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Creating an accounting bedrock for charities

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 19 Feb 2024

Bruce Gordon has recently been awarded an OBE for his philanthropic work. He believes accountants who volunteer for charities play a vital role in helping trustees care about the numbers.

In the early 2000s, Bruce Gordon was hopping between two quite different worlds. For his day job, he was working as a partner at Deloitte. But he had also ventured into the third sector as Honorary Treasurer of the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association.

Gordon met with some obvious technical and accounting contrasts to what he had seen on the commercial side. However, he was particularly struck by how charities stem from a completely different mindset.

Caring about numbers

“In a commercial context, the accountant or finance director is integral to the whole thing,” he says. “But in charities, the main purpose is to do the good work and look after your beneficiaries. The accountant’s role is more of a supporting one, not so front of house.”

An accountant in the charity world, Gordon points out, must routinely work with colleagues who have little financial experience and a very different outlook on life. “Trustees working on delivery are often entrenched in the detail of taking care of the beneficiaries and don’t focus on the money or numbers,” he says.

But engaging trustees in financials and explaining them in language they can understand is crucial. Regardless of their specialist skills, trustees in a charity are required as a group to be financially responsible. “They can’t just say, ‘You’re the bean counter.’ So, for the accountant, the most important and demanding part of the job is helping them to understand and care about what the numbers mean.”

It was in light of this challenge that Gordon and three other like-minded senior figures from the charity finance scene decided to set up the Honorary Treasurers Forum. “We help with training and best practices so people can make that transition from the commercial world to charities and manage the various nuances they find.”

Bedrock of training

Gordon cites his work with the Forum as just one reason why he was awarded an OBE in the King’s New Year Honours.

After serving in his role with The Guide Dogs for the Blind for 11 years, Gordon became Honorary Treasurer of the National Council of Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), a leading voice across the entire UK third sector. With those credits under his belt, he was invited in 2016 to become a Trustee of The Patron’s Lunch: a massive celebration of 600 charities, of which the late Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II was patron. Held as part of the Queen’s 90th birthday festivities, the event brought together members of each charity, totalling around 10,000 people, for a special picnic on The Mall.

More recently, in 2022 Gordon became a Trustee of the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen). A landmark project to gather evidence on the realities of UK citizens’ lives, NatCen has a particular interest in children’s social care.

No matter which field of charity work Gordon has explored, it has made full use of his flair for accountancy, which began as a trainee at Arthur Andersen; he became a member of ICAEW in 1982. Now, he describes the skills that the training equipped him with as “absolutely essential – fundamental to everything I do”.

As an Honorary Treasurer of charities, he has to be chair of the finance committee and the audit committee. He also signs off the accounts. As a result his training is a bedrock, enabling him to look at disparate facts and structure and order them in an accessible way. “It may not necessarily be financial data – but once you’ve structured it, you can discuss it in a meaningful way.”

Without that accounting framework, Gordon says he wouldn’t be able to analyse and present things to other people in the way he would like: “I can’t take care of homeless children, and I can’t teach people how to use guide dogs. But what I can do is look after the money that enables experts to do those things. That’s my strength.”

Chain reaction

Built up throughout his charity experience, Gordon’s reputation quietly set off a behind-the-scenes chain reaction of support for his OBE. The Chair of one of the charities Gordon worked for decided to make a submission, canvassing Guide Dogs for the Blind, the Honorary Treasurers Forum, the NCVO and Patron’s Lunch. They all wrote positive things in response, which led to Gordon receiving his honour. “As I’ve retired from most of those charities, my continued work for the Forum is what went on the ticket. But it’s more of a long-term contribution.”

Gordon never expected to receive an award for his work; he just likes working with charities. He is enjoying life as Chairman of the Forum and a trustee at NatCen. He has also somehow managed to squeeze in a recent stint as external examiner for the Centre for Charity Effectiveness Master’s Degree at Bayes Business School, representing ICAEW. With that done, he says, he will probably look for another charity he can help as honorary treasurer – although he has not yet decided which field he would like to explore.

“I never thought this would happen,” he says of his OBE. “I just enjoy working with charities, and hope that I can make a contribution. It’s amazing to be honoured for doing that.”

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