Turning a passion into a life's work

Dec 02, 2019
Trócaire’s Michael Wickham Moriarty speaks to Accountancy Ireland about his career in the non-profit sector and the satisfaction he gets from volunteering.

From Monaghan to Dublin to Khartoum and back again, Michael Wickham Moriarty’s career path as a Chartered Accountant has been anything but predictable. Trócaire’s Director of Corporate Services, who recently collected the ‘Best Large Charity Annual Report’ award at the Published Accounts Awards, and two additional accolades at the Good Governance Awards, has worked in the charity and non-profit sector since completing his training contract with PwC’s tax department – but in fact, that’s where his passion for meaningful work began.

As a trainee, Michael’s work exposed him to several family businesses and non-profit organisations. Reporting to PwC’s Teresa McColgan, who is a board member at Concern, helped him realise the value he could bring to organisations as a Chartered Accountant – both as an employee and volunteer.

The first stint overseas

Despite enjoying his work in tax during the Celtic Tiger years, a career in practice wasn’t in Michael’s long-term plan. Rather than move straight into another ‘career’ role, however, he instead opted to work overseas for one year with GOAL. “In 2008, when the economy was beginning to wobble, I moved to Khartoum in Sudan to work with GOAL as their on-site donor compliance officer,” he says. “I was working under the supervision of GOAL’s financial controller in Khartoum, which was great because donor compliance was a new area for me.”

At the time, Sudan was also ruled by Arab dictator, Omar al-Bashir, whose forces imposed an arbitrary sharia legal system within the country. “I experienced a lot of changes in a very short space of time,” Michael recalls. “Plus, I had to get used to a new way of living. The stipend provided by GOAL meant that you had just enough to get by and this was a major drop from my salary as a Chartered Accountant working in practice, but it was never about the money. Ultimately, it was a fascinating experience and I learned a lot during my time there.”

Over the course of the year, many of Michael’s colleagues returned home for brief spells. At this point, the financial crisis was taking a wrecking ball to the Irish economy and he was hearing reports that described a different country to the one he left behind. After a year of volunteering with GOAL, he took up another donor compliance role with Plan International Ireland, which divided his time between Dublin and West Africa.
“It was quite shocking for me to hear just how bad things were in Ireland. I was in Guinea when I heard on French language radio about the IMF coming into town, and I remember having to explain to the locals about the situation back home,” he says. “It was devastating because so many people overseas rely on Irish aid. In one village, for example, the only stable concrete building was built using Irish aid and the locals were extremely grateful because it allowed them to care for disabled children safely.”

Returning to a changed Ireland

Michael worked with Plan for three years – before joining the Ana Liffey Drug Project as Head of Finance and Administration. Working with Ana Liffey was very different from working overseas, Michael recalls. “Our clients were in and out of the building every day and I had the opportunity to meet them and hear their stories,” he recalls. But the most interesting thing he noticed about small charities is how little they have by way of resources to get by. “The organisation had an amazing ethos that really appealed to me, but every cent mattered,” he says. “So much so that when a computer broke down, I found myself carrying it to the local PC repair shop rather than spend money on a courier. And that’s the reality for many small charities in Ireland today.”

Michael’s stint with small charities came to an end, however, when an opportunity arose to join the team at the Central Remedial Clinic (CRC). The CRC had survived a major scandal in 2013 that involved top executives receiving salaries far in excess of agreed official public service pay rates – and these executive salaries were being topped-up in part by public donations. Although Michael was a spectator to many scandals, he now found himself in an organisation that was working to rebuild its reputation and regain the trust of the public. “Eighteen months after the CRC scandal broke, the new CEO decided to recruit a new Head of Finance. I applied for the job and it helped that I was interested in governance and reform, as that was a critical objective for the entire organisation,” he said. “And it was a wonderful experience. I headed up a great Finance team and we quickly recruited a new external audit firm, adopted Charities SORP and implemented a new internal audit regime.”

The key to success, in Michael’s view, was the fact that change was supported at all levels of the organisation – not least by the leadership team. “The technical changes weren’t without their challenges, but that was my area of expertise,” he says. “What really impressed me, though, was the CEO’s focus on culture change. The entire organisation moved from an old reality to a new reality in a relatively short space of time, and it was fascinating to observe that shift happening.”

Stepping up

During this time, Michael was also volunteering as the Company Secretary and Deputy Chair of EPIC – a national organisation that works with children and young adults who are either in care, or who have experience of being in care. He stepped down in July 2017 after five years as a board member, to take up a voluntary role with the Rotunda Hospital where he is now Honorary Treasurer, Vice President, and Chair of the Audit and Governance Committee.

According to Michael, both volunteering and working in the non-profit sector allowed him to see both sides of the same coin – something that benefited him in his capacity as an employee and board member. “In my younger years, I volunteered because I had the time and inclination to put my training to good use, but it ended up being a mutually reinforcing experience,” he says. “The time I spent at the board table certainly made me a better executive when reporting to the board. It also introduced me to an entire network of people with similar values to my own and it has become an outlet of sorts for my own need to make some sort of positive change in society. So, in that respect, I’ve found volunteering very worthwhile.”

Living a meaningful life

While Michael is a volunteer in one sense, he is very clear about his paid role as an employee – and this extends to his approach to management within Trócaire, where he now works. “I lead a team of accountants and IT professionals, so I think about talent retention a lot. My colleagues don’t get paid as much as they could elsewhere, but they don’t work as a favour either. All staff in the not-for-profit sector need to be paid fairly; you need to be able to send people home with the ability to pay their bills and support their families,” he says. “Otherwise, only the independently wealthy could work in this space and that wouldn’t be right or good.”

And while Michael himself took a significant pay cut to work with GOAL in Sudan all those years ago, and has only recently recovered the shortfall, he is happy with his lot. “Some of my friends stayed in practice while some moved into industry, and they get paid very well, but I am happy with my circumstances,” he adds. “I am very lucky to do meaningful work, which brings me a lot of value and satisfaction. Many people have been interested in my experience and career path, but I’ve found that they often struggle with what they would be forced to give up financially and that is very understandable. But for me, working in an organisation that provides life-changing and life-saving services gives my work great meaning and ultimately, that has influenced    my career choices and it’s what keeps me in the sector.”

Michael on…

Volunteering: “We can’t solve all the problems of the world, but volunteering gives you an outlet beyond being upset or angry about it.”

Scandals: “There is a sceptical eye on charities, and that will continue. We must respond to that scepticism and the best way to do that, in my view, is through transparency.”

Reporting: “Charities need to present financial statements in a way that allows people to understand the issues with ease, and the Public Accounts Awards is doing great work in driving standards up across the sector.”

Motivation: “When you see kids donating €2 for their school’s hot chocolate day or pensioners donating part of their weekly pension, there’s nothing more motivating than that. It pushes you to ensure that their money is used for the full benefit of the people you serve.”

Diversity: “A lot of boards are dominated by white, middle-aged and middle-class men, and I’m at least two of those myself! We need to help more young people, women and those from ethnic minorities to get involved in boards – and that diverse talent pool is available amongst the membership of Chartered Accountants Ireland."