Attack of the Ninja Cyclists
Accountant or Alchemist
Esther has made a steady ‘reveal’ of INCLUDED’s financial hand over the last few weeks. She has shown me her tools for managing and controlling cashflow, shown me where she thinks the odd skeleton or two might be buried and impressed me with her methods for monitoring and controlling expenditure. In the absence of a qualified accountant on the team, she stepped into the breach earlier this year and has been a very effective financial policewoman; firmly establishing her authority as the fiscal gatekeeper. She’s leaving INCLUDED soon, after completing a two year stint, so XiaoYuan, Finance Manager, and I are on a steep learning curve to ensure that we don’t drop the balls that she's thrown to us.
My priority for the past month has been to get a helicopter view of the organisation’s finances; to see where costs are incurred , what are the main cost drivers, the cost of each community centre, teaching program, support department, country operation etc. A lot of this information already existed but hadn't been brought together and summarized to provide clarity for management purposes.
So, I’ve been happily beavering away building a spreadsheet, pulling in costs from here and there, separating direct, indirect and overheads, adding some value indicators (e.g. cost per programme hour, cost per beneficiary etc), adding a splash of colour to ‘lighten the dough’ and then enabling various different views of the information. This has been part of my nesting process; building a financial model of the business which can become a ‘source of truth’ and be available as a working tool for forecasting and to run what-if analyses.
Well, I completed the model this week and showed it to the management team and their response blew me away; “Fantastic”, “Super-excited” and “Magical” they said. I felt like I’d produced gold from base metal. It feels good to have added some value, received positive feedback and provided clarity and ‘excitement’ over the numbers.
By mid week, we got together to fully understand the spreadsheet - it’s our first draft of the consolidated budget for 2014. I set about going through my assumptions with Jonathan, Esther and Guangquan; for example, the percentage increases applied to this figure, …. the allocation basis used for another figure, …. how this figure comes from this sheet, …. how this other figure is carried forward to the next sheet etc etc. I also went through options that could be considered to reduce cost here, to defer expenditure there and so on.
It quickly became clear to me though that I was losing the team and the ‘super-excited, fantastical magic’ was starting to wane as they tried to grapple with the intricacies and minutiae of what I’d produced. Fortunately, we ran out of time on the day, as Jonathan had another meeting to attend, but we agreed to get together on the Friday afternoon.
On reflection after the meeting, it became clear to me that a different approach was needed to dig into the budget. I’d noticed that INCLUDED often presents its own results (on its website and to donors) graphically and visually, using different icons etc – and so I decided that a visual approach might help with the budget.
So I came in ‘super early’ on Friday morning, laid out four large pieces of flipchart paper on our meeting room table, scavenged various different colours of ‘post it’ stickers and marker pens from around the office and within 2 hours had a Blue Peter/primary school type display of the budget stuck to the meeting room wall. This showed all the key information from my monster spreadsheet and, I have to concede, it did bring the numbers alive.
When we met in the afternoon, we had a very different meeting to the one two days earlier. We were energized, active, able to see the big picture. We hunted costs around the model, debated different options and highlighted our key priorities for next year. What a result. It was a very creative, productive and fun (yes – fun) session and great to see everyone getting involved and engaged. I’ve only experienced this once before with a budget, which was when working with the amazing Schlumberger Oilphase management team. They were big on ideas posted onto walls and went on to achieve great things. I hope this is a sign that INCLUDED will do so too.
With the spending priorities now decided, attention will shift to the fundraising strategy and plan for the year. Different donors have different interests; some will only support direct programme costs (e.g. teachers and teaching materials for early child development programmes), others will support the community centre running costs. Some donors want to support Beijing, others want to support Shanghai. International donors will be different for China, Bangladesh and Nepal and we also have to find the special, very rare donors who will support our head office costs and plans for growth (which are an essential part of the organisational structure). Fundraising seems to be a bit like planning for gold; lots of hours of hard work prospecting for leads and preparing and submitting applications, which results in the occasional nuggets of differing sizes. Now, this is an area where we really could use an alchemist!
On a Dark, Dark Night ….
Katie Melhua claimed that there are nine million bicycles in Beijing. Well, on a dark night in October, they are bloomin' hard to see. I face a constant hazard each night (or certainly a fear of a hazard) as I walk home. The streets are dark …. a coaly, grainy dark and the side streets are even darker.
My street with cyclist (yes!)
Out of this gloom, cyclists and electric scooters come flying towards me or past me .... silently, and without a single light on to show their way or warn of their presence. How the riders can see where they are going, I don’t know. How and whether they can see me, I don’t’ know. How they avoid crashing into things, I don't know. I’ve looked for evidence of bat-like ears or a predilection for carrots among the riders but I’ve seen neither. This is driving me nuts. I want to shout “Put your bloomin' lights on!” in Chinese, but I haven’t covered that with my tutor yet and anyway most of these vehicles don’t even have lights. What to do?
A Norwegian friend told me a Chinese proverb many years ago which was along the lines of “You can complain about the darkness …… or you can light a candle”. Very profound. Applying it to this problem, I immediately thought it means that the cyclists should turn their lights on, but, of course, that won't happen - not even if I can make a difference as the crazy Westerner who shouts at cyclists in the dark. What the proverb seems to mean is that I have to change my response, stop getting angry and either a) grow bat like ears b) eat carrots c) wear a flashing light on my head d) take a chill pill and put my trust in a higher being or e)something else. All suggestions will be gratefully received.
On the subject of proverbs, my colleague, XiaoYuan told me that the Chinese say that daughters are “warm jackets for their fathers” (compared to sons, who can be troublesome). I like that. However, she went on say that her father complains that she is not a warm jacket because she lives too far away from him. Shame.
The Coming of Winter
I’m picking up lots of indicators that the season is changing. It’s colder in the mornings, so people are dressing up warmer, as you’d expect, but scooter riders have responded too by attaching ingenious quilts to their handle bars, which fall back and drape over their legs and chest like one half of a sleeping bag, thereby protecting them from wind chill.
The food on the streets is following the season too; there are big soft, charred sweet potatoes, which can be bought still hot for 50p; roasted chestnuts, split and hot, with or without sugar syrup, and breakfast offerings including hot egg junket, soups and different fried breads.
This year’s winter fashion (and may be last year’s too for all I know) is the puffa jacket. The most popular colours seem to be poster paint yellow, cherry red and Thomas The Tank Engine blue. Very smart and very eye-catching. However, I’m still sticking with my black jacket, black scarf and black hat meantime – I don’t want to make things too easy for those bloomin' cyclists, just yet.
Doggy fashions are appearing on the streets too. There is a serious interest in 'pimping your pooch' here. The dogs tend to be small: pekinese-like, poodly or chihuahua-esque and with awesome haircuts (I think Beijing topiarists must switch to dog clipping for the winter). They are turning out now in their winter coats ranging from tartan jacket and boottees to slightly punky bondage suits (a wee bit unsettling for my taste). I'll try to get some photos.
Cyclists playing chicken in the traffic ... go get um!