At Work: Finance and IT - Culture - Learning lessons from the other side

Chris Harris is director of finance at Action for Blind People and chair of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy.

My charity is based on an industrial estate, where our neighbour is a medium-sized private firm that is about half our size. I met its finance director to discuss site issues and, over the course of a lunch, began to compare our roles and responsibilities. Several points are worth repeating.

The first relates to culture. He works for a long-established family firm, whereas I work for a long-established charity. My organisation makes full use of the latest management tools, has a quality programme embedded throughout and provides full financial information to staff who require it.

His organisation relies on staff initiative and judgement, has next to no idea of the cost of different processes and provides accounts for the tax man. Both approaches seem to work.

The second point is about knowing your worth. Action for Blind People is a growing charity. Our financial turnover is increasing, we are expanding our services and we are raising more money from the public than ever before.

Yet these are all indicators rather than straightforward measures of value.

From my own point of view, I can point to objectives achieved, but I cannot show a simple improvement in the share price.

Establishing worth

For my neighbour, knowing his own worth and that of his company is a significant part of the day job. He will constantly be looking to enhance the worth of his company, either through increased profit margins or the takeover of others. This in turn will feed back into his own success through his salary package.

The third point is job satisfaction. For both of us, the attraction of our roles is the opportunity to be involved and to play a hands-on role in a diverse activity. I have the luxury of being paid to do something I would like to do anyway, whereas my colleague is very clear that it is only his need for money that keeps him at work. There is a trade-off between money and job satisfaction. He envies my job security; I envy his Audi.

Why does this matter? I recently heard someone say that, in the good old days, there were clear distinctions between private firms, the public sector and charities, but now they are all getting mixed up.

Charities that deliver public services have grown significantly in number.

Many are adopting a private sector culture as they learn to compete. Finance directors will begin to find their own role is changing - perhaps it is time to take a look over the fence before that role disappears completely.

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