Accounting for International Development (AfID) has been providing accountants with volunteering opportunities across a range of non-profit organisations around the world for a decade now. The charity, which since its inception has arranged assignments for more than 1,300 accountants from over 50 countries, puts volunteers in touch with organisations that need a range of financial expertise – to the benefit of both.
While it’s easy to see why free, high-quality advice is beneficial to charities, the advantage to accountants – unpaid volunteers who can find themselves far from home in a strange environment taking on unfamiliar challenges – may be less clear. However, by taking on a volunteer role, accounting professionals are rewarded with a hugely satisfying experience that will serve them well both personally and professionally.
Emma Dark FCCA, who is a director at Dark Consulting in the UK, has done two stints as an AfID volunteer – in Cambodia and Haiti. ‘Completing a placement really is a life-changer,’ she says. ‘The small changes I was responsible for made a huge difference to the way the charities functioned.’
Measuring the difference
In its 10-year history, AfiD has:
- placed 1,300 accountants from 50 countries with more than 500 not-for-profit organisations
- supported the volunteers, who have provided in excess of 250,000 hours of pro bono work – the equivalent of more than £12m of professional services
- provided assignments tailored to individual volunteers’ skills, availability and preferences in as little as three weeks.
Tailored to you
So many placements are available that choosing where to go may seem daunting, but AfiD aims to make the decision simple. Moeed Khalid ACCA, who works in corporate finance at Fauji Fertilizer in Pakistan, wanted to volunteer in Africa, and was available for three weeks in one particular month. AfiD provided a range of assignment options tailored to his preferences.
‘I had the option of choosing from five organisations, each in a different country in Africa,’ Khalid says. After a series of in-depth discussions by phone, he was provided with case studies, online material about accounting for non-profits, travel guides, and help with visas and vaccines. ‘It wasn’t a long or difficult process at all,’ he adds.
The tasks volunteers are asked to do are not necessarily complex but are still very valuable. Dustin Johnson FCCA, a Canadian working as division controller at Waste Connections in the US, went to Cambodia for his first placement. He helped the charity Restore One, which teaches basic skills.
‘Their greatest need was implementing cash controls,’ Johnson says. ‘Nobody had any kind of accounting experience, so I provided instruction on how to close the restaurant till each day, how to count the cash on hand, how to enter a deposit. I then helped reconcile the cash section on the balance sheet.’
On his second placement, he advised the founder of Creating Opportunities for Guatemalans on reviewing accounts, performing account reconciliations, devising best practice and completing annual government returns.
The biggest challenge in a placement can be the non-technical elements. Dark, for example, worked for an organisation called Haiti Communitere, which co-ordinates the efforts of many different charities in Haiti.
‘People were living in the rubble [in the wake of a catastrophic earthquake],’ she recalls. ‘I was in the thick of it.’ She dealt with the stress by taking time out and making the most of the experience. She found herself in a quiz team, going to musical events and clubs, and trekking over a mountain range.
Khalid also emphasises the importance of this part of a placement: ‘Don’t go overboard in trying to prove yourself to your host organisation,’ he says. ‘You need to ensure you take the time to visit the country and explore. Set an agenda of achievable goals that you want to accomplish during your stay. As a volunteer, you aren’t expected to do everything.’
AfiD also provides a ‘plus-one’ service for accountants who want to help but would like to take a companion with them to share the experience, even if that person isn’t in finance. Johnson was accompanied by his partner Nancy, who taught English while Johnson helped with the accounts. ‘She loved her experience,’ he says. ‘Volunteering also allowed her to build more friendships than simply being a tourist, making it that much more meaningful.’
The benefits to the volunteer professionals are numerous. Johnson says that finding he was able to meet a variety of new challenges made him a more confident person, with improved communication and leadership skills.
Khalid, who volunteered for the Practical Education Network in Ghana, prepared an organisation-wide finance manual, which covered everything from accounting policies, payroll tasks, bank reconciliations and the capitalisation of fixed assets to a budgeting and forecasting system. He takes satisfaction from the software he recommended being implemented, and enjoyed being the first to give financial advice to the new organisation.
‘I was a maiden accounting volunteer, which meant I could leave a first impression and set a path for subsequent volunteers to follow,’ he says, adding that he would volunteer again ‘in a heartbeat’.
In this its 10th anniversary year, AfID hopes to place 200 accountants. With plaudits from the volunteers featured here ranging from ‘truly enlightening’, ‘incredible experience’ and ‘highly recommended’, what’s stopping you?