Special Report: CAF prepares to go forth and simplify

John Low, chief executive of the Charities Aid Foundation, outlines his plans to make it more streamlined and efficient.

Credit: newscast
Credit: newscast

The Charities Aid Foundation is now six months into what it describes as the most ambitious reorganisation in its 80- year history.

CAF is rebuilding itself from the ground up, sweeping away a ragged 20-year accumulation of divisions and departments, all with their own phone lines, receptionists and IT systems, and replacing them with a streamlined, centralised system.

John Low, the chief executive brought in from the RNID last year to mastermind the process, says the difference will be easy to see.

"Until now, the charitable sector has barely seen what CAF is capable of," he says. "But we're going to make this organisation really fly."

CAF has suffered in the public eye over the past few years, Low says, because people inside and outside the organisation have lacked a clear perception of how it fulfils its role. Two years ago, one observer questioned whether anyone would want to invent CAF if it did not already exist.

But Low is adamant that, after these changes have taken hold, CAF will be able to show what a necessary tool it is for making giving and charity finance easier. "CAF does so many things that, if it didn't exist, you would have to invent it," he says.

The bulk of the changes will involve the 400 staff at the charity's central office in Kent. The customer service and finance teams will change floors and move desks to be physically nearer to each other, and the directors will move out of their executive wing to sit next to the teams they control.

Crucially, each division will no longer have its own customer service department. Replacing them will be a centralised call centre, able to handle nearly all inquiries.

The move hinges on having knowledgeable customer service staff, but Low is confident CAF's people will rise to the challenge.

"We're doing a lot of retraining, but staff have been very enthusiastic about it," he says. "They see it as an opportunity. Before, they might have spent all their time answering questions about one product and knowing everything about it. Now they will have much wider horizons."

He admits that it's a daunting task: "We're trying to grow the organisation while we remodel it. But we've got an excellent change director, Gustavo Romano, who's used to managing change on this sort of scale, and we've got a very clear plan about how it's going to be done."

The charity has also decided to carry out a full-scale refurbishment of its building, and plans to install an enormous amount of new technology. A new IT system will allow 80 per cent of requests to be dealt with through the CAF website, so they won't need to be handled in person.

"Our system will be much more advanced," says Low. "We're pretty much scrapping the current technology and starting again.

"We'll be able to offer, for example, self-service software to help charities create websites where people can donate. They'll be able to create sites in a couple of days and adapt them to their own needs."

The phones, too, will get a makeover. The current system, which lacks call-queueing facilities, will be replaced with a state-of-the-art model.

CAF's international offices, which encourage foreign philanthropists and help people who want to give to good causes abroad, are also in for a revamp. Until now, Low says, these offices have very much gone their own way, but they will now be organised along much more uniform lines.

"We're not getting rid of any services and we're not introducing new products," he says. "But we're trying to change the way in which we approach things and put the customer at the centre of everything we do - whether it's an individual, a business or a charity.

"We're looking at tearing down any barriers in CAF and make it easier for people to give and for charities to work - whether that's through IT, internal communications or anything else.

"It was pretty clear what needed to be done: we just needed to integrate things."

The old system, Low says, was a product of the methodology of former chief executive Michael Brophy, who generated a lot of different ideas and implemented them one after another. "When you have an entrepreneurial leader in charge, you get into lots of new business areas," he says. "The ideas become established and you develop the infrastructure to deliver the services, but they're left as separate business units. You create one, then another, then another. But you don't use economies of scale.

"CAF was like a bunch of little companies shoved together in a group. Now the job is to squeeze out the synergies."

FACT FILE: What does CAF do?

CAF provides specialist financial services, training and advice to charities and donors.

- Banking: Allows charities to keep their money in a charity-dedicated bank account

- Investment: Several charity investment funds

- Fundraising support: Helps charities to process donations and reclaim Gift Aid; provides e-fundraising support and training

- Venturesome: Provides loans and investment support for charities and social enterprises

- Give as you earn: Enables employees to give to charity from their pre-tax pay

- Advisory services: For charities, companies and individuals

- Trusts and accounts: For corporate and individual donors and fundraisers to hold their charitable money separately



CAF will be re-organised into five departments: customer services, company services, finance, marketing and communications. CAF Bank, for legal reasons, will remain semi-independent.


A key part of Low's vision is the centralisation of customer service. The new customer services department will be the first point of contact for 98 per cent of people who call CAF for whatever reason.

"The important thing is that we get the customer service right," says Low. "Donors, businesses and charities all expect the phone to be answered. None of them wants to have to navigate an internal maze, be put on hold or talk to someone who can't answer their question.

"You have to be aware that the people you're dealing with are customers or beneficiaries. You can't impose your services on them, and you can't force them into your way of thinking. You have to help them do things the way they want to. And we need to do this efficiently. If we suck money out of the system, charities miss out.

"Each section used to have a customer service department, doing things its own way. We're doing away with that. There's been a heavy investment in IT and a lot of retraining."

John Alexander, executive director, customer services, was customer services director at software company Agresso for six years. Before that, he spent several years in South Africa with Standard Bank Insurance, also as customer services director.

Enterprise and philanthropy

While 98 per cent of CAF's customers will be helped by the customer relations switchboard, the biggest charities, companies and philanthropists will have their own personal contacts.

"We have some very big clients," says Low. "We work with 80 of the FTSE top 100 companies. We need to make sure we have a good relationship with them.

"We're also dealing with some extremely wealthy people. We need to compete effectively for their attention. They expect personal relationships with people who know how money works."

Russell Prior, executive director, enterprise and philanthropy, spent two decades with the Barclays Group in roles such as general manager of offshore corporate banking, marketing director of Premier Banking and strategy director of Premier Banking.


CAF's finance department will handle the management of the charity's finances, including accounting, insurance and payroll.

Mike Dixon, finance director, was a chartered accountant at PricewaterhouseCoopers and finance director of HSBC Insurance Brokers.


The marketing department will continue the work of CAF's highly respected research division, looking at what CAF needs to offer customers and how to communicate with them.

Low says the department will expand into new, more customer-focused areas as well as maintaining its traditional focus on sector-wide trends.

"Marketing is about understanding what your customers want and making sure that they know that you offer it," he says. "We've tended to say: 'This is our solution, come and get it.' We shouldn't do that. We should find out what solution customers want."

Sheila Hooper, executive director, marketing and private clients, was a freelance marketing consultant for organisations including Shell, Sainsbury's and Marks & Spencer. She also produced and directed the Marketing Society's annual retail conference.


The communications department will promote philanthropy in general through press and campaigns.

"There's no one else out there supporting giving in general," Low says. "Everyone is trying to persuade you to give to them. It's CAF's job to persuade people just to be more charitable.

"It's our policy to be an honest, trusted voice for the sector, and it's our communications department that will allow us to be that."

Mark Webster, director of communications, spent most of his career as a print and ITN journalist. He has worked as a war correspondent, an economics editor and a senior spokeman for the Liberal Democrats.

CAF Bank

CAF Bank will have close links with CAF, but will be an independent legal entity.

"The Financial Services Authority is very sensitive about who has the power to do what, so CAF Bank has to be a separate entity," says Low. "But it's very much part of CAF. It shares a lot of the same board members.

"There will be less change at CAF Bank than elsewhere, initially, because it's a sensitive area.

"We're going to train staff on the non-banking side first, but eventually there will be more integration."

Peter Mitchell, chief executive, CAF Bank, was director of operations for charity financial services at CAF. He has had several financial roles with the charity over the past eight years. Before joining CAF, he spent more than 20 years with the Barclays Group.

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