Top treasurers reveal their tips for surviving COVID shocks

Posted on 09 Dec 2020

By Matthew Schulz

Australia’s best community treasurers say riding out the tough times requires the kind of creative accounting that won’t get you into trouble.

The four winners of the 2020 Commonwealth Bank Not-for-profit Treasurers’ Awards were chosen from more than 2000 entries for their excellent responses to the question, “What did you learn about surviving a crisis as a not-for-profit treasurer in 2020?”

We asked them to expand on those answers to help the country’s many other hardworking and under-recognised community treasurers.

Each winner collected a $5000 prize for their community organisation, alongside national recognition in a year that will be remembered for COVID-19 – not just for its health effects but also for the financial challenges it sparked.

ENTER NOW: Entries for the 2021 Not-for-profit Treasurers' Awards are open (entries close July 8)

The winners, who were announced by CommBank representatives at the 2020 Communities in Control conference, were:

Brenton Whittenbury (Community Service and Advocacy Groups)
Scouts, Adelaide Foothills District, Magill, South Australia

Derek Ingles (Sports, Arts and Culture)
The Dress Up Place Inc., Grovedale, Victoria

Anne Ahern (Education)
Ramsay State School P&C (Parents and Citizens) Association, Ramsay, Queensland

Sumithira Thavapalan (Social Housing and Homelessness)
Haymarket Foundation, Sydney, New South Wales

The Commonwealth Bank’s Julienne Price, the executive manager for schools and not-for-profit banking, told conference delegates that recognition for treasurers was vital, particularly in 2020 with so many working harder than ever, yet “out of the spotlight”.

“It's so important that we get to say thank you to our not-for-profit treasurers, who work so tirelessly to support the financial sustainability of the organisations that they work for,” Ms Price said.

The awards also saw 2000 treasurers listed in an annual honour roll, having been nominated by their organisations.

In the bank’s sixth year of involvement in the awards, Ms Price said nominations had highlighted three key aims of treasurers who had helped their groups to navigate the crisis successfully:

  • To be innovative and to work flexibly
  • To concentrate on communication
  • To maintain a strong focus on the organisation’s financial future.

Scouts treasurer’s motto is “be prepared … to help others”
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Top South Australian treasurer Brenton Whittenbury, who provides financial nous to the Scouts of the Adelaide Foothills District, follows the scouting creed – “be prepared” – as well as striving to meet the three aims outlined above.

His organisation combined flexibility, good communication, a focus on the future, and thorough preparation to preserve income and boost its recovery from the shocks of 2020.

The district faced a big slump in income from its main revenue source, the Hectorville Scout Hall, which usually generates funds from community meetings and classes in yoga, dance and self-defence.

Brenton
Winner of the Community Service and Advocacy Groups category, Mr Brenton Whittenbury from Scouts, Adelaide Foothills District, Magill, South Australia

But instead of cracking down on users to cover the bills, the Scouts focused on helping them with credits, rent holidays, flexible leases and COVID-safe plans for re-opening.

“If people get squeezed, it doesn’t create a good relationship and they won’t stick around. Now we’re going back to normal, we’ve actually picked up a couple of extra hirers … that were harshly treated by other hirers,” Mr Whittenbury said.

As a result, new self-defence classes and a traditional Sri Lankan dance group have become regular users of the hall.

He said the lesson to other treasurers was to protect your income, to “look after what you have”.

“That means reaching out to your income sources, hall hirers in our case, and helping them with their operations. If they get through, we get through.

“It's very easy to think only about controlling expenses and protecting the bank balance, but that's only half of it. You still need income to survive.”

Another strategy that helped the group to weather the storm – and provided leeway that the group could extend to hirers – was a cash reserve big enough to cover a year’s worth of bills.

“As a treasurer it’s prudent to have a bit of a bank balance available. That way you’re not reliant on the goodwill of other people.”

Mr Whittenbury said he hoped he displayed the scouting spirit in his bookkeeping.

“Resilience is an over-used word now, but scouting teaches problem solving and self-reliance.”

And his tip for new treasurers?

“Being the treasurer of a not-for-profit shouldn’t be a difficult task. You’ve just got to get yourself organised and set aside an hour every couple of weeks to pay the bills, look at the mail or do the books, and to just get it done.”

He said being a treasurer was “a really rewarding job”, and 2020 had shown it was vital that the treasurer stood up to those on the committee who might be tempted to empty the kitty.

“Community treasurers should put into play those same principles with the finances that they would employ at home, or at work,” he said.

Mr Whittenbury said the group was tossing up whether to spend the $5000 prize money on upkeep for the district hall or to splash out on a Christmas party for scouts. As an award-winning treasurer, he looked set to take the sensible option when Our Community spoke to him.

“Realistically, it’ll probably be a bit of both,” Mr Whittenbury said.

Mask making a lifeline for costume-hire group
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Award-winning Victorian community treasurer Derek Ingles steers the finances at The Dress Up Place, a registered charity running a costume-hire business in Grovedale in Geelong’s southern suburbs.

During Victoria’s COVID-related state of emergency, the future looked bleak for the volunteer-run outfit. There was little demand for its 25,000 outfits for parties, community theatre, school events, business events and film shoots, and its business model was suffering, with most of its income stalled.

Mr Ingles says fundraisers such as trivia nights and Bunnings sausage sizzles were also “off the cards”.

But the group had theatre instincts in its blood and knew “the show must go on” – and the creative flair of volunteers saw them change their focus almost overnight.

Using skills honed by making and repairing costumes, the volunteers turned their attention to a big new market: masks. The organisation soon began producing a huge variety of themed masks.

“Whatever material we could get our hands on, we made into masks,” Mr Ingles said.

“That was a huge success. Or at least enough to get us through the dry patch.”

As well as selling more than 500 fancy masks online, the group leaned on supporters for donations and, when restrictions began to lift, sold excess stock at garage sales.

Mr Ingles said the mask sales and donations were powered by a social media and email campaign.

At the same time, the organisation sought a reprieve from creditors such as the landlord, insurers and utility providers. Most allowed for payment delays to give the charity breathing room.

He said the $5000 prize would ease the pain of the group’s overheads. “There’s not a lot of cash in the funds at the moment!”

But despite the challenges, the “tight executive group” was unified in its pursuit of new income, extensions from creditors, and a re-evaluation of strategy.

“One of our issues is that we’re not an ‘essential service’. No-one is going to die if they can’t wear a costume,” Mr Ingles said.

Ingles Derek Mad Hatter
Winner of the Sports, Arts and Culture category, Mr Derek Ingles (dressed as The Mad Hatter) from The Dress Up Place, Grovedale, Victoria

Therefore the group wanted others to know it as not just a costume-hire shop but “a community volunteer environment”, providing essential job training in retail and customer service, as well as great costumes for schools and other community groups at a rock bottom price.

“It isn’t just about the costumes anymore, it’s about the people involved in it all.”

The group has begun to showcase the organisation’s revised identity with videos, including a pitch filmed to accompany grant applications, and is considering a move to a more affordable venue that could store its thousands of outfits.

Mr Ingles’ tip for new treasurers? Ensure you’ve got a great relationship with the old one.

“I can’t imagine my role being well run without the cooperation of the previous treasurer, who is still on the committee … and she keeps me on the straight and narrow as well.”

He said his role at the Dress Up Place meant “paying bills, understanding what’s coming in and going out and being able to record it.”

“I think if you can work an Excel spreadsheet and pay bills, you should be able to do it. Just think about your own [personal] banking and budgeting.”

In the meantime, Mr Ingles continues to demonstrate his versatility not just as a bean counter, but as a model for some of the organisation’s best outfits.

Treasurer has a big heart for small school
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Set on the edge of the Great Diving Range in Queensland, about 25 minutes’ drive from Toowoomba, the small Ramsay State School is the heart of the semi-rural community here.

Anne Ahern sits on the school’s Parents and Citizens Association – what most call the P&C – as treasurer and now a winner of the 2020 Not-for-profit Treasurers’ Awards.

She collected her award for excellence in steering the P&C’s fundraising efforts during the turmoil of 2020.

Anne Ahern
Winner of the Education category, Ms Anne Ahern from Ramsay State School P&C (Parents and Citizens) Association, Ramsay, Queensland

With just 49 students, the school relies on the P&C for essential resources, including $12,000 a year to subsidise teachers’ wages.

The fundraising group also supports infrastructure, and plans to partly bankroll a sports shed and decking area with a sensory garden. The $5000 prize is already earmarked for the deck and garden.

Mrs Ahern helped the school to flourish at a time when the P&C’s usual fundraising income streams had evaporated.

Its catering crew is known for providing food and refreshments for the local camp draft, property auctions, business functions, race days and sports days. The P&C also runs the school’s tuckshop, uniform shop, book club and book fair. And the group is enthusiastic in applying for school grants.

But catering, events and fundraisers with people “on the ground” were out of bounds for most of 2020.

The P&C’s first action was to research what was possible, and it drew on Our Community’s Save Our Sector campaign, which continues to provide free resources to help NFPs survive the pandemic.

It connected and activated supporters on social media, then launched several non-contact COVID-safe fundraisers.

“We’ve had to look at things like pie drives and cookie dough drives [products that could be delivered to people’s homes], things that we’re able to do where we’re able to still support the community and the school, but put supporters at ease as well, so we’re able to keep bringing the money in.”

Mrs Ahern urged other groups to crowdsource their ideas through the community, social media networks and peak bodies.

“It’s just really networking, just to question what are other people doing, because there’s a lot of great ideas out there,” she said.

Parents at the school were “heavily involved” in fundraising, which meant that volunteers were usually available to lend a hand.

“I know everyone works and that everyone's extremely busy. Some people think that they have to be involved all the time to make something work. It's not the case.

“Every little bit that you can do, whether that's just being able to help set up for a function or being able to drive to pick things up, makes a massive difference to the fundraising effort.”

She stressed that small contributions to fundraising could transform the whole community.

As Mrs Ahern explains, Queensland guidelines stipulate that schools with fewer than 53 students don’t qualify for a third teacher, but years of P&C fundraising have helped to build student numbers.

“As a P&C and as a community, we've decided – for many years – to support the school by supplementing a teacher's wage. This keeps those classes with low student-teacher ratios. And it improves our school, and it means that we have grown. We've gone from having originally five or six students, and we're looking at 52 this year, we just need one to get over the line.”

Mrs Ahern has one big tip for potential new treasurers: “Don't be scared.”

“I think the big thing [for a new treasurer] is just to realise that you're going to do it differently to somebody else, and that's okay. Because we all do things differently, and there's nothing wrong with putting your stamp on it.

“There's rules and regulations in place that you need to follow, yes, but there's always things that people can bring to the table that may not have been thought of before. So just have a go, it's not that bad.”

Finance whiz lifts foundation in lockdown
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Joint Not-for-profit Treasurer of the Year Sumithira Thavapalan is busy. Alongside her day job, the chartered accountant is a student, and she’s also held roles at other not-for-profits, in government, and in business. She’d recently completed an exam when we spoke to her about her work with the Haymarket Foundation, in the heart of Sydney.

The Foundation supports people hit hard by homelessness and drug addiction, and it was Ms Thavapalan’s work here that saw her snap up a $5000 prize for the charity.

The organisation has set aside the funds for a project that helped secure the prize in the first place: a new telehealth service for clients.

Sumithira
Winner of the Social Housing and Homelessness category, Ms Sumithira Thavapalan from Haymarket Foundation, Sydney, New South Wales

That service gives vulnerable clients online access to doctor consultations, and it began as a trial spurred on by COVID-19.

“We started off with about 10 people, but we’ve expanded it to now cater for about 50. It’s really useful for the homeless to have access to a GP, which they often don’t. It’s a worthwhile service and a good use of the money,” Ms Thavapalan said.

“While it meant some significant one-off costs, the benefits will be for the long term.”

That project is among myriad programs the Foundation has run since it first parked a green caravan near Paddy’s Market to provide basic health services for those on “skid row”.

Ms Thavapalan said a combination of factors had helped the Haymarket Foundation to maintain its financial strength through 2020, including:

  • Being able to rely on existing government grants
  • Winning additional funds offered to tackle the pandemic
  • Boosting fundraising during the pandemic with the help of a new fundraising officer
  • An existing strategy that kept a focus on long-term financial health.

She added that the strategy worked only because the organisation had a high-performing board with diverse perspectives and professional experience to help guide the organisation.

“Our strategic plan is thinking about not just looking at the short term but longer-term needs and our vision for the future. During COVID we were able to not only maintain our vision – which is to create a better future for homeless people – but also expand some of the scope of our work.”

Ms Thavapalan said that despite her busy schedule, she’s able to give the Foundation the attention it needs through “a lot of prioritising and balancing with my day job” and having an “excellent” finance coordinator and CEO on staff.

She sees her role as one of “guiding, mentoring and support” for an already capable staff.

Asked about advice for budding treasurers, Ms Thavapalan urged new office bearers to gain a thorough understanding of their duties and responsibilities in the context of their operating environment, including “your regulators, your stakeholders and your funders”, which varied markedly between different sectors.

An avid student, Ms Thavapalan undertook director’s governance training soon after being appointed to the Foundation’s board, and she encouraged others to consider further study.

“Continuing professional education is really important throughout your career.”

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