SARA increased their Soldo card count to give volunteers instant access to money – wherever they were – and to keep a closer eye on spending during the pandemic.
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The Severn Area Rescue Association (SARA) is a volunteer lifeboat and inland search and rescue charity covering the Severn Estuary and surrounding area for over 40 years. They support the police and other agencies in flood emergencies in and around the Severn Estuary, as well as aiding in the search for missing persons. They’d been using Soldo for a year when the pandemic hit – see how smart prepaid cards helped them survive the impact.
SARA is a unique organisation, not just because of the breadth of their services, but also because it is run entirely by volunteers – from rescue missions to the administration, fundraising to accounting. Nearly 300 people volunteer for SARA, enabling their lifeboat services to be on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
They often need to purchase equipment or resources fast and historically spent their own money to do so as part of a reimbursement process. Expense management was slow and painful, and they had yet to fully embrace financial automation. Soldo came to the rescue, the spending solution they needed to get through a global crisis.
“We were able to distribute funds when required, and make sure that people maintained a budget within their card so that they could respond. It allowed greater flexibility to enable us to respond to the pandemic.”
– Mark Carwardine, CEO
When Ian Jarvis volunteered to manage the finances at SARA in 2018, the entire system was paper-based. He took their paper records and digitised them, built an accounting process, put everything into Xero, and looked for ways to make things easier for SARA.
Back then, most employee expenses were paid out of pocket, and volunteers were asked to keep receipts and submit an expense claim each time. Ian shared his grief with this:
‘Why should we ask a volunteer who gives up their time and energy to spend money out of their own pocket and then go through a convoluted process to get the money back in about a week’s time?’
There are times where volunteers are away from home for several days, and before the charity found a better alternative, staff would have to worry about paying for whatever they needed while on the job.
But SARA didn’t just want to be fairer to their staff – they also needed to give instant support, ensuring the success of their operations wasn’t put at risk. If a vehicle needed immediate repair or certain equipment was needed for an emergency, they needed to take care of the situation as quickly as possible.
In 2020, moving money around became even harder for SARA – and more urgent.
These are a few of the challenges they faced:
It was crucial for them to use a solution that supported volunteers, while reducing the burden of paperwork. Even for financial administrators, the cumulative effect of these challenges translated into an expense management nightmare.
Luckily, they’d already started using Soldo, and saw in our platform a way to get full control of the situation, gain total visibility over spending, and move money instantly.
‘The Soldo card has been really transformational’, Ian says. When lockdown began, it was clear SARA was going to need to give cards to more volunteers to make sure they had the funds they needed, as soon as they needed them.
This resulted in more money being pumped through the Soldo account in 2020 than in the previous year. Every card had a balance of £200 on it, but if they needed more, Ian could add funds instantly.
Now, if teams are on call and need to purchase equipment or even food in the middle of the night, they can now access funds instantly, without needing to issue purchase orders.
When volunteers buy anything, they take a photo of the receipt and upload it on the Soldo app, and they can get back on task. To keep things under control, this part is key. ‘I check that they’ve submitted all the receipts before I top it up again. I don’t top them up until all the receipts are in’, Ian tells us.
Since the charity’s accounting is done using Xero, Soldo is even more valuable. Ian’s able to oversee all spending in real time, with a full suite of reports and extensive data helping him to prepare budgets and keep them moving in the right direction. ‘We can see who’s spending what, where, when.’
For added peace of mind, Ian’s set some limits to the cards (such as blocking usage in foreign countries) but he’s sold on the security that prepaid cards offer compared to debit or credit cards because the charity bank account is never at risk.
Not-for-profits know the importance of following The Charity Commission’s requirements to set up a spending policy, apply limits on debit cards, and restrict where they’re used by retail category.
Before cheques were made obsolete, the Commission advised that cheque and electronic payments should be signed by two officers within each charity. And while this is no longer required, if a charity loses money to fraud, the Commission is likely to want to talk to the trustees about the charity’s governance.
Unlike debit and credit cards, Soldo lets charities activate card controls across the board and keeps their bank account details hidden from card holders. Anyone can have a Soldo card and a finance manager can top it up instantly, as needed.
Ian tells us that ‘The Charity Commission are quite happy with that because you can’t overdraw the card, you can’t spend more than what’s on the card.’
To better understand just how useful Soldo has been to SARA volunteers whose contribution centres around the real action, we spoke to Mark Carwardine.
Mark has been a member of SARA since 2007, and his background in leadership and management drove him into the role of CEO at SARA in 2018. He’s also a rope rescue instructor, and a very proud one at that.
SARA is best known for their lifeboat operations in the Severn estuary, which has the second highest rise and fall of tide in the world – this, exacerbated by climate change, translates into an increasing number of flooding events.
In 2020, despite lockdown keeping people from venturing out into mountains or water recreationally, the number of missions SARA was called to didn’t differ much from years past.
What did change was how urgent it became for them to use Soldo.
‘During the early stages of the pandemic, we decided that we needed to start ensuring that crew members had PPE on whenever they were working for and on behalf of SARA’, Mark says.
With the rush for protective equipment, online suppliers dried up fast and delayed deliveries. At SARA, because they couldn’t wait two weeks to receive the PPE just so they could operate, volunteers had to go out and look for gloves, face shields and masks, and sanitiser.
It was easier for staff to do this with a Soldo card in hand.
‘It’s allowed us to have a much more responsive and dynamic ability for the crews on the ground to be able to make the purchases that are required in real time without referring to our traditional purchase order and invoice system.’
Staff feel more reassured by this new approach to employee expense management, and SARA as a whole is better prepared; when they face unexpected purchase requirements, whether as a result of equipment failure or a critical piece of kit, teams on the field have ready access to cash. They can also cover the repairs and maintenance of the charity’s often troubling vehicles.
SARA attended 126 separate operations in 2020, and the Soldo cards used in these operations were all smoothly managed by one person. And he won’t be going back to paperwork any time soon.