Helping the Charity Sector Improve Procurement Performance – Kavita Cooper Interview

It is always a pleasure to meet interesting people who are doing interesting things, and one such experience came recently with the chance to chat with Kavita Cooper, in the luxurious surroundings of the Costa Coffee, Camberley – very handy for the Gents’ casualwear.

Cooper has a degree in Chemistry and Computer Science and started her career with BT, where she worked in a variety of roles – IT, sales, business management, even running a call centre. She ended up in procurement and “loved it”, heading up the function for the BT Conferencing division. BT allows staff to spend a few days a year volunteering, and as her contribution, she ran “troubleshooting” session for charities, helping them with procurement and other business issues.

This was “very satisfying, but when I checked later, too often the charities hadn’t really followed things up”, she explains. So in late 2015 she took the bold step of leaving the corporate world to set up her own procurement consultancy, Novo-K.

Amongst colleagues and associates is David Lyon, ex CPO at Cancer Research UK, and one of the best known leaders from the sector, and the firm’s mission is to give charities the tools and processes they need to improve their procurement performance. This is not so necessary for the biggest organisations, like Cancer Research or the NSPCC, that have established functions, but as Cooper says, “there are 1653,000 charities in the UK, and probably only 50 have a professional procurement person or function”.

The biggest challenge is getting the organisation to embrace and understand procurement. Words like profit and EBITDA don’t resonate – but something like “maximise the results you can get from your money” does. Procurement can also be a major element in getting the confidence of donors that their money is being used well by the charity. Cooper has had to work to gain trust herself; “I’ve had to immerse myself in the sector, understand the beneficiaries as well as donors, and appreciate that different people have very different drivers”.

Procurement can also be seen as a blocker (not so different from other sectors perhaps) and she finds long-term relationships with suppliers are common. In some cases, there are few formal contracts, and risk is therefore a big issue. Even in those larger organisations, capability can be patchy. “It is not unusual to find that a charity has decided they need a Head of Procurement. They appoint someone and think that’s it, they’ve cracked the problem!” The individual is left with no real support, resource, or investment in tools and technology, and so will inevitably struggle.

However, there is now a “burning platform” for many charities. The combination of reducing public sector funding, more regulation and recent scandals such as the Kids’ Company affair have left organisations needing to become more professional and efficient. Whilst charities do see each other as competitors at times, Cooper is working to support collaboration across the sector, as well as providing advice and tools (such as a set of standard procurement policies, suitable for the sector) to individual charities.

She also supports charities who are on bidding at times, and offers “different levels of support based on maturity and complexity of the organisation”. Her goal is to help as many organisations as possible, and she has mixed feelings about some of the large consulting firms. “I have seen them offering Pro Bono (free) advice to a charity – but then it turns into a huge and expensive proposal for a large transformation programme”!

UK charities spend some £20 billion a year with suppliers, according to Cooper. So there would appear to be plenty of scope for the sector to make sure they get the best possible value out of that and ultimately have more resource available for their charitable causes. And Cooper has more ideas up her sleeve in terms of how to do that – we suspect we will have more from her in the future, and we wish her luck in a very worthwhile enterprise.

 

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