When people consider volunteering overseas they often think of teaching English, handing out supplies or building orphanages. But these activities can only happen if funding is effectively managed: the vital and transferable skills learnt from an accounting qualification opens up a whole world of volunteering opportunities.
If a school in a deprived part of Kenyan hasn’t created a realistic budget for its projects or established workable monitoring systems it could easily run out of funds unexpectedly. This might lead to a lack of trust from its donors and an inability to cover vital running costs such as school meals and staff wages. It might even have to close. If a women’s refuge in Cambodia doesn’t make effective use of its limited income it might have to turn away vulnerable women and girls. And if a health clinic in rural El Salvador isn’t able to produce clear and transparent financial reports, its international donor might have to withdraw vital funding. Such problems are well known in the international development sector, and the volunteering organisation Accounting for International Development (AfID) was set up to deliver an effective solution:
“Accounting skills are a globally accepted language that transcends many barriers,” says founder Neil Jennings, “an accounting qualification is just as useful at a Ugandan children’s home as it is in a UK business.”
AfID supports hundreds of organisations, from tiny orphanages to social enterprises to international NGOS. Assignments vary in length from two-weeks to 12-months and focus on developing the skills, confidence and potential of local people. This creates the local financial management capacity needed to deliver more effective and sustainable programmes to their many beneficiaries. By passing on professional skills through mentoring and coaching, volunteer accountants empower local staff and avoid creating an aid dependency.
Local staff in Africa, Asia and South America are highly aware of the need for financial management capacity building:
“Our AfID volunteer arrived at the exact time in our organisation's development,” says Helen, Managing Director of Epic Arts, a performing arts and education charity in Cambodia. “Having a professional spend time with our finance team and look at the details in our financial processes and make recommendations for improvement was such an enormous gift!”
Accountants can also use volunteering as a platform for career change. More than one-in-ten of AfID’s volunteers go on to work permanently in the charity and international development sectors.
Bryan Mundy volunteered as a mentor at peace building charities in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where he coached local staff in the use of Quickbooks and set up new reporting systems and processes. Once back in the UK, Bryan drew on his experience to move his career to the international development sector.
Bryan summed up his experience volunteering as “life changing, challenging, thought-provoking, stimulating, satisfying, motivating and career developing...”
His experience helped him to secure a position at Partners in Health – one of the world’s most prestigious healthcare NGOs:
“I spent six weeks in Congo, [with] no hot showers and basic living, but I made new friends and proved my skills in an NGO environment, which enabled me to secure the position of Finance Director for Partners in Health’s flagship Hospital in Haiti.”
So what is volunteering overseas actually like for an accountant? John Kruger recently returned from IDinsight, an organisation which develops effective HIV and AIDS programmes in Zambia:
“Overall I really valued my experience at IDinsight. My work was the establishment of basic cash and expense controls, to learn their new simple accounting software and develop an accounting process for their specific 'business' to match Quickbooks capabilities and processes.”
Along with learning the new accounting software, John was also mentoring an accountant on how to use it: “I passed on my new knowledge of the software to the newly appointed local accountant and helped her work with the new processes and procedures which I had designed to facilitate accounting.”
Volunteering with charities requires hands-on accountants who want to become involved in all aspects of accountancy, as John found out: “I also wrote internal controls and procedures and set up their ledger for recording transactions.”
In addition, John found he was contributing to numerous other aspects of the financial management of IDinsight: “I was also involved in the recruitment of an internal auditor, the establishment of contract terms and development of a plan for the internal auditor's reviews and management's reviews.”
However, John found the gratitude a just reward for his efforts: “These seemingly basic actions were really appreciated which was enormously satisfying”
But it’s not all hard graft. There are plenty of other reasons, other than utilising your skills to help those less fortunate, that make volunteering abroad worthwhile.
John sums his experience up: “Living in Zambia, I made new friends and learnt a lot about their culture. I managed to visit to Victoria Falls - both beautiful and eye-opening.
“My impression is that the charities really appreciate it and that it is extremely valuable to them. For accountants, it’s a wonderful way to see the developing world and add more visible value. I have and will continue to recommend it to all of my colleagues and hope to do assignments again and again.”
There should be little doubt that the accounting qualification is not only useful but critical in the International Development and charity sector, and there is huge demand for accountants both as volunteers and employees. For finance professionals looking for both challenging but enormously rewarding assignments there are many opportunities available all over the world.