In this blog, Dan Bishop, Head of Customer Support and Operations at ExpensePlus, explains the concept of conflicts of interest, common examples in church and charity finance, how you can manage these, and how you can use ExpensePlus to help.
What are conflicts of interest and why do they matter?
A conflict of interest is anything that can:
- grant a potential financial or measurable benefit to a post holder, or a connected person (e.g. their spouse or family member), or
- risk a postholder of your organisation not making decisions in the best interest of the organisation, since they have a separate interest (which is in conflict, or potential conflict with that of the organisation).
They affect all charities of all sizes and need managing properly and transparently. The Charity Commission “expects trustees to identify and address effectively any conflicts of interest that affect them or their charity”. If not managed well, they can pose financial, reputational, and missional risks to your organisation.
What conflicts of interest might your organisation face?
As we’ve mentioned, conflicts of interest are wide-ranging, and not always obvious. In small charitable organisations, where the pools of people providing resources and services to the charity and people using the charity’s services are small and closely linked, they are perhaps even more in number. Here are some examples:
- A trustee who is married to a staff member, or even a trustee who is a staff member
- A Mission Pastor who volunteers for an organisation to which your church gives mission gifts
- A caretaker’s brother who owns the coach hire company who are tendering for your annual contract
Once you’ve identified some of the conflicts of interest, you might want to extrapolate to see if any similar ones exist. For example, if one staff member turns out to be related to a trustee of a partner organisation, it’s worth checking with other colleagues to see if any similar relationships exist.
Managing conflicts of interest
Stay in the know
Firstly, you and your colleagues can’t do anything about these conflicts of interest if you don’t know about them. Most of the time, your team members won’t be holding these back purposefully, but more likely haven’t thought to raise them. Conversation about conflicts of interest is healthy and completely in the interests of the organisation – which is why everyone is in the room anyhow!
Why not have an annual workflow where you ask all staff, trustees, and key volunteers if they have any conflicts of interest to declare? Give examples to help trigger their thinking. For example, “does your spouse or a member of your family work for an organisation with which our charity has a financial relationship?” Technically, charity trustees have a personal responsibility to declare conflicts of interest – but there’s no harm in helping them along the way!
Don’t be afraid to challenge
Managing this will be a lot easier if your organisation has a good culture of accountability and healthy challenge. Without this, all the paperwork and good intention in the world can be in vain. Don’t be afraid to discuss conflicts with your colleagues or leadership, especially if there are any situations that make you feel uncomfortable. There may well be conversations which need to be had, but which have never been had because no one has thought to start them.
Set clear thresholds for action
Not all conflicts of interest will require immediate action – some are just for noting. For some conflicts of interest, you’ll want a team member to leave the discussion. For others, you might value their input but they won’t vote on any outcomes. (In small organisations, be wary of removing the one person in the room who – because of their other interests – holds the most knowledge about the discussion item!) A dynamic and pragmatic approach will often be needed. It’s important to be clear, though, about what conflicts warrant different actions, and apply these as consistently as possible. Don’t just have a policy – follow it, abide by it, and update it if it’s no longer fit for purpose. Contact peers in your networks to see what other similar organisations are doing, and what you can learn from it.
Keep good records
The Charity Commission’s guidance on conflicts of interest requires trustees to keep good records of conflicts of interest and how they were handled. This could be via a Declarations of Interest register, a clear policy on how conflicts are handled, and thorough board minutes detailing conversations and decisions taken.
How does this affect your year-end accounts?
The requirements of your year-end accounts are not the only reason to record and manage conflicts of interest well. They do, however, provide a helpful reminder of what you need to be doing, and perhaps an annual nudge to do something about it! Furthermore, this is so important that an Independent Examiner / Auditor has a legal requirement to report any organisation to the Charity Commission which has not managed and disclosed conflicts of interest sufficiently.
Trustees must, if they prepare accruals accounts, disclose any trustee benefits in the charity’s accounts. You should always consult your Independent Examiner or Auditor about what to declare in your year-end accounts. Here are some tips from us:
Related party transactions
If any of your trustees or key management personnel have related party transactions, these should be identified. This includes staff members who are related to trustees, and any financial transactions to or from an organisation with which you have a mutual trustee.
Trustees who are employed
This might sound a strange idea but is often the case due to the way organisations are constituted – especially in churches. If any of your trustees are employed on your staff team, they are receiving benefits from your organisation, which need to be declared. This is usually by declaring total employment costs, and, if necessary, the cost of housing provided by the charity too.
The team at Wyatt & Co have published a fantastic blog giving more detail on what to be aware of in terms of trustees’ remuneration and expenses. You should always consult your Independent Examiner or Auditor if you’re unsure of what this means in your organisation’s context.
Trustees who are donors
Another requirement of your year-end accounts is to declare an aggregate figure of donations by trustees. This wonderful group of people is often a charity’s biggest group of supporters – giving financially as well as their time and wisdom. This is nothing to hide or be worried about, but financial transactions between an organisation and its trustees do need declaring for your accounts to be compliant.
How can ExpensePlus help?
There’s lots to think about there! ExpensePlus includes features that can help you manage conflicts of interest well and transparently, and ensure everyone who needs it has good visibility of your organisation’s financial activity.
Access for the whole team
ExpensePlus is designed for the whole team – not just bookkeepers and accountants. If your trustees would like to see the financial activity of the organisation, you can make them an account. (You might want to set up trustee accounts so they can read finance reports but not amend the financial data). For guidance, see our help guide article on User roles. Also consider whether it’s appropriate for your trustees to see individual donor information, or whether you’d prefer to keep this hidden and just show aggregate amounts to most users. Your whole team having visibility of your financial activity, as far as is appropriate, will help with accountability. It can speed up your trustee meetings too!
The approvals module in ExpensePlus is customisable and designed with conflicts of interest in mind. Here are some features that can help you:
- Customisation of which purchases require budget holder approval
- Approval Rules to prevent submitters who are budget holders from approving their own purchases
- Linked users to prevent spouses/relations from approving each other’s purchases
- The option to require secondary approval for purchases over a specified value
Via the donations and search purchases reports, ExpensePlus makes it easy for you to transparently find all transactions to and from trustees and other related parties that need disclosing in your accounts. See our Donations Reports Module Overview and our help guide article on finding details of past payments. You can also tag donors as trustees to enable an easy report of all donations by trustees. See our help guide article on tagging donors.
Got more questions?
If you have more questions about how your ExpensePlus setup can help you manage conflicts of interest, get in touch via firstname.lastname@example.org.