The Alzheimer’s Society is the UK’s leading dementia charity and provides essential services to those with the disease and their families. For Robert Butler FCCA, that was a good reason to join as its CFO. “I spent most of my career in the commercial sector,” he explains. “I came late to the not-for-profit sector four years ago and I joined Save the Children for a couple of years. It was quite a move to go from one sector to the other.
“My brother has Down’s Syndrome, so I spent many years when growing up spending time with him and with mental health charities. As I started to research finance roles, I was thinking, what do I want to do next?” The answer, says Robert, was making life better for people by using his skills for their benefit. “There is more of a sense of fulfilment than in generating profits for shareholders,” he says.
The Alzheimer’s Society is a complex organisation with an income of £120m a year. Of this about £25m comes from contracts with local authorities, the NHS and others, delivering services as part of the social care system. Last year, £73m came from individual donors, including through fund raising activities. The balance is from trusts.
“There’s three main things we do,” explains Robert. “We deliver a suite of care services to people affected by dementia and their carers. There’s about 50,000 people with dementia and 850,000 people affected by it. It’s growing all the time. We have face-to-face dementia advisers offering post-diagnostic support, helping people understand how they get access to appropriate services, from their local community, local councils, not only around health, but also with regard to housing, financial support, as well as offering crucial emotional support. Some people affected by dementia, but also their carers, go through significant bouts of depression.
“We also do what we call a side-by-side service. This is a service we offer in some communities to try and help people with dementia navigate their way through the community. They can get withdrawn. We partner someone affected by dementia with a volunteer who spends some time with them periodically over a series of weeks. They might take them to the zoo, or a cafe, or the cinema, to help them get confidence and feel that they are still embraced and included in the community. We also do a suite of online services, where people can go and post questions. And we do the National Dementia Helpline, which is seven days a week.”
Finance is a major challenge for the Society – both in terms of maximising its own income and in seeking to arrange adequate support for dementia sufferers and those around them. In this, the Society campaigns by lobbying governments, policy-makers and the public. It argues that councils are under-funded for social care provision, and also that dementia is treated unfavourably by the NHS.
Robert says: “Someone that unfortunately has been diagnosed with brain cancer will get support. I wouldn’t want to trivialize it, of course. It’s a horrible condition. My point is someone with Alzheimer’s or other dementia has a different sort of brain disease, and the person with brain cancer has more support than is the case with someone with Alzheimer’s.
“One of the misconceptions about dementia is that some people viewed it as an inevitable part of the aging process. But we work with people in their early 40s that have a diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer’s. It can be genetic, it is a disease. But an aging demographic is adding further pressure. That’s compounded by the fact that the local authorities are struggling to balance their budgets, in part through austerity. We estimate councils will face a funding gap of about £5bn by the end of the decade.
“The key objective of our Fix Domestic Care campaign is solving the social care crisis. There isn’t an easy solution, but it’s a big issue that governments have not solved and not prioritized. There’s been no major reform in the last 20 years to the social care system.”
There are other ways, too, that the Society tries to make life better for people with dementia. “It’s important we find a cure,” continues Robert, “but it might take some time. We need to also make sure that we’re researching technology and other means of helping people as much as we can. Some people that have lost the ability to communicate verbally are able to communicate very effectively through their iPads.” Technology can monitor people’s movements, sleep patterns, behaviour, blood pressure and other vital signs, alerting when someone needs support.
But at the back of all the initiatives and programmes is the need for the Alzheimer’s Society to operate as an efficient organisation, which is where Robert’s skills come in. “We’ve restructured our finance team to build a more effective business partnering ethos and approach,” he says. “I’ve been promoting our efficiency and effectiveness agenda. How do we deliver greater value for money? How do we spend the money?”
This process is assisted by engagement from staff and supporters. Annual sponsored walks in which dementia sufferers are encouraged to take part with friends and relatives are an important source of finance, which also improves social involvement. Internally, social media is used to ask staff how to reduce costs and improve effectiveness. “We will pick a team and encourage them to talk to each other about this,” says Robert. “It becomes more than just a one way process from the CFO down.”