Our Member Profile blog series features Humentum members talking about their work and how they manage the operational challenges within their organizations. This month we feature James Francis Okello, Director of Finance at Medical Teams International. Based in Uganda, Francis has been with Medical Teams International for 10 years. Here he talks about connecting finance functions with programming, the importance of trust and Humentum’s pilot local membership scheme.
Q: Tell us a bit about your career path and professional development.
A: I started my accounting career at a local Ugandan NGO and was very fortunate to have a mentor who really helped me develop my skills. This experience launched me into applying for a position with Medical Teams International in 2009. I was placed in one of our field offices and would constantly ask the Finance Manager questions. I became someone he really trusted and was transferred to lead the finance department in another field office.
This promotion was a great honour, but it also meant that I would now be 8 hours away from the university where I was pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Accounting. I would leave the office at 3pm on Friday and reach the University at 11pm. I would attend two full days of classes and depart Sunday evening only to reach home around 2am. But the hard work paid off and in 2014 I passed my CPA exams the first time. I was then transferred to the country office. When the Finance Manager was leaving he recommended me for the job and I was appointed. I am now enrolled in an MBA program and plan to finish this year.
Q: Give us a snapshot of your organisation and how you see finance functions connecting to front line operations.
A: MTI is a faith-based organisation with the mission of, “Daring to love like Jesus, we boldly break barriers to health and restore wholeness in a hurting world.” I feel strongly called to this mission and my role supports health workers working in the refugee settlements. We have over 1,800 staff working in 55+ health facilities to provide services related to primary health care, maternal and child health, nutrition, HIV/AIDS and community health.
Having worked in two field offices I gained first-hand experience which has been invaluable to me as a Director. At the country office we need to understand what goes on in the field so we can develop practical policies and procedures. We do this by having site visits every quarter and holding listening sessions with staff where they explain the realities of implementing finance processes. Knowing this makes us more flexible. We also give field managers tools to help explain finance processes to their staff. In the past, some staff could think, “The country office has not sent us money,” but now they understand the steps of the process to release funds. This helps us to be united in following finance protocol so that we don’t delay health programs operations.
Q: What is the biggest challenge you face as Director of Finance and what strategies have you employed to overcome it?
A: The biggest challenge is managing the expectations of donors, like UNHCR and USAID, alongside our own HQ requirements. Sometimes there are conflicts between all the different requirements, for example how to treat assets of different values and which method of accounting to use. This requires us to thoroughly understand the guidelines to find solutions that will satisfy HQ and donor requirements. We have started using an ERP system which integrates our finance, procurement, and HR systems across the country and with the HQ office. This has really helped us to streamline processes and increase transparency.
Q: The theme for our East Africa conference this year was “Growing Trust for Greater Impact,” and that theme is being carried out through our annual conference in July, OpEx DC 2019. How does your role build trust and why is trust in financial operations important for program impact?
A: Trust is actually really important in all areas of our work. Most importantly, the trust of our beneficiaries is key. If they didn’t trust us, then they wouldn’t come to us for health services. Because beneficiaries do trust us, MTI has become UNHCR’s lead health partner in Uganda and we are able to attract the funding to maintain services.
My role is responsible for ensuring that donor requirements are met so we can continue to receive funding. To do this, I have to delegate a lot of tasks which requires trust that field staff will carry out activities without country office staff always taking the lead. At MTI we also talk about issues like fraud, embrace these discussions openly and address it head on. Lastly, employees must trust that we have free and fair recruitment practices and will pay the agreed salary. All our employees have access to donor hotlines and we know that if we are not doing the right things they will report us directly to donors.
Q: MTI is the first organization to join our pilot local membership scheme in Uganda. What have you gained from being a global member and what do you hope to gain from local membership?
A: I am excited about local membership as Humentum has already given me a lot of insight. I read many articles and emails shared in the Humentum Connect groups which makes me very up to date and able to share information with our country and HQ offices. Now being a local member I look forward to integrating global best practices with local perspectives. We will be able to share knowledge on working with common donors in Uganda and, I hope, share critical information about local taxes and how to get various exemptions.
Humentum has been instrumental in connecting us to other NGOs. More than once I’ve showed up at a meeting only to find people I’ve already met through Humentum events! Humentum helps us build relationships so we can have confidence in each other to openly discuss issues. I know that the local membership will continue to strengthen these networking opportunities and very much look forward to having more members join.