Meet the CA who helped Diabetes UK hold firm amid pandemic pressures
Kate Martin CA, Head of Finance at Diabetes UK, tells Cherry Casey how the charity held firm as the pandemic placed pressure on revenues and threatened those affected by the condition
The pandemic may be hogging all the headlines, but diabetes is perhaps the UK’s greatest long-term health issue. The number of adults in the UK diagnosed with diabetes has nearly doubled in the past 15 years, from around 2.1 million in 2005, to 4.1 million in 2020 with an estimated further 850,000 people undiagnosed. It leads to 185 people per week having their foot, toe or leg amputated, 30 losing their sight and 700 dying prematurely. And the problem is getting worse. With more people than ever at risk of developing type 2 diabetes, which forms the vast majority of cases and for which there are multiple risk factors, including obesity, it is estimated that by 2030, 5.5 million people in the UK will have the condition. So the work Diabetes UK (DUK) does to fight it is more vital than ever.
Created in 1934 by the novelist HG Wells and Dr RD Lawrence, who both had type 1 diabetes, the Diabetic Association, as it was then called, campaigned for everyone with the condition to have access to insulin, regardless of their financial situation. Today, the goalposts have changed but the aim is no less ambitious: to create “a world in which diabetes can do no harm”. A tagline chosen, says Kate Martin CA, DUK’s Head of Finance, “to capture the multitude of ways the condition affects people, including the emotional, psychological and physical complications”.
The gravity of what DUK does is felt keenly by Martin, but as “motivation and inspiration” rather than a source of pressure. “We have all-staff sessions where you can hear about different aspects of the organisation’s research, and we hear a lot of emotional stories,” she says. “These are designed to connect all colleagues into the cause of what we’re there to do and sometimes they’re really uplifting and sometimes you realise there are so many more people out there who we need to ensure we’re reaching.”
Funding research into the condition is a fundamental part of DUK’s work, as is supporting those living with the condition and working to prevent people developing type 2 diabetes. This breadth means that Martin’s day-to-day role is just as diverse, working on strategic projects; liaising with the executive team and trustees; engaging with colleagues; dealing with major contracts and figuring out the “real core” of what the various stakeholders need. “I also co-lead part of the Diabetes UK strategy called learning and improving, focusing on how we understand our impact, how we use data to make decisions and how we inspire learning and creativity in our work,” she says. “And obviously there’s risk management and other topics behind that, but really it’s about making sure we’re sharing knowledge, learning from mistakes and successes and moving forwards.”
The most challenging aspect of her role, however, is working out how best to invest for impact, she says: “We don’t start the year with all the money we plan to spend, so there is that constant question of ‘Is fundraising going okay? Can we still do that project? How is it all balancing out?’”
Forecasting and consideration of risk is therefore a vital part of Martin’s role. “But the biggest pressure is how to spend our donors’ money,” she says. “We’re really fortunate that a lot of people leave us money in their wills with this amazing intention of helping to make people’s lives better. And wherever donations have come from, I really feel a responsibility to deliver on that.”
Holding your nerve
Of course, there was no greater test of Martin’s ability to make difficult decisions than in 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic hit. “The impact was so unknown and it was a case of, do we scale back and protect our organisation from the worst, but reduce our offer to people living with diabetes at a time when it is particularly crucial for them? Or do we hold our nerve and deliver as much as we possibly can and make that decision later if our income drops off?”
It was a scary time, says Martin, as working in the third sector means that “scaling back” translates as “somebody not being supported at a really critical moment”. DUK did indeed decide to hold its nerve, while doing “meticulous forecasting in the background to see how our income was doing”. Ultimately, says Martin, they made the right decision.
In fact, while face-to-face fundraising events such as the London Marathon were cancelled, more lockdown-friendly fundraising initiatives such as the One Million Step Challenge were able to continue. Such fundraisers, added to donations from DUK’s other “amazing supporters”, meant the charity’s finances did not take too much of a hit (it raised £37.7m in 2020, just £1.1m down on 2019).
When it became clear that people with diabetes were more susceptible to becoming seriously ill with coronavirus, it signalled another “deep breath in” moment, says Martin. “Across the organisation [staff have] a strong connection to the difference that we’re making, but at that point it definitely kicked up a gear,” she says. “It was a really galvanising moment and it brought about some positive changes in how we work, which we’ve carried through, particularly around delegation of decision-making.”
The future for DUK includes working against their 2020-2025 strategy, which has five desired “outcomes”, including that all people living with diabetes will benefit from new treatments that cure or prevent the condition. “Our priorities haven’t changed within the pandemic,” says Martin. “But the route to achieving them and specifically what that means on the ground has altered. It’s been really useful having that form of strategy because we can focus our investment decisions around it.”
In 2022, DUK hopes that investment in infrastructure will enable the charity to better serve those needing support. “The biggest of these is a new customer relationship management system that holds all the information about our donors and supporters,” says Martin. “That’s a really crucial investment for the future that will enable us to interact with our supporters in a better and much more personal way.”
Opportunity to help
Working for an organisation that makes a difference to people’s health has always been an aim of Martin’s – something she puts down to many of the women in her family, including her mother, working as nurses. But the route to her current role was not something she had originally mapped out, describing herself as a “surprise accountant”.
“I studied engineering at university and was lucky enough to be sponsored by a company,” says Martin. But while the plan was for that company to offer her a job upon graduating, the financial crash meant they were in no position to do so. “In the summer after I graduated, I was pondering what to do with myself and a friend said there were places on the audit grad scheme at EY.” Tempted by the prospect of gaining a new qualification and learning about a new industry, Martin made the move to EY Bristol and qualified in late 2013.
“My career path opened up to me after that,” says Martin. “One thing having the CA qualification emphasises is how many avenues are open to you. Jobs I’d never considered were suddenly within reach.” The first such was Senior Finance Adviser at Macmillan Cancer Support, an experience that “enabled me to learn very quickly, both about how the sector works and how charities tend to function, and about human behaviour and the different anxieties or assumptions that people carry about how they should manage finance in a charity”. This role helped her build up “empathy for colleagues outside of finance and what they really needed from the function”. She credits this last quality, alongside her “enthusiasm for driving change and being someone who will move things forward”, with helping her to secure her current role.
Now four years into working at DUK, she still “loves” the variety and stimulation it offers. “It’s really challenging because in the third sector you have fewer hard measures of success like profit, so you have to go through the process of working out how to invest in the best way for impact, what impact really is and how you enable it through good financial management,” she says. “That definitely keeps me interested. Plus when you’re working in an organisation that’s really passionate about what it does, you work with amazing people.”
And these people, says Martin, are “helped to have faith and confidence to try new things and take new approaches” by the knowledge that she, as a CA, is there “to support and guide [the process]”. Because, while creativity and innovation are key components of a successful organisation, says Martin, “you need a good framework of technical skill and knowledge underpinning it, to make sure every move is a responsible one for a charity to make”.
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