ALIA’s financial sustainability

As part of my campaign for the ALIA Board of Directors (I’ll stop harping on about this as soon as you vote, so: vote) @sharonu asked me “I’d like to know how to keep the current ALIA org model financially sustainable? Do we need an office/admin centre?”

What Sharon is referring to, for those who don’t know much about the ALIA National Office, is that there is an office in Canberra that’s full of a whole bunch of paid ALIA staff. And given the tightness of ALIA’s budgets, and the fact that we all contribute to those budgets in the form of membership fees, the question is rightly asked, are they necessary? There’s a large volume of work done by ALIA’s volunteers (in the form of Group and Conference Committee members, not to mention those on the Board of Directors – that’s right, there’s no money in this for me); could we not dispense with the administrative overheads and spend some of that money on, say, cheaper conference registration fees, or better PD?

Based on the ALIA website there are 18 paid staff in Canberra, and then there’s another 8 State/Territory Managers around the country. That’s 26 staff – that seems huge! BUT many of those staff members work part time, and sometimes it’s a very small part of the time. The State/Territory Managers, for example, get 30 paid hours per month. Of the remaining 18, 7 are part time. Half of ALIA’s staff work part time.

It’s also not  the case that ALIA has hired a bunch of librarians. ALIA has hired financial managers, IT managers, marketing specialists, publishing specialists, and event managers. As librarians we know the value of specialisation – we believe (don’t we?) that using staff who are qualified specialists in research techniques is preferable. So it is with other areas. Yes, there are financially literate librarians out there, but if you’re spending all your time managing the books for an organisation to ensure careful spending and legal compliance, I’d like you to be appropriately qualified to do that. Equally, if you’re answering the phone and doing admin work all day, I’d be disappointed to hear that you’ve got a MLIS, because it means your skills are probably being underutilised.

There are certain things that ALIA, as a company, needs done. Relying on volunteers to do necessary things is risky, as anyone who’s worked with an ALIA group knows. When members volunteer they are often doing so on top of existing work, study, and family commitments, and their volunteer work often (and often rightly) comes last on the list of priorities. If you want to be able to rely on ALIA to meet it’s legal obligations, answer the phone when you call, and run the conference that they promised you they would run, then we need people who’s job it is to do just that, and not other stuff.

So generally speaking, yes, I think we do need an office/admin centre. However I also believe that it’s the job of ALIA’s leaders (in this case I mean the Executive Director, primarily, and then the Board) to constantly examine those administrative costs to ensure that they are effective. Which leads to Sharon’s first point – how can we keep ALIA financially sustainable?

Step 1: hire people who know how to do this. Oh – tick! Harry Carroll has been ALIA’s financial manager for the last couple of years and he does an excellent job. If you have a look at ALIA’s financial reports for the last few years you’ll see some big changes, and there have been some good financial decisions made, such as scrapping the ILL voucher scheme.

Step 2: constant vigilance by management. It’s often in relation to money that really hard decisions have to be made. ALIA relies heavily on conference income, for example. There’s a lot of people that would like to see reduced conference registration fees, but it means that ALIA would have to cut some of its other activities that are funded by these fees but which don’t generate money themselves. It’s ALIA’s managers’ responsibility to know how it all fits together and to know what the consequences of decisions will be.

It’s also pretty unsexy to say that financial sustainability is one of those constant things. It’s achieved by having people who know what they’re looking at, constantly looking at it. Responsibility for ALIA’s financial position ultimately rests with the Board of Directors, so you want people on the Board who know what the signs are of poor financial management – they need to know how to read financial reports, know the difference between current and non-current assets and liabilities, and understand what a statement of changes in equity is for. These documents, when read correctly, can warn of trouble ahead. You’ll be pleased to know that I completed formal studies in this area as part of my Masters of Business Administration – so you should vote for me! Or, ask the other candidates about that. I’m not the only one running with a MBA.

Ultimately I’m really glad that Sharon asked this question. The third step to financial sustainability is vigilance by members, and members holding their Board to account. If you see something that concerns you, ask a Board member about it. Read the financial reports – I know they’re boring, but ALIA collapsing in a financial heap isn’t.

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