Podcast transcript: A day in the life of a charity procurement expert

Lucinda visits London Zoo to understand the work of ZSL’s head of procurement

This is a transcript of the Third Sector Podcast episode: A day in the life of a charity procurement expert

Emily Burt: Hello and welcome to the Third Sector Podcast. I'm Emily Burt, editor 

Lucinda Rouse: And I'm Lucinda Rouse, senior reporter at Third Sector, the UK's leading title for the voluntary and not-for-profit sector. 

This week we'll be taking a trip to London Zoo to see a day in the life of their procurement team.

Emily: But first, we have somebody new on the mic and we're going to have our news bulletin section and I'm delighted to be introducing Rory Poulter. Hi Rory. 

Rory Poulter: Hi. 

Emily: How are you doing? 

Rory: I'm good, thank you. 

Emily: That was very musical. I enjoyed it. 

Rory: Well I do my best.

Emily: Rory is a new voice on the Third Sector airwaves, having recently joined the team as our reporter. So we're delighted to have you on the team and also welcome to your first podcast.

Rory: Thank you. Yeah, I'm new to it. I've done a podcast once. 

Emily: Okay. 

Rory: It didn't go very well. 

Emily: Don't worry. We're all friendly here. 

Rory: Okay good. 

Lucinda: So you have been with Third Sector for a week now? 

Rory: A full week. 

Lucinda: So what have you been looking into in your first few days? 

Rory: So the first one, I thought was pretty well read, was about Beat, you know, the charity Beat Eating Disorders.

So they were in a bit of hot water because they hired nine recruits on contracts for 12 months. But four weeks into those contracts, they were all let go en masse, given a week's warning and then they lost their email access the very next day. 

And we heard from some people very close to it, and this was disputed by Beat, but they said that they were actually offered after they were let go to do some volunteering for the charity, which was considered a bit of a spit in the eye, but who knows.

Emily: But the charity has denied that they made that offer, but that has definitely been alleged by one of the people that spoke to us. It's a horrible situation, of course, for those nine employees to suddenly find yourself without a job, only a few weeks into a 12-month contract. 

And the chief executive of Beat did talk to Third Sector for this story, and he effectively just said that this economic climate has created an incredibly challenging year for the charity, as with the wider sector, we all know this is the case at the moment, don't we.

Lucinda: But it does make you wonder quite how short-term their planning is if just a few weeks into a contract they suddenly find that they don't have enough funds to keep these people on. Why did they promise them such a long contract in the first place? 

Rory: They hadn't actually finished their training either. They were four weeks in, so they were obviously still in the probationary period, but they hadn't actually even started fully the role that they'd been hired to do. 

Emily: Yes. I mean, according to Radford, there were a number of funding partners who had not referred into the charity services in the way that they had been expected, which had led to that drop in funding.

We do know how precarious the funding situation can be for charities, and it's something that we've heard a lot about even recently on the podcast. But of course that is balanced against that duty of care to staff as well. 

I think what it really emphasises is something we've talked a lot about recently, which is that need for really robust financial planning and being quite conservative. 

Lucinda: Yes. What else have you been looking at, Rory?

Rory: Okay, so another good one was a campaign being fronted by StepChange, Citizens Advice and the Money Advice Trust. And they are trying to highlight imposter firms who try and pose as charities so that you will accidentally either click on their links or use their services and then they can use your data that you give them to sell onto third parties.

So specifically StepChange, they brought this to our attention. There was a website called changedebtsupport.com. If you Google StepChange, they actually come up first with StepChange in big blue letters at the top. 

So if you click on them, they have absolutely nothing to do with StepChange, but they offer similar services or on the surface level similar services, which are preying on people who really don't know the difference. 

Emily: Is this illegal, do we know? Or is it just legal but a little bit suspect? 

Rory: I think it's just a little bit suspect because StepChange have been reporting it, so they've been reporting it to Google, who they say have made some steps to get rid of it.

It's kind of a three strikes and you’re out policy. So they have changed some of their protocol to help deal with that. They've also contacted the Financial Conduct Authority and they brought in some changes.

They banned debt packaging, which really impacted the business that these people were trying to run, but they've kind of been highlighting it. They've, as I say, joined with two other charities, Citizens Advice and the Money Advice Trust, who are all three doing a big campaign. 

So they're doing it via promoted Facebook posts and Instagram posts. They've been doing TikToks, explaining how you can avoid clicking on these imposter firms, as they call them.

Lucinda: And have the Citizens Advice and Money Advice Trust and so-on issued any advice to charities so that they know what to do when they find somebody impersonating them?

Rory: Essentially, their advice to the charities is to contact Google. Because Google have apparently, according to StepChange, been quite good on getting rid of them when they are brought to their attention. 

And they are trying to bring in stuff so they will stop appearing right at the top of it. But apart from contacting Google, there isn't much that can be done except for informing people who would click on them what to look out for. 

Emily: Broadly though I think that's all part of that issue of how alive charities have to be to the ways that their names and their identities are being used, potentially misused out there. As a similar thing, we all know that domain name fraud is another really known issue within the charity sector. 

I remember it was probably about a year ago that the Charity Finance Group did a search on domain name websites and they found that you can get lots of different variations of known charity names to be purchased for as little as £20 online. So someone can, in theory, buy one of those domains, deck it out to look like a charity, and then start directing donors to make their donations to it.

So I think it's something that charities do have to be very alive to. Now that's out-and-out fraud. So that is illegal. But with things like that, it's not too far away. 

Lucinda: Great. Well, thanks so much Rory. Great to have you on the podcast for the first time, and I'm sure we will have you back before too long.

Rory: Thank you.

Lucinda: And now for our main feature. This week we're taking you for a behind-the-scenes look at the working life of the head of procurement at the Zoological Society of London. 

So as well as running London and Whipsnade Zoos, ZSL is also an international conservation charity with specialist science and conservation departments running programmes all around the world.

So the head of procurement has a pretty big job and I really enjoyed, as you can probably imagine, getting out of the office, getting out of the studio and going to visit Sara Muller myself. 

Emily: I'm very jealous that you got to have a lovely walk around the zoo, but tell me, why did you want to profile this person?

Lucinda: Well, first things first, it is always a joy to see other people's places of work and when that place is London Zoo, I don't think you can get much better. 

But I also really wanted to profile a role which is critical to the sector, extremely important, charities wouldn't run without them, as with many of these operational roles. 

But they don't necessarily get the publicity, the media exposure, in the same way that other job titles starting with the chief executive and going all the way down do. And I also thought that procuring items for a zoo must be among the more interesting procurement roles. 

And having had an initial chat with Sara, it was clear from the outset quite how passionate she is about her job and about procurement in general. So she just seemed like an ideal candidate for our Day in the Life series, take two. 

If you recall, a few months ago I went to Comic Relief and spoke to a head of programmes there about a day in the life of a grant-maker. That was also a great experience, and this seemed like a fitting follow-on to that.

Emily: Great, well, take it away.

Sara Muller: Hi, I'm Sara. I'm the head of procurement at ZSL. l I look after the majority of spend that we have for goods and services, so anything that we're spending on things that are not animals, not people, not grants or retail, basically. So our estate, our marketing, some of our veterinarian equipment, all sorts really.

We are standing in Barclay Court, just outside Penguin Beach. So we're going to go see some of my favourite animals now, the Humboldt Penguins. 

Lucinda: Excellent. 

Sara: So there's a few areas where we have windows where you can see in the water and watch the penguins dive, which I love.

Lucinda: Can you walk me through a typical day in your life?

Sara: So on an average day, if I come to London, I'll go see the penguins, the Humboldt penguins, as we did earlier. That's the highlight of my day really. I always try to see them and at least one other animal whenever I come to the office. 

The beauty of procurement is no day’s the same. You get to be involved in so many different parts of the organisation, you really get to learn about everything that we do. So it could be speaking to colleagues in the estates team and marketing, our zookeepers, our vets, our scientists, our visitor experience team, and finding a way to translate their requirements into something we can take to market.

It's just so varied and I love it. 

Lucinda: So it sounds like you sit in on a lot of meetings and are involved in that decision-making process. 

Sara: Yes, so I help the teams to find the best route to market, really. So translate their requirements into something we can take to suppliers, making sure we cover all of our bases, include everything that needs to be included.

Sometimes when you're in that role, you don't necessarily think about everything that there is, so that's where procurement comes in to help you really actively think about and put down on paper all of the different components that there are. So my role is really bringing all of the information together and translating it into something that suppliers can understand and respond to and show us what they can do to bring a new, innovative, different solution to it.

Lucinda: So you meet with members of various teams to find out what their needs are, and then what's the next step for you? Do you have a team working with you who then work out what path you need to go down, who your suppliers are going to be? How does it work? 

Sara: So at the moment it's just me, but I do have a new procurement specialist starting soon. 

I meet with colleagues, see what it is they need, whether we already have a supplier in place, we just want to find a new one, re-tender process because we've been with them for a number of years, and we might be missing out on innovation in the market.

We might be comfortable and not get the best value for money anymore, or it might be a new requirement so I can do some research into what have other charities, what other organisations, public sector, private sector, what have they done, what options are out there. 

An increasingly big part of my role is the assessment of what would it look like if we brought this in-house? Is it a permanent requirement that we have? What would it look like if we did it ourselves, or should we go out to suppliers? Which is always interesting, because it's very difficult to assess that sometimes. 

But equally, suppliers are best-placed in the market with their knowledge and innovation. So they might be able to bring something to ZSL that we wouldn't be able to replicate in-house.

Lucinda: And out of all of these different parts of your job that you've outlined, what is it that really interests you and gets you going? Some people might say, oh my God, all this paperwork, it sounds like such hard work and not that interesting. 

Sara: What, procurement's amazing! I love procurement, I absolutely do. I mean, I'm quite lucky. My husband is also a procurement professional, so we talk shop over dinner quite a lot. 

What I love most about my job is I can help colleagues in finding the best solution for their requirement. I can make it as easy as possible for them so I can support them in saving the world, really, looking after our animals, looking after our planet.

I can make it easier, I can get them better value for money. I can do all of these things so they have more time, resources to devote to what they do best, which is creating a world where wildlife thrives. 

Lucinda: Brilliant. Well, you’ve sold it to me. 

Sara: That’s always good. 

Lucinda: And what would make a good day or week in your life really great?

Sara: I think that would be finding a really good solution for what my colleagues need. So that could be either finding something that's operationally easier to manage, something that delivers better value for money, something that's more sustainable, that frees up my colleagues’ time to look after our animals, creating something that's better than there was before.

So we’re in the rainforest enclosure. So we have recreated a rainforest habitat for the animals here. There's two sloths over there and there's one a bit further back in the trees. 

Lucinda: Doing what sloths do best. 

Sara: Yes, hanging around. 

I started work here in January. And it was a horrific day outside, raining, cold. And I came in here and just spent two hours chatting to our volunteers, looking at the sloths. It was great. It was a fantastic first day. 

Lucinda: Tell me a bit about your journey into your current role and into procurement. What was it that first got you interested in this world? 

Sara: So I knew I wanted to go into procurement when I was finishing up university. I had a bit of experience in retail and retail buying, but I knew I wanted to go more into an indirect procurement route and work in bigger organisations, explore more than just retail. 

So I applied for procurement-specific graduate schemes. There aren't that many out there, but I was very lucky to get an internship at Heathrow Airport. And I was their first procurement intern and it was a fantastic opportunity and I worked in a procurement team of 70, 80 people.

There were so many people, so much talent, so many things to learn. And while I was there, I became a responsible procurement champion. So I was helping colleagues embed sustainability into their sourcing processes. 

And from there I moved on to various roles in public sector, private sector, but there was always something missing, because even though I was able to bring sustainability into my work, I also felt I wanted to work for an organisation that did good as well. 

So I joined WWF UK about five years ago and was procurement manager there. And that was my first foray into charity, third sector. And it was fantastic working there, but I saw the opportunity come up to work for ZSL last year and I just had to apply and luckily I got it.

Lucinda: Great. And beyond that difference in mission and that sense that you’re contributing to a better purpose, what have been the key differences that you've noticed between working for a massive corporate entity like Heathrow versus in the third sector? 

Sara: So certainly when I worked in the private sector, which is already quite a few years ago, I think there are certainly some areas that the private sector does better, such as negotiation, purely because negotiation courses are quite expensive, so a lot of charities don't necessarily have that funding available. 

But procurement is very similar across private sector and charity sector. In the charity sector, there's much more cooperation. Charity professionals talk to each other a lot more than they do in the private sector.

There’s this wonderful business buzzword: co-opetition. So you collaborate with your competition. Charities do compete for funding and they compete for supporters. But at the same time, we’re all working towards making the world a better place. So there is a lot more collaboration. We share ideas a lot more, and I'm actually part of a cross-charity procurement knowledge-sharing group. 

And I co-lead a sub-group for sustainability in charities, where we are supporting each other in embedding sustainability into our procurement processes. We're trying to work together and to use resources that we have more efficiently. 

Lucinda: Have you seen big changes in this area in the last few years?

Sara: I have in some areas. So with the advent of ESG, certainly the terminology has changed. I think organisations are trying harder, which is always great, and there are more resources out there, especially for charities, that are free to use. So we don't have to expend charity funds on some of those resources.

There are changes, but there's always more we can do. But this is why I love working at ZSL because supporting wildlife and looking after wildlife and their habitats is at the core of everything we do. So everyone is always really on board with trying to embed more sustainability into their sourcing processes.

Lucinda: And from your perspective, what do you think that other charities who perhaps haven't spent a great deal of time thinking about their sustainability and their procurement processes so far, where can they start? What do they need to be thinking about? 

Sara: I think it's always better to start than not to start.

So it doesn't matter what they do, as long as they do something, whether they look at environmental sustainability or social sustainability. We're charities, so we try to create a better world. Looking at what our focus and our mission is should be our focus in what we embed into our procurement as well.

So the charitable funds that we use should support our mission all the way down the supply chain. 

Lucinda: What about on a practical level? It must depend very much on what it is that they are doing, but for an organisation that maybe organises events or workshops, that sort of thing. Do you have any thoughts on how they could make themselves more sustainable? 

Sara: It really depends on what it is that they're purchasing, what it is they're procuring. So it could be anything from using FSC paper or timber in their printing, in their events, in their stalls, or reducing the amount of plastic they have in their supply chain to making sure their supplies are paid fairly.

There are so many different options and if you start with something, it's better than having nothing. 

Lucinda: And what about putting in place systems and making processes tighter or more efficient?

Sara: So it's something I'm trying at the moment, and yes, I've done that in the past. But for me it's more about finding the balance between having that transparency of how we're spending our charitable funds and making procurement as easy as possible for colleagues. 

Because like you said earlier, they might turn around and say, why should I be doing all of this paperwork? If I make it as easy for them as possible, they're more likely to follow it. And we'll be able to demonstrate to our supporters, to our visitors, to our trustees that we’re using the money that we get given wisely, fairly and ethically.

Lucinda: And what are the main challenges in your role? 

Sara: As many, or all, conservation charities, we are stretched for funding and we're stretched for time, for resources. We're on a mission to create a world where wildlife thrives. We are have this massive challenge that we're trying to address globally and we don't seem to have enough time in the day to do it. 

Hence I’m trying to reduce our procurement processes as much as possible, make them as easy as possible to follow.

But this is also where, coming back to that collaboration with other charity professionals, where that comes in, because we don't have to do everything ourselves. We don't have to start from scratch in everything we do. We can knowledge-share, we can share documents, we can share insights. 

Lucinda: And this is your opportunity to talk to the sector and to send out a message from the procurement profession. If you had to say one thing to your other colleagues in the sector to make your life a bit easier perhaps, what would it be? 

Sara: Talk to your procurement teams early. We can add the best value the earlier we're involved. So let us help as much as we can. 

Lucinda: And you mentioned that you have another procurement specialist starting soon, so hopefully this will be fresh in your mind.

What are the key qualities that you look for in a procurement professional? 

Sara: I think the biggest skill I would look for is communication, because procurement is as much about buying as it is about selling and selling our value to the organisation, and supporting our colleagues, our stakeholders, and what it is they need.

And in order to do that, we need to understand what their objectives are. We need to talk to them. Technical skills I can teach. But soft skills, communication, stakeholder engagement, management, those kinds of things. 

Lucinda: And if someone's listening to this and they've been sold by your write-up of how great your job is, do you have any recommendations for how they can go about getting a foot in the door and getting those first bits of experience that can set them out on their career?

Sara: So I think there are loads of different ways to get into procurement, and actually the majority of procurement professionals are coming from different disciplines. So they might be sitting in the area that they then move into procurement to support. 

So it might be a marketing professional and then move into procurement where you buy marketing services.

So if you have something you're particularly interested in, just either talk to whoever in your organisation is responsible for procurement, or if you don't work in an organisation, there's loads of great resources online. 

There's the Chartered Institute of Procurement and Supply. There's the Charities Buying Group, the Charity Sector Procurement Group. There's so many different things out there. 

Or just find procurement people on LinkedIn and send them a message and chat. Because we all love talking about our job and it's great. Everyone's always really helpful and trying to support each other. 

Lucinda: Brilliant.

Well, Sara, it's been such a pleasure to talk to you. Thank you very much for lifting the lid on your job and your role and life at ZSL.

Sara: Thank you so much for coming in to talk to us today and hope you enjoyed your walk around the zoo earlier.

Lucinda: I certainly did, and I hope we can walk round a little bit on our way out as well.

Parrots squawking

So as you can hear, we did manage to stop by the parrot enclosure on our way out. 

Emily: Absolutely. That was brilliant and I really didn't know what to expect when I sat down to listen to this because I was thinking, you know, procurement for a zoo, is it like, procure me a flock of hyacinth macaws, I need them tomorrow.

But as she said, nothing whatsoever to do with the animals. But so interesting listening to the way that her job is one of those vital cogs which is part of the whole charity's work. 

Lucinda: Yeah, absolutely. And the way that she clearly has the mission of the ZSL at the forefront of her mind all the time, and how critical she sees her role as being to develop solutions and bring in efficiencies that enables those frontline animal-caring staff to do their job properly.

Emily: Completely. The whole thing is framed as being one part of a bigger picture, which is conservation, protecting those animal species and helping the charity to function in the best possible way. 

And I noted down a lovely quote, which was “creating things that are better than they were before”. And if that doesn't get down to the very essence of what charity's about, I don’t know what does. 

Lucinda: Yes. And she's so passionate about procurement in general. 

Emily: Absolutely. And she made it sound so interesting and it's generally something I hadn’t really thought about before. And as well as the procurement part, I thought it was so interesting that sustainability was absolutely at the core of everything that she does, which I thought compliments really nicely the environmental mini-series that we've been doing as well.

Lucinda: Yes. Although of course she highlighted that how you make your operations more sustainable is down to what it is that you're doing in the first place. There's really no one size fits all. And what the ZSL is doing will be very different to what a completely UK-focused charity is doing. 

I also found her journey, starting at Heathrow, and I think before that Sara said in her university shop, that was where she first got interested in procurement. But going from an entity like Heathrow all the way through and now to ZSL, but still having those same motivations at the heart of what she was doing. Very interesting. 

If you would like to see some of what we got up to at the zoo, you can head over to our TikTok page to see some videos from our trip to the zoo and some bonus interview content, including some top tips from Sara on things that you should consider if you want to get into procurement and some other surprises.

So yes. Third Sector on TikTok. We are very much there. 

Emily: And listen, if you can think of a role in the sector that you would like to be profiled for our next Day in the Life, do let us know via the survey, which we will as ever be linking in the show notes.

Lucinda: Well, that's it for this week, which leaves me just to thank Sara Muller and the team at ZSL very much for letting me enter her place of work and be nosy. 

Next week will be the fourth and final part of our environmental series. We will be looking at how to measure the impact of your climate interventions.

Emily: Yes, do tune back into that. But until then, I'd like to say a big thank you to our producers, Nav Pal, Til Owen and Inga Marsden. And a big thank you to you for listening, and we'll see you again soon.

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