Training That Hits The Real Bottom Line
Please note: This post has been written by an external author for the People In Aid website. As such, all views expressed are those of the author and not of People In Aid.
In this interview, Terry Lewis Training & Publications Director for MANGO (Management Accounting for Non-Governmental Organisations) talks about the importance of good financial training. The interview was carried out with Mike Johnson, People In Aid's Writer in Residence.
Mike Johnson (MJ): What are the biggest needs in terms of financial training for aid-related organisations (e.g. basic skills, developing new skills, advanced training)?
Terry Lewis (TL): There are many different training needs so it is not surprising that we offer 16 different training courses aimed at different NGO roles. But there is one recurring theme that captures the main challenge we face: financial management is NOT just for accountants, it can help everyone achieve their programme objectives.
To give an idea of this, during 2010, we trained approx 1,900 people at 138 courses in 37 countries. A large number are staff from local NGOs (both non-finance and finance roles) attending our “Getting the Basics Right” (FM1) course. We also train a lot of INGO programme staff, especially those who support local implementing partners.
It’s fair to say the biggest need is amongst non-finance programme staff who have little experience or appreciation of financial management. They need practical skills: how to write effective budgets, read and use financial reports for programme management, as well as strategic skills such as how to plan for financial sustainability. We have also identified a real need amongst Board members; they often lack the skills needed to fulfil their financial governance duties so we have developed a special course to meet their training needs too.
Finally, we have identified a real need amongst finance staff who have to train their colleagues or partners. Our inspirational ‘Training for Finance Trainers’ course shows finance staff how to design and deliver finance training that ‘takes the fear out of finance’ and how to avoid ‘death by PowerPoint’!
(MJ): Your organization stresses that Mango’s mission is to build confidence as well as technical skills – how important is this?
(TL): We believe it is critical to build people’s confidence to use financial tools. Often people have a fear of numbers and this acts as a block on learning. The use of so much technical language in the world of finance only makes the subject even more scary.
Our training is all about making finance more accessible. Our motto ‘taking the fear out of finance’ comes from past trainees who were both surprised and pleased to discover that they could understand the subject and immediately use the tools in their day-to-day work. We do this by using plain language and practical activities to help people appreciate that financial management is not rocket science and that it really can help us to achieve our objectives.
(MJ): In your opinion, is poor financial management or a lack of education in this area a problem for aid organisations – and what’s the best way to change that?
(TL): This varies greatly across the sector but it is certainly a problem that can result in a terrible waste of money. For smaller NGOs, especially local NGOs based in the developing world, this is a significant problem as they do not have the luxury of qualified accountants to keep their accounts and provide financial information. Yet many of these NGOs handle very large grants and are not fully equipped to manage the funds.
The problem is exacerbated because managers do not prioritise finance training, least of all to non-finance staff, and often there is no budget for improving finance skills. Many donors assess the value of project proposals and look at some aspects of capacity to manage funds, but they often overlook the importance of financial management skills.
I believe that Mango has done a lot over the years to raise the profile of financial management and the importance of having skilled professionals to make effective use of resources. We do this through our highly regarded training programme and also our recruitment service which provides finance professionals to NGOs around the world. We would like to see more donors helping to equip their partner NGOs with the financial skills needed to manage grants well.
(MJ): There always seems to be an issue that aid needs to be directed right to the individual. Does Mango find it difficult to get the message across, that better trained people can make much more of an impact and a difference?
(TL): Yes, we do struggle here. It’s difficult to assess the precise impact of a specific learning intervention although we do get a lot of people sharing anecdotes of improvements as a direct result of applying their new skills and tools. Also, training generally doesn’t always get a good press – some of it deserved, no doubt – and the longer term benefits of investing in people are not always acknowledged.
What we do know and what is widely understood, is that if an organisation’s finances are poorly managed because of systems or capacity weaknesses, the good work they are trying to do is not sustainable and precious resources get ‘diverted’ or wasted.
(MJ): I’ve read some of the comments from previous participants on your courses. What they learn, seems to stick with them long after the program is over. How does Mango achieve that – what’s the secret?
(TL): Our secret is simple: we use a training approach which is practical, participatory and fun – and very importantly there is NO POWERPOINT! Our training courses are specifically designed for NGO roles and the content is always relevant to the target group. The practical approach means that we give the learners tools that they can use immediately on return to work – so they use it and don’t lose it!
I am sure that part of the reason people say our training is so memorable is because we do succeed in taking the fear out of finance and demonstrating just how useful financial management can be. That it really isn’t just for accountants!
(MJ): I’ve heard a lot of complaints – especially from people working in the field – that all too often courses use “management or consultant speak” that doesn’t fit with on-the-ground reality. How does Mango ensure that the training you give is relevant to local needs?
(TL): First of all, we banish jargon and always use plain language in all of our training delivery and materials. We really don’t have any room for “management consultant speak”, we are far too practical in our approach for that! Because all our trainers are field-experienced finance professionals themselves, all with significant NGO experience, we know what is relevant to the people we train. We’ve been there and done those jobs so we know what the challenges (and practical solutions) are.
We also work hard as an organisation to remain up-to-date with issues affecting NGOs. For example, we get regular feedback from the finance staff we place with NGOs in the field; we have insight from our consultancy service; and as conveners of finance staff networking groups, we get to hear of new challenges as they occur.
(MJ): What would you say is the biggest challenge in delivering financial training to field operations?
(TL): Two things that act as potential barriers: the cost of delivering the training and language. As Mango is a self-financing charity, we have to charge fees for our training to cover our costs. Even though we work hard to keep our fees down, and we know we provide great value for money, smaller NGOs do struggle to pay our course fees. To help overcome this barrier, we have a bursary scheme for poorly resourced NGOs, but we do still require a contribution as we believe that ‘free training’ does no-one any favours.
For those who cannot attend our training, we do have lots of really useful materials for people to access freely from our online Guide to Financial Management. We are also currently developing “Self Study Packs,” thanks to some generous donations through the Big Give initiative, so watch this space!
We currently run our core training services in English and French but of course many local NGOs who need our training don’t work in these languages. Due to the training approach we use, it’s not possible to run our training with translators, so this remains a real obstacle.
Our response to this challenge is to seek training partners who we train as trainers and run our courses in local languages, adapting our course materials to fit with the local culture. For example, we are delighted to be working at the moment with Oxfam Novib in Laos where we are training a team of locally-based trainers to translate and deliver some of our most popular training courses in Lao.
We also make available a number of materials in other languages on our website. For example, our FM1 Course Handbook is currently available in French, Spanish, Arabic, Russian, Bahasa Indonesian and Lao, with Portuguese to be added shortly.
(MJ): Finally, Mango’s on-line “Guide to Financial Management” is a very useful tool. How much use does it get?
(TL): We’re really pleased to be able to make the Guide freely available online and on CD and we get lots of people telling us how useful it is in their work.
We have recently updated the Guide in response to feedback from users. We get around 2000 visitors each month to the Guide. We also distribute approx 3,000 CD version of the Guide each year.
Tuesday 4 October 2011
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