What we do seems abstract to others, but it's important

Our colleagues are often more hazy about what we do than we might imagine, writes James Brooke Turner, finance director of the Nuffield Foundation

James Brooke Turner
James Brooke Turner

Where do you get free money? A Google search on this question produces a disappointing 1.8 billion results - which might suggest that the remaining five or so billion people on the planet are planning to hold on to their cash.

We are often told that "the Bank of England is printing more money", but we charity finance directors are never told where we should go to collect it. Does it come out of the hole in the wall in Threadneedle Street? Does Mervyn King throw handfuls from the roof of the Bank of England? Where does it all go? Because if it's still sitting at the printers, it's probably not doing much good.

Of course, it's a metaphor used to describe the process by which the Bank of England provides liquidity to UK banks, and the cost at which it is provided. There is no such thing as 'free money' - but there are such things as cheap money and expensive money.

At the moment, money is cheap - and that is one of those counter-indicators that says all is not well with the world. I'm not going to get into why, because there is already plenty of commentary about that in the press. But one of the roles of a finance director is to look out for these contrary signs and remember that if it looks too good to be true, then it usually is.

Keeping an open mind

It can be a difficult trick to pull off, but a finance director should be able to lead in quantifying and assessing such risks, settling doubts but always keeping an open mind to bold and adventurous solutions.

However, our colleagues are often more hazy about what we do than we might imagine. Sitting in the staff room at lunch, I told colleagues I was writing a piece on the role of the FD. I obviously mumbled this a bit because the first response was: "Why would the FT ask you what its role was?"

I clarified the question and got a range of answers: "to sign the cheques"; "to look after the money," "to sit on the sofa eating biscuits" - at which point my colleagues ran out of time, steam and ideas.

I rephrased the question as: "Would you notice if we didn't have a finance director?" This was received with more blank looks, as if I had suggested we didn't need desks. However, quite quickly my colleagues mustered their ideas and (wisely) said that things would start to go very wrong if we didn't have a finance director. And they left it at that: a rather abstract statement of a mysterious role.

To staff, the role is abstract and imprecise, but somehow necessary and important. What does it comprise in this imprecise way? You could argue that it's about creating a financial narrative for the organisation, so everyone knows if it is in danger or safe, if something's expected or is a surprise. An FD should tell a financial story (which must be true), and it's the FD's job to make sure that the words go on the page in the right order to say the right thing.

Before you take these words to heart, please remember that - like banks printing money - this formula is also a metaphor.

Helen Simmons is unwell

James Brooke Turner is finance director of the Nuffield Foundation

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