Accountants support communities by working for free in a range of contexts, demonstrating their worth and purpose in times of need
This article was first published in the May 2020 UK edition of Accounting and Business magazine.
Professional accountants are applying their expertise to a range of activities on a voluntary basis, with the Covid-19 outbreak demonstrating just how invaluable these pro bono activities are.
But it’s not just during the current crisis that they have been sharing their experience for the greater good; their activities range from acting as school governors and charity trustees to providing advice to start-ups and not-for-profit organisations. Here are just a few examples.
With Covid-19, much of the pro bono support provided by accountants has focused on helping stricken businesses. Just one example is Annette Ferguson, an accountant based on the Scottish Borders, who via her blog offers help to businesses that need urgent financial advice. The blog explains how they can access government grants and claim under the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme. Ferguson also has her own YouTube channel, where she has posted videos that provide practical assistance to business owners. ‘Since businesses have so many financial issues relating to Covid-19, it seemed logical that I would support them,’ she explains.
London-based accounting, consulting and data analytics firm Flinder has responded to the crisis by developing a free resource guide, which is available to its clients as well as other accountants and businesses. It has also offered clients free risk-assessment calls.
Founding partner Alastair Barlow FCCA says: ‘When times are tough, we need to continue our client support. We’re in this together.’ There are in fact innumerable examples of ACCA members offering free support to the businesses, truly demonstrating that, above all, the profession is a community.
Free tax advice
Giving support on tax matters is another key area where accountants can use their professional skills while contributing to the greater good. TaxAid and Tax Help for Older People are specialist tax charities that support vulnerable taxpayers and pensioners.
Around 500 volunteers, who are qualified accountancy or tax professionals, work with the charities’ clients to help resolve their tax problems, which might include under- or over-paid tax or difficulties with self-assessment.
‘Left unresolved these simple problems often end up as tax debt and cause considerable distress,’ says Valerie Boggs, chief executive of TaxAid and Tax Help for Older People. ‘For vulnerable taxpayers who do not have the financial resources to pay for professional tax services, the free service from accountants delivered through the charities provides a lifeline for resolving their tax problems.’
Accountants are in demand as school governors because of their ability to scrutinise the financial data that is put before the governing board.
‘The governing board needs to ask the right questions of the headteacher to better understand the rationale behind spending decisions, and to identify any areas where savings could be made and potentially reinvested in areas that are more beneficial for students,’ says Dominic Judge, director of governance programmes at Inspiring Governance, which connects potential governors with schools. ‘They can also bring their naturally analytical eyes to areas other than finance – for example, data around pupils’ progress and performance.’
Kate Rosten, an accountant, tax adviser and co-owner of Suffolk-based firm Jonathan Penn & Company, is the vice chair of governors and chair of the finance committee at a local primary school. ‘Our governing body delegates the budget-setting and school’s financial reporting processes to the finance committee,’ she explains. ‘As chair, I oversee and analytically review the proposed budgets, identifying areas of concern and how best to spend the available budget, taking due guidance from the headteacher.’
Rosten believes that the specific skillsets of accountants allow them to make a positive contribution as governors. ‘Questions that I raise in a governors’ meetings, which seem blindingly obvious to me, are not to those who don’t have a financial or commercial background. That’s where we can add significant value.’
Coaching and mentoring
Charities are also in need of the valuable input that professional accountants can offer. Pilotlight, a charity that connects business leaders with charitable organisations across the UK, says the business people who volunteer with Pilotlight coach and mentor charity leaders to help them be more effective. ‘Many charities are under constant pressure to either find new streams of income – whether that’s through traditional fundraising or developing an income-generating model – or to prove to existing funders and donors that money is being put to good use,’ explains Bruce McCombie, Pilotlight’s head of partnerships. ‘Accountants can quickly tune in to these pressures. They know that decisions need to be supported by evidence, and that when it comes to financial stability, decisions cannot be taken lightly.’
Shoaib Aslam, chief executive of Pearl Accountants and practice outsourcing service We Run Your Practice, offers free consultative work to start-ups, including other accountancy firms. ‘When I started my own accounting practice, I realised how challenging it was to run, with all the complications of compliance, marketing and operations, let alone managing client accounts and tax returns to strict deadlines,’ he says. ‘Undergoing a rigorous learning curve has helped me understand what to watch out for. I really wanted to help the start-up community excel at their businesses and not be put off at an early stage.’
The high ethical standards expected of accountants make them a natural choice to act as charity trustees. The trustee’s role involves safeguarding both the physical assets of a charity, such as its property, and its intangible assets, such as its reputation.
Simon Denton, a partner with accountancy firm Milsted Langdon, has served two three-year terms as treasurer and a trustee of the Devon Air Ambulance Trust. ‘I participated in decisions that improved the service provided by the trust,’ he says. ‘At times I brought a commercial rigour to bear that meant donors’ money went further than it might otherwise have done.’
The biggest financial decision that Denton was involved in as treasurer was the trust’s decision to replace a leased helicopter with one that it purchased. ‘The decision was made in 2010, which, given the economic times we were in, made it a difficult one for many of the trustees,’ he says. ‘I was able to advise on some financial stress-testing we could do to demonstrate that we could still afford to pursue this option, even if donations fell or costs increased.’
Donna Bulmer, managing partner of Haines Watts in the North East and Yorkshire, is a trustee for two charities and a finance sub-committee member for a third. She helps them prepare for external audits, chairs finance sub-committees, challenges accounting policies, reviews budgets, supports fundraising initiatives, and offers advice.
‘For me, it’s about giving back,’ says Bulmer. ‘I have a long-standing connection with the local voluntary sector, and I know how important charities are in our communities. My professional experience in the sector, and in advising business owners at a strategic level, means I have the skills and expertise to provide valuable advice, which is often out of reach for smaller charities.’
Bulmer highlights that it’s not just charities and not-for-profit organisations that benefit from accountants doing pro bono work. Accountants gain themselves. ‘Being a trustee has given me a different perspective of the world,’ she says. ‘It’s opened my eyes to a lot of issues in our local community that I probably wouldn’t have been aware of otherwise. Being able to support charities that I’m passionate about gives me sense of worth.’
Sally Percy, journalist
"I brought a commercial rigour to bear at the charity, which meant donors’ money went further than it might otherwise"