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Having a laugh

Stephen Mangan, Charity Awards 2011 host
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Having a laugh1

Finance | Ian Allsop | 4 Jul 2011

Writing this column is no laughing matter for Ian Allsop.

My eldest, who is now suddenly and inexplicably seven, has developed a passion for saving endangered species. Polar bears, tigers, cheese wasps, Liberal Democrat supporters, the lot. He recently decided to save the panda and people gave him loose change specifically for that purpose. All very laudable. However, he then saw a WWF advert about there being only 35 amur leopards left in the wild and announced he was now going to use the cash to save them instead.

But I was wary about this. Surely the money he had raised was a restricted fund and couldn’t simply be moved to a different purpose on a whim. He’s a bright kid but he has a lot to learn about the intricacies of Sorp.

The reason I mention this is as follows. Someone recently said to me that it must be really difficult writing a topical “humorous” column for an audience of finance people in charities. OK, I have made that up, but it is the sort of thing somebody might have said and therefore suits nicely the purpose of what I am about to write.

I think there were two assumptions to this fictitious comment, the first being that accounting is deathly dull. How many jokes can you do about financial management? Three accountants walked into a bar. Nothing happened. Variations around double-entry and bottomline have been cracked too many times to audit, and were only initially funny in a sixth-formhumour way at best anyway.

Everyone knows that all finance people are boring, humourless souls who wouldn’t know a good joke if it was capitalised in front of their face, although they could calculate the depreciation of chuckles garnered upon subsequent re-telling.

Of course this stereotype is clearly wrong. I have met some right comical people in the finance world. But accountancy still has a grey reputation and, as such, humour around it tends to be of a Monty Python-type. If you look further back in history even the Bard was sending-up “counters of those blessed beans” with his little-known companion play to The Merchant of Venice, the ‘Book-keeper of Ghent’.

But there is a wider issue here which leads me to the second truth implicit in the earlier mythical statement. When the reader is a finance staffer working for a charity then the whole laughter thing becomes even more difficult. Charities are dealing with very serious problems that are nothing to joke about. And everyone working for them is terribly right-on and very cautious about what they laugh at.

Except that is nonsense as well. The charity world has plenty of light-hearted yet highly-competent characters. Humour, when used appropriately, can help put things into context, make the dreary and depressing less so and assist when coping with the shocking.

An extreme example of this is that, whenever there is a major tragedy or someone famous dies, the first bad-taste jokes appear almost instantaneously, as if someone has been keeping a supply of gags handy, in much the same way that the obituaries of noted individuals are ghoulishly written in advance.

I imagine even back in the Middle Ages there were plague jokes being signalled by beacons as soon as the first rat had left the ship and infected its first victim.

But there has to be a balance. There is a fine line between being left-field and edgy, and downright offensive. Staying on the right side of that line and not upsetting people can be tricky. This column is supposed to be three pages long but once it has been edited to a point of legality it is much reduced. It can come down to personal interpretation and taste.

Last month’s Charity Awards dinner reminded me of how important choosing the right host is, and for them to judge the audience correctly. You’re never going to find someone who everyone likes – personally I think that if a comedian hasn’t upset a couple of people in a room of 900 then they aren’t doing their job properly – but when handled as well as by Stephen Mangan it sets the right mood in which the achievements of the shortlisted charities are showcased and celebrated.

Ultimately if charity finance people really have no sense of humour then they won’t have read this far. Or worse still, for me, they will. And if all of this sounds like a self-serving caveat for if I ever offend anyone, then you’d be right. If only there was a charity that provided relief through comic endeavour. But in the meantime, did you hear the one about my fat French mother-in-law’s reserves policy? 

 

Chris Gilbert
Finance Director
London Transport Museum
4 Aug 2011

Why did the auditors cross the road?

Because they looked in the file and that's what they did last year.

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Ian Allsop

Ian Allsop is a freelance journalist and editor specialising in not-for-profit management and financial issues.

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