Date posted: 21/11/2017

Why social capital is the new profit

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When Chartered Accountant Rebecca Glover boarded a flight to Thailand after the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, little did she know how much it would change her life. It turned out to be a defining moment that saw her dedicate her career to tackling global poverty with one of the largest humanitarian aid organisations in the world.

"It was actually while working at PwC that I got the opportunity to work with World Vision as a client," says Rebecca. "I was sent over to Thailand to witness the emergency relief response, audit the financials and track how the money was being utilised."

"I was fascinated by what it took to actually respond in an emergency in terms of the complexity of the operations that are required to sustain that kind of response. I came back and said, 'that's an organisation I'd love to work for'."

Positive change

Rebecca was so inspired by her experience that she decided to move on from PwC to take on a job with World Vision Australia as a Finance Analyst. She is now World Vision's Chief Financial Officer, overseeing a team of 50 staff with responsibilities for finance, risk and legal matters. While she knew it was the right career decision, Rebecca recalls one of her former colleagues describing her move to the not-for-profit sector as 'career suicide'.

"A lot of people leave the big four accounting environment to go into a particular industry, whether that be telecommunications or mining," says Rebecca. "I was making the distinct choice to move into the not-for-profit sector because I had seen and experienced firsthand the depth and complexity of a global, humanitarian not-for-profit organisation."

Rebecca disputes suggestions that the not-for-profit sector is somehow less demanding than big business.

"In some ways the not-for-profit sector is held to almost a higher level of accountability by the public, because the public donate to these organisations, or these organisations are using grants from the government," she explains.

Social capital

Whatever the funding model, grants and donations are only part of the story for most not-for-profits. The work itself often relies on something even more valuable - social capital.

Social capital can be defined as a network of relationships within a community, but Rebecca's own description sheds light on why it is especially important for World Vision.

"Social capital is essentially the resources that exist in a network of relationships among people who live and work in a particular society or community, and the strength of those relationships enables the society to function effectively," Rebecca explains.

"World Vision's work is very much dependent on social capital," she explains. "It's about going into communities and building trust with them to enable social change."

It's an approach that is not so different to the way business people think about their careers, she adds.

"To be effective in business, you're only as effective as the networks of people that you know. The trust and goodwill that you build with others will enable them to want to work with you to create something of value, and that only comes through having effective social capital."

Making a difference

Not-for-profit organisations have a special appeal to those who want to make a positive impact on the world or in the lives of others.

"One of the biggest differences I found when moving into the not-for-profit sector was the passion for the cause," Rebecca says.

"I've had a really varied career here at World Vision. It's one of the things that has kept me here over a lot of years, but in some ways, it's the simple interactions that stick with you."

Early on in her career, Rebecca saw a lot of World Vision's work firsthand from her role in field finance, accompanying staff on international field projects to oversee and monitor how the finances were being spent.

"I remember meeting a group of women in Lesotho in Southern Africa who were making moisturiser and body cream. We were working with them on an economic development project to help them manufacture and take that product to market," Rebecca recalls.

"These women were using the funds to look after the children of their neighbours, brothers or sisters who had passed away from HIV/AIDS. Seeing the passion of these women and their care for those in their community has always stuck with me," Rebecca says.

"Now that I'm Chief Financial Officer, I don't go to the field a whole lot, but it's those kinds of stories that resonate with me. When I'm sitting here in Melbourne reflecting on a really difficult business decision, I think of women like that and it makes what I do on a daily basis very real."

Note: This interview was conducted in 2015. Rebecca Glover CA has since become the Senior Director - Corporate Accounting, Financial Planning, Reporting & Analysis at World Vision International.