How to use your skills for doing good
The reasons why people volunteer vary, although it’s primarily about ‘giving back’, says David Busby, Volunteer Services manager at Accounting for International Development (AfID), a UK-based organisation that matches accountants with volunteer assignments at non-profits around the world.
‘For some, it might also be about building up relevant experience for a career move to the not-for-profit sector, for others it’s a chance to reset and get a new perspective on the value of their skills, and indeed the profession, before returning to the corporate world refreshed and re-energised.’
Your skills are in great demand
You do not have to be fully qualified to volunteer.
Busby says: ‘We need accountants from all backgrounds and all levels. All you need to have is a few years of accounting or finance experience and, most importantly, belief in yourself.’
You don’t have to take extended leave or a sabbatical either, there are plenty of shorter-term opportunities. AfID offers volunteering assignments (to every type of accountant and from anywhere in the world) from just two weeks. These are with non-profit organisations globally: street child centres, conservation projects, women’s empowerment programmes and more.
Accounting skills and financial management training are a critical need for many of these non-profits, but they don’t always have the resources to employ financial staff.
Currently, the charities’ need for such volunteers is greater than ever, adds Michelle Wright, chief executive of Cause4, an organisation that advises charities with staffing, strategy and fundraising.
‘During the Covid-19 pandemic non-profits are facing an increase in demand for support from the most vulnerable in our communities, as well as needing to deal with urgent cash flow issues. So, professional oversight on how to refresh and review budgets, manage cash flow and take advantage of government support schemes is especially welcome.’
She says that younger finance professionals are highly sought after.
‘The qualities that they can bring – technology savvy, flexibility and entrepreneurial flair – are most urgently needed in the not-for-profit sector today.’
Wright adds that charities particularly need volunteer trustees – members of the governing board of a charity who are responsible for the general control and management of the administration of that charity.
To serve as a trustee through AfID, you need to be at least part-qualified and have between three and five years accounting experience, sometimes more. You also need to be a member or an affiliate of a professional body such as ACCA.
‘The trustees address governance and oversight questions, and provide support to the finance director – a sounding board where needed,’ says Phil Crosby FCCA, a trustee with UK-based Methodist relief and development charity, All We Can.
But if this sounds like too big a responsibility to start off with, why not support various boards and committees in a less formal capacity?
‘Many such boards and committees lack basic finance skills and therefore even trainee accountants can bring much expertise to the table by putting in simple cash flow forecasts and stronger financial controls and scrutiny,’ says Andi Lonnen FCCA, founder and chief executive of Finance Training Academy.
What you get in return
Lonnen, who herself volunteers on the board of the apartment block she lives in, says: ‘A trainee accountant who’s a resident here has joined our board and it gave her great experience of how boards are run and how to manage conflict. It really boosted her confidence, too.’
Many of AfID’s volunteers report back that they feel much more confident taking on new challenges and more resourceful in adapting to different situations.
Jacob Bikovskis was part qualified when he went to Cambodia for two weeks, to do a financial heath assessment at ICF Cambodia.
He says: ‘This experience massively improved my soft skills. It also helped me see my profession from a new and wider perspective. It is applicable and really useful in any part of the world. I returned with renewed confidence, pride and joy in my chosen career.’
Volunteering can help further your career, too.
Busby says: ‘Over 20% of our volunteers have gone on to secure a rewarding career in the non-profit sector full-time. For many, volunteering has been the key to opening doors in what is a competitive sector, it’s given them invaluable hands-on experience necessary for an edge in the recruitment process.’
Lonnen, who’s held many volunteering positions over the years, says they helped her progress to a financial director level at one point in her varied professional career.
‘Hands down, volunteering boosted my personal and professional growth considerably. It broadened and enriched my thinking and taught me different ways of doing things. I met so many people too, some have remained friends for years to come.’
The feel-good factor
There’s also the great feeling of contributing to make the world a better place.
‘For me, the most rewarding aspect has been hearing the stories of individuals and communities about the benefits they receive from the support of All We Can – these stories capture the imagination more than any dry statistics can ever do,’ says Crosby.
Jacob Bikovskis says of his experience in Cambodia: ‘I like to think that I was able to spark a real sense of belief in the local accountants, and to make them realise that they could achieve great things. I saw a beautiful country, too, and had some of my most fascinating conversations ever with the local people who, while not having much materialistically, are so rich in many ways. I came to give – and I did my best to do that – but somehow I received so much more.’
Riina Trkulja, founder of AccountsAssistants.co.uk and mentor to many start-ups and small businesses, says it’s very personally satisfying to see that you have helped someone progress and that they have blossomed as a result.
Advice for would-be volunteers
‘You need to be a good listener, especially as a mentor,’ Trkulja says. ‘The people you’re helping are often buzzing with ideas so you also need to be able to ask the right questions to guide them to the answer rather than answer it for them.’
Busby adds that soft skills – patience, flexibility, adaptability and the ability to build rapport and work collaboratively across cultures – are much more important than any in-depth technical knowledge.
Arne Kühl ACCA, who volunteered with Kidogo in Kenya for three months through AfID, says being open-minded is a must. ‘It’s a great experience that’s worth taking even if you only have a few weeks to spare. Don’t let doubts such as “I won’t earn anything during that time” affect your decision because the positives outweigh the negative in almost every way.’
Can you do it remotely?
Yes! Because of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting travel bans and restrictions around the world, AfID have had to temporarily suspend their overseas placements.
‘But our charity partners are still in need of crucial financial management support, so some of our volunteers have been providing help remotely in a variety of ways, from annual statements and budget preparation to internal audits and financial planning,’ Busby says.
Iwona Tokc-Wilde, journalist
This article was first published in Student Accountant in July 2020