Alan de Sousa Caires has a job that could make other accountants jealous. He is director of finance and business services at BBC Media Action, which is as exciting as it sounds. BBC Media Action is the international development charity arm of the broadcaster, working with governments, NGOs, donors and other broadcasters across Asia, Africa and the Middle East. While it is legally, financially and operationally independent from the BBC, it upholds the values and reputation of the organisation.
Alan leads the finance function in London HQ. He has 15 staff working directly for him, while a further 55 finance staff are based in 17 international offices, where they report to local country directors. “I’ve been in the not-for-profit sector for 15 years,” explains Alan. “It is so much more complex in international development than working in the commercial sector. There are so many different risks and moving parts. We have to make sure we are compliant in so many ways. That is why I love my job. We reach 200 million people a year through our programmes.”
Alan joined BBC Media Action in 2014, initially as deputy director of finance, then from early 2017 as director of finance and business services. Prior to that he had worked for VSO – Voluntary Service Overseas – in Papua New Guinea, where he was a local finance manager. “The time I spent in Papua New Guinea was one of the reasons I sought out this job,” he explains. “I really wanted to work in international development. I previously worked in South Africa, but it was the time before we went to South Africa that persuaded me. My wife had been working for Farm Africa, which was supporting farmers in Africa and I could see how exciting her work was. For personal reasons – my wife’s parents were ill – we went to South Africa and I ended up running her father’s business.” After he returned to the UK, Alan successfully applied to his role with BBC Media Action.
As the senior financial executive of BBC Media Action, Alan is not only responsible for management accounting, financial reporting and budgeting, but also for overseeing business systems. This means he works closely with the IT team, while ensuring that BBC Media Action is compliant with the requirements of the Charity Commission, internal BBC corporate regulations, external donor requirements, GDPR, plus local legal, tax and procurement obligations in all the countries BBC Media Action works in. Following the Oxfam scandal – where staff on the ground were accused of inappropriate sexual relationships with aid recipients – Alan has to carefully oversee safeguarding protections. “I have had to go back over the last ten years to see if there are any issues to be dealt with and I have put in a reporting system,” explains Alan
The work – along with family life – is demanding. “I wake up at 5.30 in the morning – I have a baby – and then check emails from our Asia offices,” continues Alan. “I’m in the office at about 9.30, after dropping the baby with a childminder – we have shared childcare – having done a couple of hours work at home. On a typical day I might start with a team meeting, in which we review funding project proposals for donors and discuss how proposals fit within our strategy. I will help the finance team take decisions and spend time coaching staff. I am always having conversations with other members of the executive teams. We have a great executive team and a supportive CEO.
“I spend a lot of time with the IT people, making the workplace more efficient. We’ve done a lot of work on our finance systems. It is one of my passions! The biggest issue for us is the funding environment and the changing demands of donors. Our turnover and budget is £40m a year across all our country offices: 99% of our funding is restricted. Unlike other organisations that do public fundraising, because we have the BBC name we have to get money from the big institutions such as the UK and US governments, the EU and the Gates Foundation. This means we have to spend the money on agreed programmes. For example, UNICEF is spending $200m on vaccinations in Nigeria and told us it will provide $2m for a radio programme in Nigeria to explain that vaccinations are safe.
“We take the money and create a specific radio programme to address the need – it’s about informing people. We consider what type of programme needs to be made, in what format, whether it should be on radio or tv. In some countries the World Service would be one place where we might broadcast, but we might also be on a local radio station in a country. In Nepal, we have people on mopeds delivering the radio show. We also broadcast in Nepal via Facebook, which gets over a million listeners, which is good in a country with a population of 29 million people. We often use multiple channels for distribution.”
Alan believes his ACCA qualification has been essential for his career progression. “I left school at 16 not knowing what to do. I did the AAT training and qualification, then it was natural to go onto one of the four main qualifications – I chose ACCA as it provided the broadest range of training. Without that I wouldn’t have achieved the seniority or variety of roles. I value the time I still put into ACCA and other networking events, meeting people from other organisations. You can’t underestimate the value of sharing information and experience.”