Alistair (CIPFA) travelled to Gaborone, Botswana, to provide accounting support to Young 1ove, a sexual and reproductive health rights focused organisation.
We caught up with him on his return to hear all about his two-month assignment.
Why did you decide to volunteer?
I first became interested in volunteering as I wasn’t particularly happy with where my career was going, and was struggling to get excited about going to work each day. I’d been keeping an eye on AfID, and it finally felt like the time was right to take the plunge and do something different.
What made you decide that Young 1ove was the right organisation for you to support?
A few things struck me about Young 1ove. The first was that they were a youthful organisation, being run by young people to better connect with the youth of Botswana and southern Africa. I figured that being 28 I was probably going to be one of the younger volunteers applying through AfID, and thought that would put me in a better position to have a bigger impact than others. As well as being a young organisation, I could see that they had a really energetic culture – team meetings were full of singing, dancing and people enjoying themselves, which made them more productive in the long run. That felt like a more relaxed environment would help me contribute more (despite a distinct lack of rhythm on my part).
How do you feel your two months volunteering impacted Young 1ove?
I think the key areas I managed to contribute were around establishing a new ledger system more suited to donor reporting and allowing for international expansion, as Young 1ove looked to scale its operations. The systems in place when I arrived were sufficient for a local organisation with few reporting obligations, but the ambition of the organisation was to deliver their education at scale across southern Africa, which would involve more onerous external reporting to a range of donors. I think some of the fundamentals and the new ledger system I helped put in place will put them in a good position to expand and deliver their curriculum to more at risk young people in the future.
What was the most enjoyable aspect of your assignment?
On the accounting side, I enjoyed working with the local accounting staff to help develop their skills from being processors towards being informed decision makers, and to always understand the rationale for the controls they operate. I also really enjoyed connecting with visiting donors, and being able to demonstrate the improvements the organisation had made in its back-office functions, to provide them with reassurance that the organisation was on a sound footing.
Outside of the finance team, I really valued visiting a school where the Young 1ove curriculum was being delivered. Actually seeing the grant funding in action had a deep impact on me, to see how skilfully the team could communicate their message to a group of school children in just an hour of their time.
And what was the experience like outside of the office?
Volunteering in Botswana gave me access to a wealth or opportunities to experience something different. I really enjoyed travelling whilst I was out there, (I figured having travelled five and a half thousand miles to get there, weekend trips to Johannesburg, Cape Town, the Chobe National Park and Victoria Falls were in order), and my passport is now filled with stamps from Botswana, South Africa, Zambia and a visa from Zimbabwe.
I had some slightly surreal experiences I won’t have again – including getting stuck in traffic jams caused by cows just standing in the middle of the street, watching amateur boxing in a Zimbabwean youth hostel and being drafted in to a rugby match for the Gaborone Hogs against the Botswana Defence Force – all certainly memorable experiences!
Do you think volunteering will have lasting impact on your career, or even your personal life?
Before I left for Botswana I’d already made a change and left my previous job. I’m in no doubt that one of the things that helped me secure a new job in the NHS was by showing myself to be the sort of person who would take decisions like that and make changes to ensure I can really contribute to an organisation. It also helped demonstrate that I was the right cultural fit for the CCG I’ve moved to.
That’s aside from all the soft skills that I’ve developed, including my communication skills, which have improved no end. I’m now much more comfortable taking a leadership role, and in a much better position to explain complex accounting matters to non-financial experts than before, although my Setswana language skills would still only be best described as “rudimentary” rather than “fluent”.
Would you recommend volunteering overseas to colleagues of yours?
Definitely! Volunteering has left me with some great memories, having met some fantastic people making a real difference in areas we don’t often think about. Even for people who are just thinking about it, it’s definitely worth finding out more and looking in to how you can use your skills to have a genuine impact.