It’s not everyone who decides, when they should be reaping the rewards of a highly successful career, that they don’t have enough credibility and sign up to do a masters degree at the Cass Business School. But at 77, Brian Smouha, one time auditor of the World Bank and worldwide liquidator of collapsed bank BCCI, does not know the meaning of retirement. Indeed, since “retiring” from Deloitte in 2001, he has carved out a second career in the voluntary sector and developed a missionary zeal about helping charities become more efficient.
As a trustee of the Institute of Philanthropy, he decided he had to go on a giving workshop for the wealthy in order to understand the sector better. There he found himself with people who had “two more noughts than I have”. And so, he says: “I had to find some way – I am rather competitive – of being able to hold up my head. The available statistics were saying that something like £40bn a year was being spent on the voluntary sector. I thought if I could say that whatever I was going to try and do would make 1% difference to that total, it would put me in the same league as some of these people.”
To that end, in 2010 he set up the Coalition for Efficiency (CfE), a charity that aims to help other not-for-profits convert their funding into the maximum amount of good. Trustees’ motivation in deciding how much money to spend, he says, is not always focused in the right way. “You have a board of trustees who should be saying ‘this is the amount of money we’ve got, this is what we are going to do with it, how do we maximise the benefit?’
“It’s different for different types of sector. If you are trying to get votes for women in a country that doesn’t have them and you’ve been given £1m to do it, your purpose is to do it as fast as possible. Using the income from that £1m over the next 20 years is not your objective. If you are running a hospice though and someone gives you £1m, you’ve got to manage it long term because you can’t say to the patients, ‘I’m terribly sorry we’ve run out of money. Please go home.’”
In partnership with Volunteering Matters, CfE sends senior businesspeople as volunteers into charities to help them define their mission and set key performance indicators so they can measure their outcomes. It’s surprising how few do this, he says, yet seeing for real how well a charity is doing inspires their staff. “They’ve got the star to follow. It changes the organisation’s thinking from top to bottom.” So far, CfE has helped 45 charities but Smouha has an ambitious target of 1,000 in the next two years. “I will be disappointed if we don’t achieve it.”
Meanwhile there’s his trusteeship of the Bulldog Trust and of course the MSc – an attempt, he says, to fill the gaps in his knowledge about the voluntary sector and “get a bit more credibility”. He laughs: “It’s probably just over-commitment. I hope not. I’m not brilliant at it – there’s been rather a large gap since I did anything academic and it’s very different. But you have to challenge yourself as you go along.”