Heidi Smith

Treasurer to the Board of Pushkin House

Stepping in to the Role of Charity Treasurer

Heidi Smith was appointed Treasurer to the Board of Pushkin House 18 months ago. This is what she’s learning in the role:

It’s a significant time commitment

Our Board meets four times a year in Pushkin House in Bloomsbury, London. As Treasurer, I meet with the finance committee an additional four times a year, so the minimum commitment is eight evenings a year. This is in addition to attending fundraising and other cultural events, plus time to review the papers for both full board and committees.

I live and work in London, so getting to the Board Meetings isn’t onerous in terms of travel time. For other board members, who travel abroad for work, or live in other cities in the UK, it’s a bigger ask from their schedule. Long-distance isn’t a deal breaker though, as technology allows remote participation.

When you’re thinking about taking a step up to a Treasurer role, it’s worth considering the location and frequency of Board and Committee meetings so you can be confident of meeting the attendance requirement.

Keep in mind that it’s a charity, not a business

I’m commercial through and through. I work in a large law firm and run an online business. I wouldn’t survive long in either were I less focused on profit. In Trustee discussions about the financials, for example about event ticket pricing or project budgeting, I have my eye on the numbers and this perspective drives my recommendations in our board meetings.

Mine isn’t always the right approach though. Charities don’t exist to make profit in the same way as do businesses. Instead, it’s the charitable objectives which inform decisions about expenditure, income streams and fundraising. Breaking even at the end of the year is a very successful outcome for many charities.

“Breaking even at the end of the year is a very successful outcome for many charities.”

As a charity’s Treasurer, you need to make recommendations based on the actuals, but it’s not a profit motive which drives the decisions.

You don’t have to be an accountant.

I’m not an accountant but was appointed as Treasurer nevertheless. The charity’s accountant and bookkeeper manage and prepare the accounts for me, the Finance Committee and ultimately the full board to review, so deep understanding of accounting rules and practices is not always necessary for this role.

I do have experience managing small business accounts, and I can interpret financial statements and spreadsheets, and this is certainly helpful. I’ve been able to pick up key aspects of charity finance and I can ask the accountant for clarification when I need it.

The Charity Commission provides guidance on charity financing which I’ve found helpful, and Women on Boards also has plenty of resources and guidance available on the website.

It’s a Board effort.

Since my name is listed with the Charities Commission as our Treasurer, I feel responsible for the decisions we make about financials. I ask questions, challenge assumptions and sometimes make myself unpopular by recommending against unplanned spend, if I think it’s the right thing to do.

The responsibility doesn’t rest on my shoulders alone, however. In our Board, we have decades of experience from many sectors, including banking and finance. Several board members have run their own charities and understand the importance of maintaining good financial health for the charity.

There’s always plenty of support, and discussion, around decisions about our finances.

It’s never too early in your career to start

This is my first appointment to a Board and I would like to continue as a Trustee at Pushkin House for as long as I’m permitted.  I’m working towards a private sector non-executive board role as I’m now confident that the skills I’m learning in my current role will be the content of my future applications, combined with the skills I have learned from my executive career.

”It’s never too early” is a useful mantra from Women on Boards. I certainly didn’t feel an urgency to join a board and it took several years after I joined Women on Boards before applying for a position. But now I have 18 months of experience on Board and I’m very glad to have made an application last year.

The Getting Started Workshop provided me with an overview of all the things I needed to consider when I started on this board journey.  If you decide to start today, it won’t be too soon.

Heidi Smith is Treasurer Trustee of Pushkin House and an Ambassador for Women on Boards.

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