This article was first published in the July 2018 Africa edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

International volunteering is a great way for accountants to make a positive difference to disadvantaged communities, gain new skills, travel to interesting places and meet inspiring people.

But while roles in international development potentially offer a sense of purpose and the opportunity to influence globally important issues, the sector is also suffering from a squeeze on funding. Combined with stiff competition for roles, this means good opportunities are hard to come by. In addition, most non-governmental organisations (NGOs) will only consider job applicants with prior experience of working in the voluntary sector.

However, social enterprise Accounting for International Development (AfID) provides volunteering assignments for accountants with an interest in international development. To date, more than 1,000 accountants have volunteered in 55 countries, on assignments lasting from two weeks to 12 months. Together, they have provided over £14m in pro bono accounting services to non-profit organisations, including centres for street children, conservation projects, hospitals and schools.

Here, three ACCA members share their stories of how volunteering has broadened their minds, given them transferable skills and changed their lives for the better.

Diving in

Alina Uritskaya FCCA’s passion for diving and marine conservation led her to undertake a two-week placement with the Turneffe Atoll Sustainability Association (TASA) in August 2017. TASA, a non-governmental organisation, co-manages the stunning Turneffe Atoll Marine Reserve, together with the government of Belize.

Uritskaya, an audit director with Deloitte in London, was asked to review TASA’s financial controls, as well as its accounting and financial reporting. She also advised the organisation on how it could sustain itself in the long term by developing a model for charging user fees to divers, fishermen and tourists.

She particularly enjoyed getting involved with the commercial aspects of the operation by making marketing suggestions and suggesting partnering opportunities – for example, with websites and diving shops. Here she found that her ACCA Qualification came in useful since it does not just cover financial reporting, but also the management and commercial aspects of running an organisation. ‘There was quite a lot to do in two weeks,’ she recalls, ‘but that made it interesting’.

From her time on the project, Uritskaya has learned that NGOs are run very differently from commercial organisations. ‘It is difficult to implement the recommendations you make unless you get buy-in from everyone who works for the organisation,’ she explains. For this reason, she believes that accountants who want to do volunteering work need to be open-minded and conscious of cultural differences.

Right now, Uritskaya is happily pursuing her career in London, but she wouldn’t rule out working for a development organisation later in her career. ‘My experience with TASA would prove very useful if I were to do that,’ she says. 

Just do it

Yi Lian Quek ACCA, a finance manager with HSBC in Malaysia, has always been passionate about charity work and wanted to use her accounting skills to benefit the not-for-profit sector. She came across AfID on the ACCA website and was instantly intrigued.

Quek opted to undertake a four-week placement at the Art and Global Health Centre Africa in Malawi during November 2017. The centre aims to foster creative leadership and runs innovative, health-oriented programmes that inspire and mobilise young people. It does this by using art and other creative approaches to encourage youths to reflect on and address health issues such as Aids, as well as related stigma and discrimination. During her placement, Quek focused on reviewing finance procedures and policies, and helping the staff to implement a Sage accounting system.

The whole experience of working for an African NGO was eye-opening for Quek, who has a background in financial services and had never visited the continent before. She liked being able to see the direct relationship between finance and the front line. ‘I helped the director to consider actions that could increase funding or reduce expenses, making the centre more efficient,’ she explains.

In future, Quek would be keen to work in international development and says that her AfID placement has helped her to better understand how finance professionals can help to support the overall cause of a not-for-profit organisation. Her advice for other accountants who are considering volunteering with AfID is simply this: ‘Just do it.’

Global mindset

Qualifying as an accountant spurred Crystal Cai ACCA to seek out a volunteer placement with AfID in February 2018. She opted to work with the Fountain of Youth Initiative (FOYI) in Kenya because it seemed the best fit with her experience and skills. FOYI aims to encourage young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to thrive in their local community by giving them access to education, business and vocational skills, and microloans.

Cai, who is originally from China but is now based in the UK, embarked on her two-week placement in March. She was tasked with checking that the recommendations of a previous volunteer had been properly implemented, and training the founder of FOYI and a project manager in bookkeeping and financial management. She also undertook a health-check of FOYI’s financial management, reviewed its petty cash and cash-book processes, produced a cashflow forecast for 2018 and wrote several policies.

Following the assignment, Cai returned to her day-job as an accountant for technology giant Cisco, feeling ‘a stronger person, both personally and professionally’. She was struck by the positive attitude of the people who lived in Githurai, where she was based, despite their daily struggles.

Cai believes that gaining international experience has helped her to further develop the global mindset that defines an ACCA-qualified accountant. She is keen to undertake another project with AfID and would happily return to Africa or volunteer somewhere else in the world.

Sally Percy, journalist