These are difficult financial times for the charity sector, with sources of funding under pressure. There are, at the time of writing, 161,873 registered charities in England and Wales (according to the Charity Commission), along with thousands more in Scotland and Northern Ireland and tens of thousands of other types of not-for-profit organisations, most of which need to comply with what can be strict and complex accounting rules.
This is just the first of several reasons why many of them are keen to get accountants on board who can act as advisers or serve as trustees.
But becoming a trustee is a serious step. The role includes duties of prudence (ensuring assets are used wisely and without undue risk) and a duty to ensure the charity meets all legal and compliance requirements. It can be time-consuming, although usually amounts to no more than a couple of days’ work each month.
Liz Hazell, head of charities at PwC
“It is a good way to develop leadership skills… but understanding the trustee’s legal responsibilities is very important”
Accountants who want to get involved often start by registering with bodies such as Reach Skilled Volunteers, which matches would-be volunteers to requests from charities for assistance.
“At the moment we have 250 live requests for trustees,” says Janet Thorne, director of services at Reach. “Treasurers are in short supply but in any charity you will do work beyond just the finances.”
Thorne says accountants who work for larger companies benefit from working at smaller organisations. “You get to work with a team of people you wouldn’t normally work with, dealing with different issues. It can be a lovely experience,” she says.
Cath Lee is chief executive of the Small Charities Coalition, which offers various support to its member organisations, all of which have an income of under £1m.
Half have incomes below £50,000.
“At that size they’re not able to employ staff, or if they do they’ll be employing them part-time and people working for those organisations tend not to have finance experience,” says Lee.
“There is a demand for accountants to join the board, but there is a demand at other levels too. Working with a small charity means you’re exposed to the whole organisation. Sometimes the skills people have that they take for granted are very valuable to a small organisation.”
There can also be significant professional benefits for the accountant. “It’s very good for your CV to be working at a non-exec level, looking at things from a strategic instead of an operational point of view,” Thorne points out.
The larger accountancy firms have established schemes to help employees become trustees. It benefits the charity, the individual and their employer, says Liz Hazell, head of charities at PwC.
“There’s a personal sense of satisfaction in terms of the role they’re playing, but also in terms of the board culture they’re exposed to,” she says. “We see it as a good way for people to develop leadership skills.
"But understanding the trustee’s legal responsibilities is very important, and not well-understood by those who don’t know the sector.”
While the image of an accountant serving as a charity trustee is someone with many years of service behind them, it can be incredibly valuable for the less experienced. “It’s a good way for younger members of staff to learn what happens in practice and work out how to manage similar situations when dealing with clients,” says Hazell.
Matt Rees, a senior associate at PwC, is just a few years into his career and has recently been appointed a trustee at Engineers Without Borders UK (see box, right). “You have much more exposure to the management and governance processes of the organisations you’re helping than you do when you’re working with clients,” he says.
“So in our audit work we might spot what’s important to them and come up with recommendations around the way an organisation is working, especially if you have had some experience running that sort of organisation.”
But it can also be an emotionally demanding role. “As one of the few people on the board with an accounting background, particularly at the moment where a lot of charities are struggling with cashflow, you could be the bearer of bad news,” says Hazell. “That puts accountants in a difficult situation.
The challenge for younger staff members doing that is having the confidence to deliver those messages.” PwC takes steps to ensure these individuals get confidential support from within the company if they find themselves in this type of situation.
If you want to become a trustee you will need to weigh up some important questions, such as time, travel and, crucially, personalities. “Relationships on the board are very important, because it’s truly a team dynamic,” she says.
“There’s a process of going to meet the other trustees and getting to know the organisation. It can be a drawn out process, and that’s to be recommended really before you commit yourself.”
If there is a good match there can be important benefits for the charity. “One of the most important for an effective board is diversity,” says Thorne. “Often they lack people with professional business skills, even if the board is very strong in other areas.”
That’s a point echoed by Len Jones, finance director at Practical Car and Van Rental, who also works for several voluntary sector organisations as an advisor or treasurer (see box, right).
“Other [trustees] may not possess the accountancy or finance skills to deal with today’s changing environment,” he says.
“Now they are having to look at their service delivery costings and processes as they try to be, not so much like a business, but more businesslike.”
But you do need to know what you’re letting yourself in for. “Pick a charity that interests you, but know that you’re going into a different sector that may be undergoing traumatic change,” Jones warns. “If there is a merger going on there will be steering groups, there’s a due diligence exercise which requires my involvement, because there’s nobody else to do those things. You’re being relied upon and it’s very difficult to say no.”
Overall, he is very keen to encourage others in accountancy to follow in his footsteps. “This is good for your career management: future employers would want to see some diversity in your CV,” he says. “It keeps you sharper and some of the stuff you learn from the charity world rubs off on your day job; you approach things in a different light.
“My job in the charity is applying my skills into areas where they’re needed. It’s not a chore, it’s something I do to give back. It’s hugely rewarding. I believe passionately that accountants have a lot to offer, because there’s so much happening in the charity sector at the moment.”
Len Jones, finance director, Practical Car and Van Rental
After 30 years as an accountant and 20 years in the boardroom, Jones says he felt there was still something missing and that he wanted to give something back. After an MBA at Cranfield in 2008, he took a diploma in charity accounting and finance at Cass Business School, then enrolled with Reach and other organisations. His first volunteer placement, from 2009 to 2011, was at the Rossendale Trust, a small charity in the Macclesfield area supporting disabled adults. He helped the charity improve its costing and IT system and assisted with grant applications to the local authority.
In spring 2011, he took a voluntary role as treasurer of the West Cheshire Credit Union, a financial co-operative. He is still involved and is helping it as it merges with another credit union.
Late last year he took a role with Befrienders Worldwide, which helps emotionally vulnerable people all over the world. Jones says he is enjoying dealing with people living and working in different countries and cultures.
“I get a kick out of their enthusiasm and passion. I’m learning from people with skills in everything from fundraising to suicide prevention. It’s really interesting. And improving the net happiness of the world. How ambitious and rewarding is that?”
Matt Rees, senior associate at PwC
Rees started volunteering for a charity, Bristol Volunteers for Development Abroad, while a student in Bristol. He continued his involvement, becoming a trustee, after graduating five years ago and joining PwC. It’s a student-led charity that organises placements for volunteers in Rwanda, Uganda, India and Nepal.
“I help coach students on financial management and what’s expected of a charity,” he says.
Rees has plenty of support from PwC, which is actively engaged with the charity sector in various ways. In 2010 he joined Engineers Without Borders, which assists skilled volunteering for projects worldwide. Having started supporting them in a general advisory role he joined the board of trustees in late 2011.
“I was brought in as an advisor to help them with finance systems and reporting, risks budget setting and so on. I’m now the treasurer, helping coordinate budgets and fundraising priorities.”
Fayaz Malik, director, Plan Enterprise
Having worked in India and Dubai for private companies, Malik came to the UK and worked with a social housing body. In 2007 and 2008 he worked as finance director for the Haven, Wolverhampton, which supports women and children affected by domestic violence and homelessness.
“There was a housing side to it, but it was about helping people,” he says. “I was very close to the people in distress. This is really fantastic work.”
In 2008 and 2009 he did some consultancy for environmental charity Groundwork UK.
He then focused on his own accountancy and management consultancy business, PLAN Enterprise, which now has offices in India and Saudi Arabia.
But in 2011 he also joined the board of Halow Birmingham, a charity that manages visitor centres for prisons in the West Midlands area.
“I wanted to contribute and help to guide the strategic side of a charity’s affairs,” explains Malik. Part of his motivation for working with Halow was because it is based near his home in Birmingham.
“It’s a very good charity,” he says. “They help people with relatives in prison, so you’re helping the community and a family who is experiencing a lot of pain and distress.”
Find out more about how ICAEW can help you volunteer as a trustee