Sunday, 25 June 2017

Hanging up my abacus - part 1

After three years as treasurer of St Swithin's church, Bath I have handed in my spreadsheets and passed the mantle to another. This also marks the end of six years as a member of the PCC - the council which oversees the church and acts as its trustees. It has been a very significant part of my life for more than half a decade, so I thought it worth looking back at the lessons I learned along the way.

I was made treasurer for two reasons. Firstly; people think I can do numbers. Secondly; there was nobody else. My first (and slightly flippant) question was "so how much money do we actually have?". As it turned out, attempting to rigorously answer that question in detail was the basis for the entire financial strategy for three years.

Lesson 1: Asking (then answering) the simple questions is a good thing

That first question was far too obvious to be useful, and yet proved to be absolutely key. Obviously it can be rephrased to something more sophisticated ("do we have a clear picture of the current financial position?") but honestly there's not much point. I spent a lot of time carving this question up in a variety of different ways in an attempt to understand the nuances and that was a great exercise to help map out the problem space.

The important lesson here was accepting that, despite this being a complicated role, asking simple questions was a valid way of approaching it - those simple questions had a lot of value.

And that leads to...

Lesson 2: Helping others understand the answers is a vital skill

As soon as I had to take a proper interest in the church's finance I had some basic questions. Of course, if I was asking those questions it was logical to assume that others would be asking them to me in my role as Guardian of All Money. And lo, they did.

Between frequent reports to the PCC and annual reports to the congregation at the general meeting I had to learn how to take a complex financial position and explain it in sufficient detail to a roomful of people who all wanted me to say "it's all fine" and then stop talking.

The key to this was in the narrative. If a talk is structured so it follows a logical, coherent thread then it is far easier to follow. There needs to be enough detail to engage people and back up the story, but not so much as to drown it. Given the nature of the subject (numbers - few people love numbers) then patterns need to be explained, and their significance highlighted.

I presented the financial position three times at annual general meetings and each year got extremely positive feedback along the lines of "at last I understand the finances!" so I think I did something right here.

There were a few lessons along the way. Accepting that other people actually did care about the same things I did; knowing the audience well enough to present the right information; and accepting that that audience really appreciated clear communication with enough detail to actually understand it.

Lesson 3: The power!!! AHAHAHAHAHAAHA!!!

The role treasurer is potentially very powerful. I had all the information about the finances and I drafted the budgets. Between those, I could heavily influence every financial decision made in the church - and most decisions have a financial component. That meant I could change church policy and promote my favourite projects by allocating money and it would be a challenge for anyone to question me as I was the one with all the knowledge.

To be clear - this is a situation I worked very hard to avoid. It was especially true for us - we had a year without a vicar during my term which gave even more scope for abuse of power.

The problem is, the roots are in the control of information - specifically the other members of the PCC and leadership not knowing the finances in enough detail and, despite what I just put in Lesson 2, most simply didn't want this information.

There is a point here about duty of care. A church is a charity and the PCC members are trustees, which means they have a legal responsibility for the finances - a duty they can't properly perform without clear information. It's not a duty that is always made clear and that is why there is a tendency to let the treasurer just get on with it, which is where we came in.

It is a different problem from the last one. That was about answering questions clearly. This is about encouraging the questions to be asked in the first place and that is a cultural shift - a fairly major one in our case. I ended up having to change the way we thought about initiatives and projects in concept - getting costings and financial thinking in from the start to help weigh up the relative merits (rather than deciding on a priority then working out whether we could afford something) and coupling that with changing the book-keeping processes to allow easily-produced monthly financial updates.

There is a lot I can write about the techniques I used here, but the important lesson is that there are some things people have to know, whether they want to or not. In that case it's important to make the knowing as simple as possible - ideally ingrained into process in such a way they pick up the information as they go with no extra effort on their part.

Lesson 4: Having a vision

These three points all link into transparency and communication - being very clear about what one is doing and ensuring people understand why. About three months into my time as a treasurer I wrote a vision for what I wanted to achieve and it could easily be summarised as "make it easy to get information" and "make sure it's not embarrassing if people do".

This document was primarily for myself, so I could get my thoughts in order before moving forward. It proved incredibly useful as something to which I could later refer in order to judge whether things were developing in the right way. It's not exactly insightful, but this was the first time I had written a long-term vision and the lesson for me was how useful it turned out to be. I also learned the difference between strategy and vision and how important both are, but also how to consider them separately.

None of this has touched on the other people involved, but this is getting long so I'm going to split it into two. More soon.