Being accountable: why finance departments should play a key role in CSR

When we think of the idea that business can be a force for good in society, we might not immediately think of finance departments, focused firmly on profit and loss, as the place to champion such programmes.

I believe business must have a purpose other than the pursuit of profit, whether you call it corporate social responsibility (CSR), or just think of it as ‘doing good’. And as an accountant myself, I strongly believe that a finance director can, in fact, be the driving force forthis in a business.

For the last 50 years or so, the primary – maybe the only – objective of a business was to maximise the returns for shareholders. But this is changing. Now, the ‘stakeholder capitalism’ movement is reconsidering the purpose of a business.

Companies are starting to take account of other important factors beyond just profit and financial returns: about customers, staff, and also about more global issues around the environment, diversity and inclusion, and around what businesses can do for their local area.

My own thinking on this had been moving in that direction anyway, as I had time to reflect during the Covid-19 pandemic. Then those thoughts crystallised into action when I heard Anton Colella speak at the Timoney Leadership Programme in 2020.

The calibre of guest speakers is one of the exceptional aspects about the programme. Although not an accountant by profession, Anton Colella leads Moore Global, one of the largest accountancy firms in the world.

He spoke for the best part of an hour, talking about his beliefs and how he was hired because the firm wanted to move away from a narrow focus on accountants and accounting.

He wanted to bring a new purpose into the business. He believed that not only is it the right thing to do, but he argued that it’s also good for business.

His contribution made a profound impact on me, and as I drove home that evening, I thought about how I could apply this in my personal life and at work. The first thing I did was to join the Make-A-Wish foundation as a volunteer.

Then at a board meeting of the Connacht Hospitality Group in late 2021, I pitched a concept that we would reinvent how we do CSR as a company.

I proposed an ambitious fundraising target of €100,000 that we would donate to a number of partner charities. To put this into context, in a normal year the business would have raised around €10-15,000 through various small-scale events.

Instead, I was proposing to put our charitable work front and centre of what we do and who we are as a company.

The board asked me to head up that work, and as I started speaking with some of the other senior team members I found them very supportive and keen to be a part of this.

As I mentioned at the start, CSR can be hamstrung or stymied by the finance department having an effective veto on projects. I was aware of this, as I had read many interesting articles over the years, outlining this very problem. Other people could come up with concepts, or would want to fundraise, or take time off to support a particular cause, but once the finance department became aware, those initiatives would often go no further.

I felt the best way of ensuring that didn’t happen was to get front and centre in the programme. In fact, I believe a successful CSR strategy benefits from having someone senior in finance involved.

And I would go so far as to say a twofold benefit accrues: one I’ve experienced on a personal level, and also to the business.

So, in the spirit of encouraging others to get involved, I would like to share some of the lessons learned since beginning our own CSR programme.

Doing the right thing is good for business

We’re already seeing a benefit in how our charity efforts make our company stand out as a place to work. In particular, younger people have a lot of choices about where to advance their careers. They’re considering who the employer is, what their beliefs are, and whether those beliefs align with their own values.

Galway is a small town, and particularly in our industry, people within the city know the good – and the more challenging – places to work. A senior manager who recently joined the company told us later that she had done her research and had gathered that our company was a good fit for her, that the people who own and run the business had values she could believe in and wanted to be part of.

Let’s not just copy what others have done.

I don’t claim we are blazing a trail with our work. Other companies in our sector are also giving back to the community. With PLCs, there’s almost an expectation that they should be doing this. For smaller companies, I think the sense has to be: we’re doing this because it’s the right thing to do – not just to be a follower.

Measure the right things

Maybe because I’m an accountant, I believe in measuring the right things. We started our CSR programme by setting an ambitious fundraising target. Going from €15,000 to €100,000 is an enormous increase of 566% and naturally it gets people’s attention. In our first year, the objective was to set a goal with a sense that we could achieve it.

We could have assessed the past year purely based on whether we hit our target or not, but it was also important to understand how many staff in the organisation were fully engaged in the initiative.

Looking back, it’s fair to say we have had moderate success in that respect. So, a focus area for 2023 will be achieving greater staff understanding and support. That’s a more effective measure of success than just setting a higher financial amount for our fundraising goal.

Give it time

This point relates to another takeaway from Anton Colella’s talk; he said it took years to get everyone believing in what he was trying to do. The danger is, we’re all so busy that volunteering or charity work can just seem like another task that we don’t have time for because it’s not a core element of our jobs. Convincing people that it’s the right thing won’t happen overnight.

Looking back on our own experiences at Connacht Hotel Group, we were possibly a little ambitious in terms of thinking people would engage fully. So now, we’re thinking we’ll set objectives for a three-to-five year timeframe and will focus on staff engagement during that time.

Make the impact feel real

Another concept we’re exploring for 2023 will be to give employees one paid day to focus specifically on some element of fundraising, a social aspect in the community or some activity connected to our CSR.

We pick a number of charity partners each year, split between national and local groups. For 2022, they are Make-A-Wish, National Breast Cancer Research, Galway Hospice and Claddagh Watch, a suicide prevention charity based in Galway City.

Our intention is that a number of staff would spend one day engaging with one of those charities. This way, when people are fundraising, they will have a much clearer sense of what the money will go towards. It makes the experience feel more real than signing your name on a card.

Track what works

We’re keeping records of what events went successfully – and which ones didn’t. In an effort to organise and manage as effectively as possible, we’re taking note of the hours that people have put in to a particular fundraising effort.

We have frequent conversations among the senior team about what has worked. Some events take a lot of planning and work; people are busy anyway so one thing we’ve learned for next year is to focus on events that strike the right balance between the level of work needed and those that gain the most support.

Be accountable

Since the start of 2022, our monthly senior team meetings now have CSR on the agenda, where we share progress updates, which both builds momentum for the work, and keeps us accountable. By placing CSR side by side with finance, HR, sales, and operations, we’ve given it the importance it deserves.

Becoming involved in this work has helped to create a new sense of meaning and purpose in people’s lives. I can certainly say that’s been the case for me; working and engaging with our charities has given me real perspective on life and how lucky many of us are compared to others in our society.

We often make the mistake of saying “we’re too busy, how could I possibly fit this in?” But when you take a step back and realise the importance of the work – and above all, when you meet the charities and see the work they do – then you realise you can do it. It’s about coming to work with a purpose other than solely to make money. 

Brian Lynch ALP 2020

Head of Finance, Connacht Hospitality Group & Greenway Property Group