Research shows of the top 100 or so charities in the UK (based on income), 45% of current Finance Directors previously worked in the commercial sector – a 5% jump from two years ago. Why are we starting to see more and more finance personnel enter the charity sector than ever before?

We chatted to Rachel Pigott, who after nearly a decade at EY, decided to swap her career in a ‘Big Four’ consultancy firm for Brightside – a social mobility charity connecting young people with inspirational online mentors.

An unconventional but career defining move

Four years ago, I made a big decision to leave a career in professional services and apply for a job with the UK social mobility charity Brightside.

This was an ‘unconventional’ career move, as not many people with eight years’ experience in a ‘Big Four’ firm, and on track for promotion, leave to join a charity. However, this has turned out to be one of the best decisions of my career to date.

Why did I leave a firm I loved, where I had spent my career since graduating, where I had qualified as a Chartered Accountant, where I had supported clients with their most complex problems and worked with brilliant people, and where I had benefited from so many diverse experiences, incredible opportunities and made friends for life?

To be honest, it was a purely selfish decision! While I enjoyed working in the government advisory arm of a ‘Big Four’ firm, helping save tax payers’ money, I wanted to see a more direct link between my day-to-day work and the positive impact I could have on society.

How does this finance job in the charity sector compare to the corporate world?

While I enjoyed working with a range of clients and learnt a lot from working with so many different organisations, I have found it more rewarding being deeply embedded in one organisation, navigating the daily challenges as well as the strategic ones.

Alongside the more traditional finance responsibilities, I have been lucky enough to get involved with almost all aspects of the organisation. Finance touches everything we do, and I love the variety this provides. It has included supporting our business development team to win new contracts, designing and implementing our impact measurement strategy, and thinking about new ways of working without a traditional office space, not only to deliver cost savings but also to increase flexibility.

I am constantly learning – which is really important to me. With so many complex challenges facing the charity sector, there is no choice really. I had to make the transition to a new sector, learn how a technology organisation works, navigate through a few years of rapid growth followed by a fall in income, and I am now helping the organisation respond to the shifts in society we are seeing as a result of COVID-19. There has never been a dull moment since I arrived!

Being part of a passionate, values-led team that is fully committed to the mission, is also incredibly motivating.

It is a privilege to be able to play a small part in helping connect young people with opportunities otherwise unavailable to them and to improve the social mobility agenda. Every day I see the impact our mentors are having on people’s lives. In June 2020, Brightside launched a national programme for university offer holders in response to the additional challenges of going to university during this pandemic. These initiatives make me feel proud to have contributed to supporting young people at such a pivotal point in their lives.

What issues do you see in the charity sector and how can finance professionals contribute to the solutions?

COVID-19 has brought huge challenges to the charity sector as well as almost every other aspect of society.

Many charities are seeing huge increases in demand while also suffering a fall in income. I imagine ensuring the continuing provision of services for beneficiaries is the number one priority for most organisations, as it is for us. Finance professionals are obviously at the heart of this and will continue to play a critical part in steering through such turbulent times.

Impact reporting. I believe finance professionals have a key part to play in improving impact reporting. This form of performance management and robust reporting is the foundation to ensure resources are directed to activities that will achieve the highest impact. I’m working with the Charity Panel at ICAS on a project to support finance professionals with this, and you can read more about it here.

Diverse Boards. Charity boards have a long way to go to reflect our current society and the people they serve. Gender, race, ethnicity, age, background – boards need to improve their diversity to improve decision making and deliver better outcomes. Many organisations are in need of more finance expertise on their boards too.

Have you got any advice for anyone looking to join the charity sector?

I would say three things:

  1. Do it, you will not regret it!
  2. If a full-time move is not right for you now, consider becoming a Trustee. You will get so much out of it, both professionally and personally.
  3. Find other ways to engage with the sector or facilitate shared learning. Become a volunteer, take part in adhoc voluntary projects, attend events, and broaden your networks.

Are you feeling inspired? Sign up to become an online mentor with Brightside: https://brightside.org.uk/volunteering/