As part of our Modern Finance series, we asked Staff Accountant Alexander Burks of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) to talk about his key influences to modern T&E management. HRC, with a staff of 200, is one of the largest national lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) civil rights organizations in the world. It has more than 1.5 million members and supporters nationwide. The organization is working toward a world where LGBTQ people are ensured of their basic equal rights, and can be open, honest and safe at home, at work and in the community.
I never thought I’d be an accountant. I studied art history and economics in college, and once I graduated, it took me a while to figure out what I wanted to do. After spending a couple of years in retail, I decided to get an advanced degree. Accounting appealed to me, and I ended up getting an internship at HRC that turned into a job offer.
As it turned out, being an Art History major was good preparation for my role at HRC. In art history, you spend a lot of time focusing on details, and in accounting, we’re constantly looking at things from a highly granular perspective.
Approach T&E management as customer service
My role is about making sure we give our internal customers everything they need. We’re not the ones working on the front lines—our employees are the ones accomplishing our mission. So we spend a lot of time ensuring that it’s easy for them to do what we need them to do, and that they can do their jobs without undue paperwork. Believe it or not, that’s a lesson I learned working in retail—that, and always being available to help. The trick is to try to anticipate people’s needs before those needs occur.
That experience informed the way we revamped our travel and expense policy this year. Retail teaches you to focus on what matters most, which is particularly important for non-profits like HRC that do social justice work funded by donations. One of the issues with our old travel policy was that people had some misperceptions about it. For instance, our previous T&E policy had many hard-and-fast rules. When we needed to make exceptions, some staffers felt like we were giving other staffers preferential treatment, when really, we were just responding to different circumstances. So when we revised our policy, we outlined the exceptions that pop up most often and the additional written approvals needed for the exception to be granted.
Collaboration is key
We’re a collaborative organization, and it’s important to us that everyone’s voice is heard. So we reviewed the policy with people across the entire organization to make sure that they agreed It was fair, transparent, and cost-effective—and that it met the needs of both staff and management. That’s of particular concern here at HRC, since our work is all about equality. So we made it a collaborative process, coming up with a good draft over about a month, and then spending another five months bringing in different parts of the organization to review it with us. We interviewed dozens of staffers and went through several iterations to make sure we got it right.
That staff participation went a long way toward ensuring compliance.
We already have a culture that places value on collaboration, and the way we developed our travel and expense policy is just an extension of that.
Another key to success is training people on our policy when we onboard them and doing ongoing coaching, particularly when we see non-compliance. We review 100 percent of all credit-card transactions, for example, so whenever there’s a violation, I make sure to find out why it happened and do whatever coaching is necessary to ensure it doesn’t happen again. As a result, most people understand the policy and, by and large, abide by it. I’m happy to say that we’re seeing widespread adoption and compliance.
Secret to success
I think the secret to our success is that our approach is different from that a for-profit corporation. We bring the values behind our mission statement to all our work, including travel and expense. Whenever people travel, we put their expenses into context: how many t-shirts or buttons did we have to sell to buy that plane ticket? It’s particularly important at this time of the year, since we send so many people out to participate at Pride events all across the country. We have a culture of frugality, and we work hard to remind employees that our travel budgets are a direct result of the faith our donors have in us to achieve our mission. That resonates with our staff.
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