Volunteering in international development charities can transform your career

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As a qualified accountant, you decide you need a break from the routine but want to give something back. So you sign up to volunteer with Accounting for International Development (AfID), the global organisation that provides volunteering opportunities for accountants at non-governmental organisations (NGOs). You take up your placement on the other side of the world and then realise that you have found your calling, that this is what you want to be doing – not just as a career break but for the rest of your life.

This is the experience of many ACCA members who volunteer with AfID and never look back, ultimately leaving their corporate roles for long-term careers in international development. An extraordinary 20% of AfiD’s volunteers become ‘career changers’, taking up a full-time position at an NGO.

Take Will Potten FCCA, who has worked in the airline, energy and manufacturing sectors. He is now a restricted funds accountant at Christian Aid. Potten contacted AfID in 2011, as he wanted to put his accountancy skills to good use while taking a break from his job. He decided to accept a placement in Ghana with an NGO called Young People We Care (YPWC), a youth-focused organisation.

‘I wanted a change of direction and a little time out from the career ladder but doing something exciting that was productive at the same time,’ he says. After six weeks at YPWC, Potten realised he wanted to work full time in international development. ‘Travelling to programme locations and engaging with the beneficiaries of an organisation’s work – I cannot describe just how rewarding and inspiring this can be,’ he says.

Amber Honey ACCA was also drawn to the development sector. ‘I had reached a point in my career where I was a little fatigued and wanted something different,’ she explains. ‘I was also determined to use the professional skills that I had developed in a tangible way, and AfID provided exactly that opportunity.’

Having volunteered in 2017 for the Children Might Foundation in Rwanda, Honey now works for Farm Africa, an NGO operating in East Africa. ‘The work we do is inspiring and important, whereas at a large corporate you often feel like a small cog in a big wheel,’ she says. ‘I think that is the main difference from my previous job.’

Previously in risk advisory at Deloitte, Honey now faces different challenges but feels there is more opportunity to be creative and see her ideas implemented across an organisation. ‘The work is definitely more difficult than it was at Deloitte, as there’s a lot of responsibility for management, direction and growth,’ she admits. ‘But with all the added responsibility, there is an inherent feeling that my opinion counts and that I am valued and heard.’

Different challenges

The financial management tasks faced by those working in NGOs are often quite different from those in the corporate world. They include managing donor funds, which typically come from international institutions such as the European Union and the United Nations, or from national governments. Each donor will have their own complex requirements about how their contracts should be managed and reported on. What they will and won’t pay for, and how the project will be funded, is key. The NGO, for example, may be expected to pay upfront for a programme (for which they will be reimbursed), which has huge ramifications for the NGO’s cashflow. Hence the need for financial expertise.

‘These issues create consequences for an organisation in terms of financial risk, sustainability and compliance,’ Potten says. ‘In such an operating environment, strong financial acumen, technical skills and in-depth sector understanding are much in demand.’

NGOs also seek experience in the case of full-time appointments. Volunteering gives a candidate an idea if the sector suits them and will impress recruiters. ‘A pro bono placement at a charity overseas holds a significant amount of weight in applications,’ explains AfID spokesperson Jessica Jackson. ‘It shows a clear interest and commitment to the sector that is just as valuable as qualifications.’

AfID proactively assists volunteers who want to move into NGOs. It works with more than 50 organisations – including Oxfam, Save the Children and ActionAid – to link up with finance professionals.

Using your skills for the benefit of others often involves some degree of sacrifice. Both Potten and Honey took pay cuts when they moved to the NGO sector, and the work can be challenging. ‘You can be sitting in an office somewhere in Africa at 10pm, sifting through box after box of handwritten vouchers, trying to recreate a financial report that was submitted five years ago,’ says Potten.

And Honey warns: ‘It’s not for the faint-hearted – you need to be resilient.’

The valuable and varied experience will certainly enhance any CV, but above all else comes the uplifting nature of the work. ‘Throughout the sector, wherever you are and whatever you work on, you will continue to be inspired by the people you meet,’ says Potten.

Honey adds: ‘Test the waters with a volunteer stint first and be prepared not simply to change your career but also to change yourself in the process.’

This article was first published in the February/March 2020 China edition of Accounting and Business magazine

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