CFOs are known to be skeptical — of internal funding requests, external sales pitches, budget proposals from business units and functions, come-ons from headhunters, proposed project deadlines … even the value of speaking to the media.
But if there’s one thing they’re less skeptical of, it may be requests for assistance from fellow finance chiefs.
Last summer, when Brian Kielty, CFO of Healthcare Consultancy Group (HCG), visited a subsidiary in Europe, he saw a presentation by AfriKids, a child rights and community development organization. AfriKids, which works in rural, impoverished areas in the West African country of Ghana to alleviate child suffering and poverty, was looking for help.
Atop the organization’s wish list was a new hematology analyzer for its medical center, to replace one that was 10 years old and nearing the end of its useful life. The blood-testing technology was a priority because there are as many as 10 million cases of malaria in Ghana annually, among other types of blood-borne illnesses. Child deaths from the disease are highest in the northern region of the country, where even basic health care is very limited, according to AfriKids CEO Amy Parker.
Some of those who viewed the presentation started talking about how to raise funds to purchase a new unit. But Kielty of HCG, which is a medical communications firm serving the pharmaceutical and medical device industries, had a different idea: sending emails via LinkedIn to a number of CFOs of diagnostic equipment manufacturers.
“Passing the hat is a traditional way of raising money for some of the companies I’ve worked for, but I thought a CFO-to-CFO connection would be useful here,” he says. “I’m not a fundraiser or salesperson, and this email isn’t spam. When you’re a CFO and you get a message like this from a CFO, you may feel that to some degree this request has already been vetted in some way, that it’s strategically sound and fiscally responsible.”
Not that Kielty was counting on getting replies. He didn’t know if it was anything more than a shot in the dark. “I was hopeful, but I ignore so many LinkedIn messages myself — all the sales attempts, all the headhunters,” he says. “But I don’t ignore people asking for my help. I hoped my message would be received by someone who would react like I would.”
And so it was. Alex Garini, CFO of diagnostic devices maker Sysmex North America, got in touch.
“We get a lot of requests from charities,” Garini says. “We have an annual charity budget, and we meet every quarter to review the request. What [got my attention] in this case is that it came from a CFO. And, the way Brian brought the case was pretty compelling.”
Before agreeing to donate the equipment, however, Garini wanted to make sure it could be properly supported and serviced for the long term. “It’s not easy to operate this equipment,” he says, “and it requires parts, maintenance, and a continual supply of the chemical reagents needed to perform the blood tests. Our intent was not to donate it only [for the short term] until it turned into a kitchen table, let’s put it that way. And we all know how much of a challenge supply chain is in Africa.”
Kielty understood that concern and was receptive to it. “The challenges in West Africa are extensive, and charity may seem like it gets thrown into an abyss,” he says.
But AfriKids’ presentation resonated with Kielty partly because of the organization’s operating model. One community at a time, it establishes infrastructure that can sustainably support basic health services, education, and new micro-economies.
As it happened, the old hematology analyzer had been serviced by the local distributor for Sysmex America’s sister company, Sysmex Europe. Assuring that the arrangement could stay in place for the new, upgraded equipment, which would be arriving from Sysmex America, required a substantial amount of back-and-forth communication, during which some legal issues arose.
Eventually all of the issues were ironed out, and the hematology analyzer was shipped and installed in December. While the unit typically sells for only about $15,000, that would have been an enormous sum for AfriKids to otherwise raise.
Kielty is far from done. He has a list of 10 other needs for AfriKids’ medical center — including a centrifuge, a microscope, and ultrasound, anesthetic, and x-ray systems — and hopes to get the attention of other CFOs for help with those.
He knows that such efforts can’t save the world, or all of Africa, or even Ghana. But, he says, “I think you can have an impact doing one thing at a time, just as AfriKids is having an impact one community at a time.”
It’s an approach that’s familiar to many finance chiefs. “Incremental progress is what CFOs often preach,” Kielty says. “We tell our partners within our organizations that you can’t [make a huge impact] with every decision you make or step you take. But you do strive for that incremental progress.”