David Nussbaum CA: 'Look past the numbers to make a difference'

Past the numbers header
By Andrew Harbison, CA Today

4 February 2018

Before taking on his current role of CEO of The Elders, David Nussbaum CA spoke to Andrew Harbison about how CAs can change the world for the better.

To say that David Nussbaum’s career history is a mixed bag would be an understatement.

“I certainly didn’t plan my career in this detail,” he says.

“If I’d gone to my careers advisor at school and said ‘I’d like to do two theology degrees, train as an accountant, [become] FD of a public company, then go and be FD of Oxfam and end up CEO of an environmental charity’ they’d have smiled and said ‘It’s nice to have teenage dreams’.”

He has also been the Chief Executive of anti-corruption NGO Transparency International, spent nine years as Chief Executive at WWF and is now CEO of the human rights group founded by Nelson Mandela, The Elders.

“My wife thinks I have a low boredom threshold,” laughs David. But having looked at the list above, you can see where she’s coming from.

“There must be something in me that rather likes taking on big missions,” he says, reflecting on his previous roles.

...Accountants shouldn’t restrict themselves to looking at only the numbers, they too should be thinking beyond that to what their company is doing for the world.”

“Oxfam’s mission is to overcome poverty and suffering - that could take years. Then I worked at Transparency International, working towards a world free of corruption. WWF strives for people and nature to live in harmony, and getting to a sustainable world is quite a big challenge. The Elders are looking at how we realise peace, justice and rights for all.”

David Nussbaum Although these are a daunting list of issues to try and resolve, and they may not be solved any time soon, “that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try” said David.

“At The Elders are a group of people who are genuinely focusing on trying to make a positive difference in some of the longest standing intractable issues in the world. Whether that’s how the UN operates or problems with poverty or how we tackle climate change.

I think there is a danger of just being overwhelmed with the challenges that are out there. Having ways of dealing with that and finding hope and some sense of optimism and joy in the steps you can take and things you can do to improve the lives of people, even in the context when things are very bad, is vitally important.”

It is this ‘bigger picture’ way of thinking that David says should translate to the world of business and finance.

“It’s much better to respond by thinking what can I do that will make things better rather than just make me feel better.”

Bridging humanitarianism and finance

When facing such huge challenges as global poverty, conflict and corruption, David credits his training as a CA as helping him deal with some of these situations.

He said: “I think part of the challenge is getting your head on top of the issue at hand and making sure you have sufficient knowledge and understanding to come to a sensible conclusion. Part of that is informed by my accounting background. You are trained to look for evidence. We want facts, we want to test those, we want to have an element of professional scepticism to confirm things and make sure we have a proper understanding of them.”

Having also worked in venture capital at 3i early in his career, David said that he can see certain parallels between that industry and the work of The Elders.

“I would inherit a portfolio company in a terrible situation. I would look at them and think ‘Well, how can we make it better? We may not be able to wave a magic wand and solve all the problems or just throw masses of money at it, but we can do something that will make a difference and improve things’.

“What the Elders do is a bit like venture capital. They try a whole series of actions, some of them will work some of them won’t.”

Taking risks is very much part of David’s role, and the stereotype of the risk averse accountant is one that he believes is outdated. He said the risks taken by accountants are “calculated, measured and understood risks, rather than just wild guesses.”

The changing expectations of businesses

“I feel all of us probably want to make a difference,” says David.

“Nowadays the public are putting enormous expectation on businesses, that they should have a purpose that is more than just sustaining themselves. A company’s got to provide some sort of public benefit or public good, otherwise its legitimacy is in question.”

David believes this also applies to people looking to work for private sector companies and charities alike.

“Increasingly people want to know ‘If I work here, what am I doing to contribute to the world being a better place in the future?’.

“Those of us working in our main jobs in charity look beyond the numbers to make a difference to the world. Increasingly, people in businesses need to do that as well, and accountants shouldn’t restrict themselves to looking at only the numbers, they too should be thinking beyond that to what their company is doing for the world.”

David Nussbaum CA will be speaking at Agenda-Setting at St. Paul's Cathedral on 5 March 2019.

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