This article was first published in the March 2016 UK edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

Why would anyone want to take unpaid leave from their day job or – possibly even less appealing – use up their paid annual holiday entitlement to work for free in a poor country, with people they don’t know?

The answer is simple: it’s about giving back to society. There is a wide range of international volunteering programmes to suit many interests. Of particular relevance to finance professionals – and popular among ACCA members – is Accounting for International Development (AfID), which offers accountants volunteering opportunities.

To date, more than 800 accountants have offered their time and skills to not-for-profit organisations in over 50 countries, on assignments lasting anywhere from two weeks to 12 months. They have supported schemes including conservation projects, hospitals, micro-finance organisations, street-child centres and women’s empowerment programmes. 

The aim of the assignments is to develop and enhance the skills, confidence and potential of the local people, so that not-for-profit organisations have the financial management capacity to deliver effective programmes. AfID calculates that its volunteers have donated nearly £11m in pro bono accounting services to date.

While charities and community organisations clearly benefit from having free input from professional accountants, volunteering also enriches the lives of the accountants themselves – as the case studies
of the following three ACCA members show. 

Simplicity is bliss

Malaysian-born Denise Yoke Wah Ma works as a financial analyst for fast-moving consumer goods company Panamex Pacific in Singapore.

Looking for both a change of scenery and the chance to make a difference, she decided to volunteer with AfID. She undertook a two-month project with Grace House Community Centre in Cambodia. The centre offers impoverished locals the chance to learn a craft, language and vocational skills that will help them become self-sufficient.

Ma was mainly involved with a women’s social enterprise project that is run by the centre. Local women learn how to weave products such as bags and purses from natural materials, including hemp and water hyacinth. These are then sold for profit in local shops and, more recently, in New York. 

As part of her role, Ma helped to review the costing and profitability of the products, focusing on areas such as labour and material costs, and overheads. She also helped to create spreadsheets that could be used to monitor stock levels. 

One of the highlights of the assignment for Ma was getting to ring the centre’s school bell, which was used to signal when lessons were about to start or end. She says: ‘It was amazing to go back to basics.’

Overall, the assignment gave Ma a fascinating insight into a working culture that was completely different from the one she was used to. It also gave her an insider’s view on how NGOs work. So did it change her perspective at all? ‘It made me realise that it is important to learn to be content and that, sometimes, simplicity is bliss.’

Children in Cambodia

Eva Janoskova is financial director at Arval, part of the BNP Paribas group, in the Bratislava, Slovakia. In 2014, she used her annual leave entitlement to spend five weeks in one of the most deprived regions of Cambodia, supporting Salariin Kampuchea, an education and youth empowerment centre offering free English, computer and life skills courses to vulnerable children.

A keen traveller, Janoskova came across AfID while searching the internet for volunteering opportunities. ‘I was happy to find a good match where I could offer a skill that would be useful,’ she says.

As Salariin Kampuchea depends heavily on donations, it needs to demonstrate that the money it receives is properly accounted for. So Janoskova helped the manager of the centre with their financial reporting by improving the use of existing accounting software to get the reporting done faster. She also undertook a review of the existing reporting system and the controls that were in place.

‘It was a really good experience spending some time in another country and learning about its culture,’ says Janoskova. ‘I also enjoyed seeing a different sector. I work in a normal corporate world, so it was interesting to see how hard it is for small entities to manage their reporting requirements.’

When asked for her advice to other would-be volunteers, Janoskova says: ‘If you are hesitant about volunteering, it’s good to get as much information as possible. AfID is very helpful. It’s also useful to speak to past volunteers.’

Finance flow in Nigeria

Augustine Entonu is Nigerian but has been living in London since 2008. He now works in a commercial advisory role within the UK civil service. 

Between August 2014 and September 2015, Entonu worked with two Nigerian recipients of funding from Geneva-based financing organisation The Global Fund, which counts Bill and Melinda Gates among its founders. The two recipients were the National Malaria Elimination Programme and Africare – a US non-governmental organisation (NGO) that was established to fight AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, and which has an office in Nigeria. 

‘I felt it was time to give back to my country,’ says Entonu. ‘I decided to do it through AfID because of the opportunities it offers.’

For much of the assignment, Entonu juggled his volunteering work with paid work as a university lecturer – he’s a visiting professor at Grenoble Graduate School of Business – and spending time with his wife and two children. His wife was very supportive, though. ‘She knew it was close to my heart,’ he says.

Entonu drew on his ACCA training during his assignment, when he helped to redesign and strengthen the two recipients’ financial management systems. He also supported a customer supply chain integration project that involved the distribution of insecticide-treated insect nets. His role was to ensure there was sufficient accountability to donors with regards to how money was spent.

One of the most important lessons Entonu learned from his assignments was that projects shouldn’t just be about the results. ‘It’s about the journey as well as the destination,’ he explains. ‘Enjoy the journey and you will see the results before you get to your destination. I feel have made a contribution to helping ensure that financing flows to those who need it most. It was a very humbling experience.’ 

Sally Percy, journalist