Sarah Henderson CA on how Make-A-Wish NZ continued to grant wishes in the face of COVID-19
Sarah Henderson CA swapped Scotland for New Zealand just in time, becoming CFO at Make-A-Wish NZ before the country locked down. She tells Cherry Casey how the charity has continued turning children’s hopes into reality despite the pandemic
More than 40 years ago, in Phoenix, Arizona, seven-year-old Chris Greicius was diagnosed with leukaemia. He’d dreamt of becoming a police officer, so his local community came together to grant his wish for one day. Heartbreakingly, Chris died just days later, but the inspiration for Make-A-Wish was born. To date, the global charity has granted more than 500,000 wishes to critically ill children. Wishes that give children the strength and hope they need to fight and even overcome their illnesses.
More than 2,600 of those have been granted by Make-A-Wish New Zealand, which was established in 1986. Today, it aims to grant 200 wishes per year. While the reason for its existence is devastatingly sad, the significance of its impact is something in which Sarah Henderson CA, Chief Financial Officer, takes a huge sense of pride. “When I share with someone, whether in New Zealand or in the UK, that I work for Make-A-Wish, immediately there’s a smile of recognition on their face about the wonderful work that we do,” she says. “To know that in some small way I’m contributing to a greater cause, and making a positive impact through my role, is incredibly motivating.”
It was this greater cause that first drew Henderson to the position. She wanted to continue her run of working at organisations where she could “add value, make a difference for them and contribute to their cause overall”. An enviable career path – and one, says Henderson, that her ICAS training made possible. “I was really fortunate in that I worked with some incredibly varied audit clients across all sectors and industries,” she says. “I felt a real affinity with the charity clients and really valued the fantastic work they were doing.”
So, after seven years in practice at Chiene + Tait, she moved to Health in Mind Scotland, then the University of Edinburgh, before joining Make-A-Wish New Zealand in 2021. It was a role she certainly felt passionate about. As for what the charity saw in Henderson, she again credits her qualification.
“I believe it quietly commands respect,” she says. “Organisations value it so hugely that when you have that on your CV, [by interview stage] it almost comes down to the cultural fit and the connection they feel, because they already know they can rely on your training.”
While the qualification is powerful, says Henderson, it needs to be combined with evidence it has been well used. For her part, becoming a CA provided a platform from which she could broaden her skillset, allowing her to move between sectors and countries (she is originally from Northern Ireland). “The CA gives you the breadth and depth of accounting knowledge and you can do with that what you may,” she says. “It afforded me further opportunities to go on and lead HR, learning and development, IT and property management for organisations where doors may not otherwise have been open to me.”
After being welcomed into Make-A-Wish NZ, as its first CFO, Henderson was tasked with applying her “broad brush” of skills to a role that was restructured specifically to adapt “to the shock the organisation had in 2020 with the pandemic, and to emphasise the importance of data to support better long-term decisions”. Her remit includes improving its financial leadership as well as the IT systems and, as such, “at any moment in time, it can vary hugely”. On this particular day, Henderson’s main tasks are handling an issue with the server, as well as preparing finance committee papers for the board. “You’ve really just got to adapt to whatever hits your desk,” she says.
Talking about the pandemic with someone in New Zealand is familiar but different: lockdowns, Zoom calls and “work bubbles” all feature, but the timeline changes greatly. When Henderson and her family arrived in New Zealand in March 2020, it was at the start of a strict lockdown; indeed, they arrived months earlier than planned in order to beat the border closures. “We had to make some swift decisions, booked a flight, packed a bag and left 48 hours later,” she says. “Little did we know we wouldn’t see our belongings for another 12 months or our UK family for another two years.”
Henderson’s husband is from New Zealand, so fortunately they had family to stay with initially. Nonetheless, moving to the other side of the world at the start of a pandemic did not feature in their plans. “Being in the profession, I like to plan, but I may as well have ripped up those plans and thrown them out the window,” she says.
After the success of New Zealand’s strict approach to Covid-19, however, they were able to live a “relatively normal life peppered with short lockdowns”. One that in many ways is similar to the UK’s, says Henderson, but with a slightly better work-life balance and, unsurprisingly, more beach trips.
The Delta variant arrived in August 2021 however, and the impact of the virus “reared its head again”. Auckland was put under a strict level-four lockdown for a month, then reduced to level three until the start of December 2021. “When you’re in that environment,” says Henderson, “everybody becomes quite frightened as to what the consequences are for themselves, their family and their businesses, a feeling that resonates globally.”
Some corporate partners had to reduce their support, but 2021 was nonetheless a “solid” year, financially. “There were times where we weren’t sure that it was going to happen, but we’ve got some really committed donors who kindly donate time and time again,” says Henderson. “So we’ve been able to put that into reserves for supporting future wishes.”
These wishes can vary from the tangible – getting a puppy or meeting a favourite celebrity – to the more conceptual. “One recent wish we delivered was ‘to fly in a rocket with my family’,” says Henderson. “The wish team and volunteers had to get really creative to make that one come to life.”
Each wish is then budgeted for, with a “contingency inbuilt due to the changeable nature of wish creation, but 95% of the time it isn’t needed”, says Henderson, in part down to the kindness of suppliers who often give their products and services at either a discount or for free. “It’s incredible, the support we get,” she says. “Last year, 23% of our wish spend came from gifts in kind. We couldn’t do what we do without that generosity, coupled with our remarkable volunteers.”
While New Zealand ended the Covid-19 alert system late 2021, moving into the protection framework system (dubbed “traffic lights”), the country was in the throes of the Omicron variant at the time of speaking. Much of Make-A-Wish’s priority is now strategising “how to live with Covid in a way that we haven’t had to prior to now”.
Because, of course, navigating a life-threatening pandemic when working with critically ill children is challenging. “When Auckland was locked down but other regions were Covid-free, some volunteers were able to visit the wish family’s homes and deliver on their wishes, whereas others had to go contactless or pause the delivery,” says Henderson.
Covid has also meant that some children have had to “reimagine wishes several times over” if, for instance, theirs has involved international, or even domestic, travel when it has not been allowed. And global supply chain snarl-ups have started to impact New Zealand and, therefore, Make-A-Wish’s ability to source items. “We’re very mindful of that,” says Henderson, and “we have to plan for A, B and C scenarios.”
While this sounds immensely frustrating for all those involved, Henderson explains, “Everybody who works for Make-A-Wish does it because they want to and because they believe in the mission. There’s a genuine drive and everybody becomes hugely invested in the wish delivery, for whichever wish child it may be.”
Personal feelings are put to one side, says Henderson. “With this type of work, it puts everything else into perspective,” she says. “Our wish children have their critical illness and our staff are committed and motivated to see their wish come true.”