multi-taskers who may have responsibility for negotiating full-cost recovery contracts with statutory bodies, defining their organisations' impact on beneficiaries, dealing with spiralling pension deficits or devising ethical investment policies.

ICT, human resources and facilities management are often thrown in too.

"When I came into the sector, there were a number of charities that saw the finance director as a book-keeper, someone to look after the figures," says Hickey. "Charities have now recognised the value of information in decision-making, and finance directors have allowed systems to look after the numbers and freed their time to work with the various functions of the organisation. If a charity is to perform, the finance director must play a key role in its strategic direction and have responsibility for its long-term financial viability."

But as regulations on charities have grown, it is invariably the finance director who has been loaded with tasks that others don't want. The Summary Information Return, compulsory for larger charities, and risk management invariably fall to the FD. Are the demands too great?

Hickey is diplomatic. "There are layers of red tape that certainly can be a burden," he says. "Many would question the relevance of that burden in terms of the work they want to do."

Hickey's start at CFDG coincides with the introduction of Sorp 2005.

Many have questioned the relevance of the new reporting requirements for smaller charities. The Institute of Chartered Accountants has suggested some will just have to pluck figures out of the air to comply with the list of questions about how a charity spends its money. Hickey promises to look into the matter when he takes over. "Listening to the complaints about the detail, I wonder if there is an issue about the way the Sorp is communicated," he says. "CFDG has members of all sizes and, if that's a concern of our members, we want to see what we can do to help them."

Help for members, under Hickey, may be in partnership with other umbrella bodies. Hickey will be working to implement CFDG's new three-year strategy, which includes a commitment to collaborate with other groups "to explain publicly the economic realities of running a charity". Hickey, an advocate of a close working relationship between charity FDs and other directors, envisages synergy at the macro level. "There are clear links between finance directors and chief executives, and between finance directors and fundraisers," he says.

- See Focus Finance, page 21

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