Australia’s best community treasurers come from a range of not-for-profits and every corner of the map, but all are committed to good budgeting, time-saving tech, and the adaptability needed to ride out the uncertainty caused by the global pandemic.
The winners have been revealed during Not-for-Profit Finance Week 2021, where the program includes a series of free webinars designed to help groups manage their funds.
Our Community spoke with the four winners of the 2021 Commonwealth Bank Not-for-profit Treasurers’ Awards to glean the lessons they had to share with the nation’s 600,000 not-for-profits for this 5000-word guide.
The 2021 winners are:
Liliana Almeida (Community services and advocacy)
Portuguese Australian Women’s Association, Melbourne
Harry Edwards (Housing and homelessness)
The Sanctuary – The Hills Women’s Shelter, Sydney
Catherine Pazvakavambwa (Sports, arts, and culture)
RTR-FM community radio, Perth
Paul Ruberry (Education)
Graceville State School Parents and Citizens Association, Brisbane
Each won $5,000 for their organisation - courtesy of CommBank Not-for-profit Sector Banking - for their response to this question centred on the pandemic:
"What have you done to creatively innovate or transform your not-for-profit to deal with the challenging environment"?
In short, their tips to guiding your organisation to a financial safe harbour in this extended help sheet include:
- Good strategy and guidance are essential
- The right tech can lighten your load
- Fundraising flexibility is the key
- Being professional in your role makes a big difference
- Don’t be afraid to get help and training
- The right motivation will make the portfolio a lot easier
The Commonwealth Bank’s head of not-for-profit sector banking, Julienne Price, said the awards were richly deserved by individuals who were some of the sector’s hardest-working volunteers.
“These awards provide an opportunity for us to say thank you and to show our collective appreciation for the immense contribution community treasurers make to their own groups, the not-for-profit sector as a whole, and Australian society.”
The awards also recognise an army of treasurers nominated by their organisations with a certificate of thanks and a listing on an annual honour roll.
“It’s wonderful to see more than 1500 treasurers recognised in the 2021 awards, and to be able to publicly recognise the thousands of people who contribute so much of their time and effort to looking after all things financial and to keeping the sector viable and sustainable,” Ms Price said.
Our Community group managing director Denis Moriarty said the winners demonstrated proven solutions for groups wanting to cope with covid-19.
“As a treasurer myself, I know the massive commitment that is involved. These financial leaders inspire us all with their passion, dedication, professionalism, and can-do attitude towards their causes. I hope we can all learn from them,” he said.
Winners gain recognition, respect, and cash for their communities
Catherine Pazvakavambwa, or Cat Paz to the listeners of Global Rhythm Pot on RTR-FM community radio in Perth, heard she’d won the $5,000 prize for community treasurers while driving on the freeway in a huge rainstorm, and wasn’t sure she had heard right at first.
“You might have heard me scream a little,” she said.
The prize money had already been pegged to pay for repairs to essential transmission towers, she said.
Graceville Primary School Parents and Citizens Association treasurer Paul Ruberry, in Brisbane, said, “The money will make a big difference to our little primary school.”
“There’s a lot of projects just begging for funding such as books, reading materials and classroom technology.”
Harry Edwards, the treasurer for The Sanctuary, which provides emergency accommodation for women escaping domestic violence in northwest Sydney, said the funds would go to 24-hour frontline services at the six-bedroom shelter.
“The money will go towards just helping keep a roof over the head of those that are looking to escape domestic violence,” he said.
And Portuguese Australian Women’s Association treasurer Liliana Almeida said the prize money would “go a long way” towards training members and volunteers in areas such as business, IT, resilience, and leadership.
Pandemic response: Resilience and adaptability are the keys to success
For every not-for-profit in Australia, covid-19 is near the top of the agenda. All of the winning treasurers have suffered significant losses to their coffers as fundraising events have been cancelled or disrupted by repeated lockdowns, and many pandemic-hit sponsors have wound back their support.
Luckily treasurers tend to be a hardy lot and the good ones tend to squirrel a bit away for a rainy day.
Harry Edwards from The Sanctuary, for example, estimated that his organisation had enough in reserve to operate for a year – including paying staff – before it would be in serious trouble.
It was a similar story for all the winners, with even the smallest group keeping funds aside. Not surprisingly, it was the smaller groups that suffered the most immediate shocks when their plans were disrupted.
Portuguese group’s cultural connections keeping it strong
For a young and small organisation relying on physical events like picnics and performances for fundraising, covid-19 came as a big blow.
But Ms Almeida said that despite the pandemic, she was confident the Portuguese Australian Women’s Association would survive, through frugal financial management and an eye to the future.
The association was formed in Victoria in 2018 without seed funds but with a mission to “empower” the women of Australia’s lively 62,000-strong Portuguese community, and for its members, cultural connections remain strong.
That is partly why the organisation has survived, “meeting in someone’s kitchen when we can”. Ms Almeida’s involvement as treasurer for the past 18 months has certainly helped.
In that time, she has been instrumental in attracting fee-paying members and building a budget with fundraising from events centred on Portugal’s fantastic food. On the back of the success of the Victorian movement, sister chapters were established in NSW and Western Australia.
But the group has had to seek new ways to raise funds amid repeated lockdowns in Victoria.
The community’s popular Taste of Portugal Festival at the Queen Victoria Markets on the 2020 June long weekend ran just days before a 111-day state-wide lockdown. This year’s event was scrapped.
For Ms Almeida, it was a wild introduction to association business, with the stress of it compounded by the challenges she faced to her own business as a travel agent. Ms Almeida took on new work to make ends meet in her household, while her volunteer-only group struggled to access any government support.
The only grants funding came from a $2,000 grant from the Victorian Government 2020–21 Multicultural Festivals and Events (MFE) Program for the group’s Voices of Women event.
Yet the very reasons Ms Almeida had signed up for the gig also came to the fore, with members of the association quickly finding ways to help others while achieving their mission of encouraging Portuguese women, without spending much money.
Staying focused and reducing costs
With a culture steeped in Catholic values, great food and community spirit, it was inevitable that the women-run organisation was soon collecting hundreds of donated bags of essential supplies for international students left stranded in the city. Those were distributed through a network of church halls.
Members of the association also looked to other ways to sustain the community’s spirit and build members’ health and wellbeing.
This included hosting a series of Portuguese-themed online videos such as a cooking show and a travel show dubbed “Travel to the Motherland”, and online concerts featuring famous Portuguese performers who donated their time. The group also hosted yoga, exercise, psychology and self-defence classes while sharing covid-19 information in two languages.
While the stream of videos, online events and social media activity didn’t generate income, it didn’t involve much outlay either, and it maintained the association’s momentum and demonstrated the value of membership.
That work justified the internal push by the association to remind members to sustain the organisation at the heart of their community.
“We asked everyone to pay their memberships on time and in full, while also inviting donations – some through direct deposits,” Ms Almeida said.
The organisation is now looking at sales of merchandise, such as tea towels and T-shirts featuring the association’s logo, to help tide it over until face-to-face events can resume.
“It was just a matter of matter of being very strategic and analysing where money would go, and where we just couldn’t afford it to go.”
The prize money prompted the organisation to host a planning session with a three-year horizon to consider “what we would like to see get off the ground”.
Radio station retunes strategy during pandemic
At RTR-FM in Perth the onset of the pandemic spurred the organisation’s board to meet weekly.
It was a tricky time for the organisation, with the general manager resigning just before covid-19 hit, and treasurer Cat Pazvakavambwa feeling the demands of her own business.
Nevertheless, clear heads came to the fore.
“We had people’s livelihoods in our hands and we didn’t want to make a knee-jerk decision.
“We first decided that we’re not going to let go of staff, we have money in the bank.”
The organisation ran through several scenarios – with the help of a change management consultant – to see how the financials would play out under different lockdown timelines. As it turned out, the organisation lost one of its biggest events, In The Pines, which was postponed for six months before a sold-out show in October 2020.
One of the lessons for the station was realising that “problems” also opened the door to solutions, such as bringing in outside help or using “quieter time” to adjust its team, strategy and working patterns.
One team was tasked with seeking covid-19 recovery funding, while the board focused on understanding its budget position.
Like the Portuguese Australian Women’s Association, RTR-FM found that its members came to the rescue, with its 2020 membership drive through its annual radiothon “giving us the confidence boost that people cared”.
“It’s been one of the strongest ones we’ve had.”
While the station initially budgeted for 25% of normal takings, and forecast a “best case” scenario of 50%, its members’ pledges vastly exceeded those forecasts, promising $60,000 up on previous years. The organisation is hoping for a similar response with the 2021 radiothon in late August to boost a budget worth nearly $1 million.
School is learning from losses
Each of our award-winning treasurers sought out multiple income streams, reflecting the “seven pillars of fundraising” model outlined by Our Community’s Funding Centre.
The pillars cover a combination of grants, donations, crowdfunding, membership, events, sales, and sponsorship.
P&C Association treasurer Paul Ruberry said that the Graceville State School was proud of its annual spring fair, for instance, a huge event on the local social calendar attracting thousands of fun-seekers with great food, fairground rides, fireworks and much more.
But covid-19 caused havoc with the sums. The event normally generates half the association’s revenue, and in 2019 the event raised $62,000 for the school.
Most of that was lost when 2020 was scaled back and the August 2021 event was postponed three weeks out from the big day. A trivia night that raised more than $10,000 in 2019 was also cancelled in 2020.
While income dropped by about $60,000 during the 2020 financial year to nearly $314,000, the varied nature of the association’s fundraising and income efforts helped to stem the losses.
It was still able to host a “rainbow ninja challenge” (complete with coloured powder runs), a spell-a-thon, art show and a movie night. And it continued with stationery and uniform sales, running the tuckshop, hiring out its tennis court, and encouraging voluntary parent contributions. It also won significant government subsidies in the past financial year.
The first-time rainbow ninja challenge and art show were a great success and meant that the organisation was able to limit the fundraising “hit” to just 18% of its 2109 fundraising profit.
Mr Ruberry admitted the school fair situation was stressful. “If I had any hair left, I’d be pulling it out right now,” he said.
The school has a contingency plan, however, which is to continue the fair in scaled-down form in late spring, when people are more comfortable gathering “in numbers”.
“Our wonderful fete convenor is currently working through the components of the fair and assessing what can be cancelled, what can be rescheduled, and what we can do with the rest.”
Shelter preparing for long-term covid-19 impact
In Sydney, The Sanctuary was surprised by a 10–20% spike in donations during the pandemic, including some “large cash donations” during the first lockdowns, but treasurer Harry Edwards is also expecting there will be a higher demand for services at the same time that fundraising opportunities have been shelved.
He said the organisation expected “pent up demand” when the latest Sydney lockdown lifts, and while its shelter has a limited capacity, it’s an issue being addressed across the wider Women’s Community Shelters network.
“In normal times there’s easily demand for 100% capacity, and what’s really heartbreaking is that I know our shelter manager and other managers across the network are regularly faced with the situation of having to decide between more than two people who gets that spot. How do you decide?”
Clever use of financial technology and software
School’s automation shreds the paperwork
Graceville P&C Association treasurer Paul Ruberry has parlayed his skills in IT and business into introducing automations and online services to track the school’s finances.
He said good software can help integrate an organisation’s finances, reduce workload and, importantly, enable a smooth handover to the next treasurer.
In the past year, Mr Ruberry had:
- introduced Qkr for tuckshop purchases and event payments
- implemented a booking system attached to the Square card payment system
- run online raffles and auctions
- digitised bills using HubDoc for scanning and data entry
- shifted to online timesheets in Xero
- integrated the accounting system with Qkr (via Zapier), Square, and Stripe.
The new tech had created several improvements including reduced human error in data entry, rich data for reporting, greater covid safety and fraud prevention through reduced cash handling, and a cut to the time required of volunteers.
Mr Ruberry said that his ultimate goal is to ensure that the school’s financials can be managed and tracked “in the background”, allowing the association and the school to focus on their main goals.
But he stressed it was critical to verify that things were still working well, such as by keeping original documents for cross-referencing and auditing as needed.
He advised any organisations making major changes to their money handling to “have a conversation with the auditor, because they can pick up on things you might miss”.
Women’s shelter targets tech for cost savings
Mr Edwards said The Sanctuary had recently reduced the time spent on processing its payroll by moving to the cloud and adopting the KeyPay platform, one of several such systems that allow managers to process complex employment awards more easily.
The platform has also been introduced across the Sydney network of shelters.
“That has reduced the time taken to process the fortnightly payroll from more than three hours a fortnight to less than half an hour for our shelter manager,” he said.
The pandemic also prompted the shelter to make it easier for its supporters to make contact-free donations.
It used Facebook and other social media to call for gift cards and financial donations, used the Our Community donations platform GiveNow to seek regular donations from supporters, and created secure drop-off points for in-kind donations at the local shopping centre Castle Towers.
Radio station saves hours with reports
RTR-FM has also reduced the time it takes to generate reports.
Ms Pazvakavambwa said it had previously taken “a lot of hours” to produce reports for the board, with the general manager and treasurer needing to do that work.
It had revised the way it used accounting platform Xero to generate those same reports in about 30 minutes using the organisation’s bookkeeper.
She said that even if organisations were small, say with 100 members, the software they used should be good enough to automate many of the finance functions.
Why treasurers value good governance
Ms Pazvakavambwa said good technology helps enable good strategy by freeing directors to focus on the organisation’s goals.
“When I first joined the board, I worked with RTR-FM to use their accounting software more efficiently as opposed to relying on external data.
“This change gave the management more operational and strategic time.
“Monthly financial reports have also been streamlined to enable everyone on the board to understand those reports and facilitate more robust discussions around strategic risk management.
“The finance committee now meets monthly and are taking steps to address financial risks of the organisation around banking and management of budgets.”
She said her annual reports also included visual data to ensure that financial information could be understood by radio station members, and better communicate the organisation’s financial strength.
“We wanted the team to really just focus on what they're there to do and use the numbers as a tool,” she said.
She said her focus had been to improve her board’s “financial agility”, which was a step beyond simply “financial literacy”.
She aimed to steer the group away from any “god complex” where it relied on her judgment “because that’s just my perspective”, and toward a “conversation to use the numbers to help them address strategic risks”.
“The role of the board is to address risk, and you can’t do that if no one understands what the numbers are saying.”
“We can write strategic plans, but if you don’t have the numbers or the budget, how do you know if the strategic plan is being met?”
Big risks for small organisations
As a chartered accountant, tax agent and advisor and the CEO of Kalahari Business Advisors, Ms Pazvakavambwa is familiar with the issues that trip up not-for-profits and small businesses.
She said often NFPs “forget that they are also a business”.
She said a “laissez-faire attitude” to governance was a danger sign for any organisation, especially where there is too much reliance on the treasurer to do the right thing.
“Often the treasurer is the one to get me involved, while the rest of the board just says, ‘Yeah, sign this cheque or we need a budget don’t we? It’s too relaxed and it’s a big mistake.”
She also nominated a “deficiency mindset” in which organisations are too focused on “saving pennies”, rather than on making decisions that will develop an organisation in line with its strategies.
She cited spending training or new software as a good example of “spending to achieve”.
Understand where your money is coming from
Ms Pazvakavambwa said one of the things all NFPs could and should do is to analyse their income streams and allocate expenses accordingly.
The station has examined a few areas including sponsorships, training and its annual radiothon, and now produces profit and loss statements (and variances) for each of these areas. A good understanding of those issues helps the station to plan. For instance, she said the annual radiothon provided the lion’s share of its fundraising effort, but that also meant that between January and August there was little income.
“There was initially this acceptance that we were going to make losses, but with our sponsorship team we need to make sure our sponsorships are supporting the organisation until we get to radiothon.”
“Our reports helped us to see that.”
Shelter keeps its focus on the big picture by managing the small things
At The Sanctuary, Harry Edwards has also focused on making the fundamentals “as streamlined and efficient as possible”.
He said this has included generating concise board reports on critical performance areas, particularly donations and fundraising, and reducing the administrative burden on staff to allow them to focus on frontline work.
In a similar fashion to RTR-FM, The Sanctuary’s treasurer ensures his reports help more than hinder.
“On our monthly board reporting, rather than having drawn-out reporting that distracts from our key objectives, it focuses on how we are performing against budget on the areas of donations and fundraising.”
This enables the organisation to home in on its reason for being.
“As our chair reminds us, ‘the main thing, is the main thing, is the main thing,’ which is just to say, stay focused on the end objective,” Mr Edwards said.
He said that the treasurer can work effectively only with a well-functioning board.
“A really good board will assess what skills the organisation needs, which also means that if you’re the treasurer it’s better to focus on that role rather than being distracted by other things that might not be your strengths.
“That’s something that our board has done particularly well.”
He said it’s a business-like principle that not-for-profits can apply to ensure an “organisation is sustainable and can keep doing what it was put together to do”.
Taking a professional approach to the volunteer role
All the winners this year have extensive qualifications or experience in financial management. The group includes two chartered accountants and an MBA-qualified IT and business manager.
That doesn’t mean a small not-for-profit should expect their treasurer to have extensive tertiary qualifications, but there’s no doubt that a candidate with experience and qualifications will be more familiar with what’s required, and can tap into their networks if needed.
Treat a new board like being interviewed for a job
Mr Edwards – who runs an accounting firm – said The Sanctuary had approached him to take the treasury portfolio after analysing its “matrix of capabilities” and realising it was short on financial experience.
He was approached by the chair who had gone through her contacts for someone who would fit the bill, and he decided that he liked the organisation’s culture, mission and expectations.
He said that anyone considering joining a board should “treat it like you would if you were interviewing for a new job”.
Prospective treasurers should want to fully understand how an organisation functions and ask: “What does success look like for the person who would do this role well?”
“You really want to see that you are joining an organisation that has a strong idea of the difference they want to make in the long term.”
RTR-FM’s treasurer Cat Pazvakavambwa was also headhunted for her role.
She had twice resisted when asked to take on the treasurers’ mantle, but after a coffee with the station boss and being asked a third time, the accountant accepted that fate had called her.
“I’m a believer that if you hear it the third time, this is the universe screaming at you to give it a go.”
Ms Pazvakavambwa said she saw her role on the board as “accountancy translator” who enabled the organisation to see where it might be “stressed”.
“The numbers tell the whole story.”
She thinks it’s important that if she were to vacate the position, the next treasurer would be able to “pick up from where I left off”.
That means good records that are simple to understand and well-established “foundational systems” that mean treasurers with different kinds of backgrounds and expertise are still able to experience a smooth handover.
She agreed with other winners that the role of vice-treasurer provides an important bridge to help steward someone new into handling the finances.
She said it was unfortunate that some NFP treasurers lacked the training and experience to do the work that was expected of them but were forced into the role simply because the organisation “just need someone to fill that spot”.
But she believed that there were sufficient accounting graduates and other financial professionals to fill the void and said those practitioners would benefit from the experience, just as the NFPs would from their expertise.
“Those organisations are a great place to be [for newly qualified accountants] because you’re working in areas you wouldn’t normally get access to at that early part of your career,” Ms Pazvakavambwa said.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help, and to give it
Ms Pazvakavambwa’s advice to any NFP struggling to fulfil its financial obligations is to seek professional accounting support but ensure that the board keeps a tight rein on and oversight of their involvement.
Mr Edwards echoed that view, and said organisations shouldn’t hesitate to seek support, because accounting firms such as his may be able to offer some pro bono assistance.
While he doesn’t track the time or cost, his business, Bell Partners Norwest, does donate resources to The Sanctuary.
“I think particularly for those that might not have the same resources at their fingertips or experience, I would advise that if you can be aligned or have the support of a good accounting firm that is prepared to provide services at low cost, then that’s well worth doing.
“Someone with experience might be able to save a treasurer without much experience a lot of time and angst,” he said.
Graceville State School’s Paul Ruberry – who is MBA qualified – took on the role after being the assistant treasurer for a year, and the past treasurer is now his assistant.
“We’ve effectively had a two-year handover and I couldn’t ask for a better scenario. I aspire to give my successor a handover that’s just as good.”
He said that treasurers need to understand their strengths and weaknesses, and that bringing in outside help is often appropriate.
“My personal background is in IT and business. I’ve used that background to help me digitise and automate in my role as treasurer.”
He said that most of his financial skills had come from studying for his MBA, in which he took every finance and accounting elective available.
“My advice to people considering stepping up as treasurer is that you don’t need to be an accountant, but you do need to be willing to educate yourself.”
In some cases, organisations would benefit from buying in help while a treasurer was learning the ropes. He repeated the warning that treasurers still held the same accountability.
“Even if you are lucky enough to have the help of a bookkeeper, you still need to know enough to exercise your non-delegable governance responsibilities.”
He said the free webinar Questions your not-for-profit should be asking about finances, presented during 2021 NFP Finance Week, was a great introduction to those concepts.
While it’s great to have someone who is all over the finances, every organisation needs to ensure its treasurer is not indispensable.
When personal circumstances forced Ms Almeida to take on extra work during the pandemic, her vice-treasurer was able to step in at short notice.
“If I had to move on, I’d like to think my vice-treasurer would take up the role, but there are also lots of women who could do it and I’d be there to help train them.”
Being a treasurer is not just about the money
As our winners show, one of the keys to getting the most out of your treasurer is picking the right person to start with.
All our award-winning treasurers, both this year and in the past, love the gig and find juggling figures a breeze.
Ms Almeida said, “It comes naturally to me. I just find it easy, and I love dealing with figures.”
She said that would-be treasurers for smaller organisations shouldn’t underestimate their capabilities.
“Honestly, if you can use a calculator, are good with a spreadsheet and can count money the rest of it's easy. I find that it's no different than budgeting for your own home finances. You’ve got to pay your mortgage, and you've got to pay your bills within what you get paid. Take a chance and remember that there's always someone there to support you, because no-one’s going to throw you right into the deep end.”
And while they’re not paid for their work, our winning treasurers have the satisfaction of knowing they’re making a difference where it counts.
“I know the decisions I’m making are benefitting my organisations, and that my committee has confidence that what I’m doing is working,” Ms Almeida said.
That’s not to say that there’s not more to learn, and Ms Almeida said she planned to “jump online” for the free offerings during Not-for-profit Finance Week to “develop my skills a bit more. There’s certainly a lot of regulations and rules to keep on top of.”
Mr Ruberry said would-be treasurers should consider, “If not you, then who?”
“It’s a job that’s got to be done, and sometimes you need to be the person that steps forward.”
He said that as the father of two young students, he felt that helping the school was “a great cause” and said “it’s always easier to put in an effort and to help if you’re working towards something you believe in.”
“It’s a joy to work to make their schooling experience better and richer.”
And he said that while he’d had professional experience managing budgets and IT projects, working as the treasurer had been a new experience which had given him new skills with an enthusiastic and like-minded community.
Anyone considering the role, he said, should “jump in and do it”.
He said Our Community was among many organisations providing online resources, and that past office holders were there to “help you get up to speed”.
“There’s heaps of help out there.”
Ms Pazvakavambwa said she was proud to be part of a community station that had pioneered great local music in Perth, was now at the heart of arts and culture in the city and was committed to “bringing the voices that you don’t hear on the mainstream stations”.
Ms Pazvakavambwa urged would-be volunteers to follow their heart and to get involved in organisations they cared about.
“Join an organisation that interests you, because that will keep you motivated to commit to it, because if you join an organisation where you don’t know what it’s about, you won’t enjoy it, because volunteer time is precious and the minute that volunteers start to look at the time they’re spending, you’ve lost them.”