Finance and Infrastructure Director, Dave Hawes, reflects on Devon Air Ambulance's shortlisting for PwC's West of England Business of the Year Awards.

It was a pleasure to attend the final year of PwC's West of England Business of the Year Awards yesterday evening in Bristol.

Devon Air Ambulance won the Turnover below £30m category in 2015, which was very humbling, so it was fantastic to be shortlisted for the Winner of Winners’ Award this year - congratulations to Viper Innovations for their well-deserved win.

Whilst we're not in the business of making profit for profit’s sake, DAAT is in the business of generating income, driving down costs through improved efficiency and creating surpluses for future development, whilst delivering excellent, life-saving and life-changing patient services to the public.

Is excellence enough?

From my accounting perspective, what struck me at the awards evening was not just the celebration of the sustained high performance and superb figures of the shortlisted winners, but also the allusion to the few winners over the past 30 years of the awards who had not fared as well.

While it’s always important to acknowledge achievements, it’s sobering to appreciate that things can go wrong and that when they do they can go wrong very quickly.

The criticism currently targeted around Oxfam is an interesting case. Less than a year ago, safeguarding was an area where the charity was held up as an excellent example of how to do things. While I don't know enough of the detail to judge what has happened in this situation, it's incredible how quickly public perception can swing from one extreme to another.

Such a swing can be a big issue for charities, which are dependent on public perception and support. But how do you manage the risk of things going very badly when they appear to be going well?

Accounting for the unknowns

It comes back to the basics. One of the most essential fundamentals is to have a strong strategic plan ingrained into the charity's culture, although it could be argued that this may only give limited comfort against 'unknown unknowns'.

In fact, the risk is that praise can mean charities take their eyes off the 'known unknowns'. It's very likely that safeguarding would have been considered a key risk area for Oxfam, but if you're being praised for doing something particularly well, how much focus do you put on it and how much emphasis on it will there be from Trustees?

Which is why transparency remains increasingly key, as it has been for so long in the Charity sector.

The value of transparency 

One of the benefits of working in the charity sector is the willingness of people to help, and it's not only individuals such as donors and volunteers, who lend their support, but also businesses and other charities.

Being transparent in public statements and documents such as the Annual Report allows and invites others to provide this assistance, while ensuring that you keep the focus in the right areas and are honest with yourself. If there is something which you’re not comfortable in being transparent about then that’s a very good reason to review it if it’s the right decision for your charity’s objectives.

The benefit of objectivity

It was great to receive some positive feedback as well as constructive advice from a recent review of payments processes; the use of external eyes can be so crucial in becoming more transparent to yourself as well as externally.

An objective gaze is also something that’s relatively cheap and easy to benefit from in the sector as charities tend to be comfortable sharing and reviewing each other’s approaches and performance, which can be more difficult in the private sector. At a recent fraud prevention conference it was heartening to hear charities giving open and honest accounts of frauds they had encountered, which I certainly benefited from listening to.

A pause for reflection

That public perception and expectation is moving away from charities being ‘perfect’ isn’t necessarily a bad thing; if we help people better understand the challenges that are faced and the actions being taken to improve and achieve more for our beneficiaries, this shouldn’t deter help but rather encourage the understanding of a more ‘human’ charity which wants, indeed needs, supporting.

It was inspiring to listen to so many success stories last night, and the perfect moment to pause and reflect on how much Devon Air Ambulance has achieved, not only since becoming winners of the award in 2015, but in the twenty-three years preceding it.

Yet it was also a reminder of the challenges we face in the future (both known, unknown and every combination between), and the importance of maintaining the focus of our strategy and continuing to embrace a transparent culture to provide the very best service we can for our patients.

Read our Annual Report and Accounts and 5-year Strategic Plan.