Before the coronavirus crisis, we talked with Eilis Quinlan, principle at Quinlan & Co about how her skills as an auditor are helping charities adhere to good governance, so that they can be even more effective in doing their work.
I own and run a small audit and accountancy practice on the outskirts of Dublin, with nine members of staff on the team. Many of our clients are small-and-medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). In addition to our client work, we offer some pro-bono services to charities from time to time. Currently, we work with a breast cancer awareness charity performing a free annual audit for them.
But more than that, I also use my professional skills outside the office. I have taken on several volunteer roles on the boards of charities. I qualified as a chartered director three years ago. This has helped me bring an acceptable level of corporate governance to the boards I work with.
Understanding how good governance works
I was appointed by the government to the board of the Strategic Banking Corporation in Ireland; this is a wholesale bank which facilitates low cost loans specifically aimed at SMEs. Serving on this board has shown me what good corporate governance looks like in action. With this best practice example, I have been able to transfer some of this experience into my work on the boards of charities.
This is not to disparage or to minimise the good work that charities do! In most cases any slip in standards was simply because the charity would be so focused on their work that they could not take the time to put in place the correct corporate structures that will ensure and enhance their decision-making for the future.
Many charities have governance setups that are much more about compliance or adhering to legislative requirements. In my experience, more resilient, robust and dynamic oversight allows for problems to be identified early on and any risks mitigated before they become issues.
Activist good governance to improve charities
When I find myself on the board of a well-meaning, but poorly governed charity, I take an active approach to bring positive change. As a board member, I feel partly responsible for all aspects of the business including employee safety. For example, I was on the board of a charity that worked out of a building that did not meet adequate health and safety standards. When the landlord did not cooperate with the board’s requests to bring the building up to standard, as a board we decided that we had no option but to move the offices elsewhere, as ultimately it is the board’s responsibility to ensure a safe place of work for all employees.
More broadly, this has allowed me to think about how boards should be run. We need activist boards, with a variety of skills and expertise. Board members need to feel engaged when things go wrong, especially when management can’t/won’t take action. Ultimately, it is the CEO and management that report to the board, and it is up to the board to provide a clear and concise direction.
I’m very pleased with the work that I’ve been able to do to help steer different charities in a more productive direction. Participating in a well-run board is a genuine pleasure where I am happy to contribute my time and expertise.
Strategic advice to optimise SMEs performance
Thanks to these volunteer experiences, I feel enriched as an accountant and auditor. I see the profession changing, and that there are now off-the-shelf solutions that can replace many of our traditional roles – I see our role becoming more that of trusted advisor than number crunchers!
We need to focus on the added value that we can bring, as accountants, to a business. For me, this means insights and advice on how a company could function better. The insights that I gain from my volunteer work often translates to an SME setting. Our clients are often very pleased to have this additional strategic view and value the advice I can offer. Not only am I making a difference to the good governance of charities I have become more skilled at learning and offering strategic advice to SMEs. So, for me, volunteering is a win-win.