NFP Finance Leaders Work Together for Progress
20 May 2015 at 9:19 am
A single-minded CFO in the Not for Profit sector took it upon himself to seek out those with whom he could share his knowledge – creating a network of NFP finance professionals offering development opportunities to those transitioning from the corporate world.
Daniel Langelaan felt something was missing from his role as Chief Financial Officer at the Australian Drug Foundation. As the only professional finance person at the organisation, Langelaan found himself grappling with the unique demands of working with financials in a Not for Profit environment without anyone to bounce ideas off.
To fill the gap, he established the Finance Leaders in For Benefit Organisations (FLiFBO) network, bringing together senior finance professionals from a range of Australian Not for Profit organisations to share knowledge, network and learn from the best of the corporate sector.
Now running for over two years, Langelaan has built a no-cost sustainable network -one that shows great promise, including its own governance structure, the security of a corporate partnership and the endorsement of CPA Australia.
Langelaan believes his concept is transplantable to other professions within the Not for Profit sector, including marketing, HR and IT. He recently spoke with Pro Bono Australia News about the risks he has taken, the benefits it’s providing and his take on financial literacy within the Not for Profit sector.
Strength in Numbers
Langelaan’s initial callout came when he wanted to find eight to 10 Not for Profits who would be willing to catch up with him for regular meetings, so all participants could extend their knowledge collectively.
“Through networking I found a couple and then decided to go to CPA [Australia] and request their input to try and get some more support, and use their channels to promote the networking group. The response was enormous. We had over 200 responses from people who were interested,” he recalls.
“We limited it to similar individuals – finance leaders working in Not for Profit organisations – and we did that because we were getting a lot of consultants, a lot of students, a lot of people just starting out – and we couldn’t come up with an agenda that would suit everyone.”
The sessions Langelaan runs today are comprehensive and meticulously organised, involving external speakers, networking time and discussion around agenda items attendees might like to see in future. The group has evolved to incorporate a governance structure, with a committee now working to set each agenda to best reflect the needs of the majority, he says.
“Attendance has been similar all the way through,” Langelaan says. “The list has probably turned over a little bit, in terms of people finding out it wasn’t quite right for them, but new people have come on board.
“In recent times it’s starting to nudge up more.
“We have about 50 people at every meeting and we have it round-table as opposed to lecture style so there’s an opportunity for discussion. We find that at about every meeting there’s about 50 percent who are regular attendees, and 50 per cent who opt-in based on the topic.”
Finding Unity in Diversity
Langelaan’s colleagues come from diverse backgrounds, both in terms of the sector and size of their organisations but also in terms of their previous experience.
“The size varies, it’s probably the mid to large size that suits it best, With a lot of the discussions we do break out based on size or based on industry or topics they might or might not be interested in. If it’s on financial reporting, for example, that’s an area where we usually break up [according to] size,” he says.
“In terms of industry within Not for Profits, it is a mix. We get a lot of community service organisations, and your Red Cross, your beyondblue, Australian Conservation Foundation. We get them, in education, disability, and mental health as well. A mix of backgrounds.”
In particular, those who previously worked in the corporate sector and made the transition to Not for Profits have found great value in the sessions, he adds.
“The people who have come out of the private sector and have moved into the Not for Profit sector definitely get a lot of value out of this. Myself included – I did come from a Not for Profit, but it was a very commercial Not for Profit, so it was a big change for me and I wanted to get started – that was my initial need at the start.
“It then also allows them to keep abreast of new ideas, to keep striving for continuous improvement, to get advice on certain issues- there’s all those things going on, plus it allows you to build on your soft leadership skills.”
Despite their differing backgrounds, Langelaan says he is able to appreciate their common struggles.
“Financial literacy varies a lot in Not for Profits, it’s a pretty common theme,” he says.
“For the finance leader it’s about providing the right information, providing it in a timely way, and at the right level. If you want people to think strategically, you’ve got to pitch it at that level, but at the same time give them enough information so you’ve got their trust, that they can have assurance that you’ve got the controls in place to keep the risks under control.
“We just had an agenda item on this recently where we talked about the role of the finance leader in Not for Profit organisations in reporting to the board. We had an open discussion about the issues we have dealing with boards, and audit committees, things like that.
“Volunteers on boards can make it difficult to get buy-in at times. The interaction between [board] meetings [in Not for Profits] is probably a bit more limited than what you would see in the corporate sector for that reason as well.”
Scaling the Concept
Daniel Langelaan has continued to grow his concept, securing corporate sponsorship and seeking feedback from participants.
A survey conducted after 12 months of operation found that 91 per cent of members found the sessions useful for networking and development and 71 per cent found them useful for networking.
“It helped us understand where they saw the value – was it attendees, was it information, was it in other areas?” Langelaan says.
“Where it differs from a lot of other groups is in the networking. You can go to a training course or get industry updates but there’s always that sales aspect, but here it’s actually run by the users, so it’s relevant to the users.
“There’s the opportunity midway through the session to have a discussion on what it means for you, and what does it mean in reality. Some sessions you go to sound great, but you go back to the office to try and implement it, and in reality its tough…it’s about being able to relate it back to your own work.”
A sponsorship arrangement with finance firm Grant Thornton now provides refreshments, presenters and assistance with content development.
“We’ve been able to develop a website and develop a database, rather than it just sitting in my email account. It’s also meant that we’ve got an engaged organisation that helps us grow our network and get more speakers, and hold networking lunches and dinners.”
Langelaan says his idea is easily transplantable to other Not for Profit professions.
“I could see this working is in areas such as HR. When you’re trying to attract, recruit and retain staff you have some unique challenges and selling points in Not for Profits, and then you have some unique issues.
“Being Not for Profit there’s also the ability to share a bit more because you’re not in competition. So HR is definitely an area where they could benefit from networking, sharing information, not reinventing the wheel, sharing knowledge and updates.
“Marketing is quite similar, though probably not as unique to Not for Profits, although certainly in the sense that they are trying to do more with less.
“IT is probably the other one, in terms of the systems, and there’s some common issues around Not for Profits with them not being able to take a longer view around IT systems and it’s a short term project-based, funder-based model that’s inhibiting them from doing more so being able to learn from and network with each other in that area as well would be useful.”
For now, Langelaan says, the group will continue to meet four times per year.
“We’ve got a whole list of items to talk about moving forward. We’re going through some legal issues in the May meeting coming up. It’s about prioritising which ones are most important for our group at any given time.
“The biggest [benefit] for me has been in professional development. I was quite a nervous public speaker two years ago, whereas now I’m quite confident. My development in that area has been great. Also, it hasn’t just been the things I’ve learnt in the meetings, but between the meetings, and about leadership.
The biggest challenge was taking the risk upfront, on my own. My advice for someone else starting out would be to take that risk.
“It does need some leadership, but if you can show that, there will be some people jumping on board.”
Find out more about joining the network here.