Chris (CA), an experienced finance director, had been working in industry for the majority of his career and had always wanted his next step to be a more meaningful path in the international development sector.
He was keen to get out of industry and hoped that by completing a voluntary assignment he would increase his future prospects of landing a full-time role at a charity. However, Chris was keen to ensure that the volunteer role was a perfect fit for him; he wanted a role that didn’t just involve accountancy and finance, but also had management and strategic aspects.
Chris chose an organisation called INCLUDED, a non-profit migrants’ rights charity based in Beijing, China. It was a perfect fit for what he was looking for because the organisation was at a stage where they would benefit from the broader oversight of skills that he could bring to the table.
The assignment Chris embarked upon was due to last six- months, but only half way through it he was offered the CFO role on a permanent basis. He accepted a contract that would take him up to 2016.
AfID caught up with Chris to find out about his time so far in China and to find out how he felt his voluntary experience helped him get the permanent role.
Can you tell us a little about your current role in China and how it differs to your last position with the Harkand Group?
My role with INCLUDED in Beijing is called CFO+. This means I am responsible for a lot more than the numbers. My recent roles in the private sector have been mainly focused on monthly results, building the finance team and contributing pricing for market share growth; the priorities at INCLUDED are different.
I am closely involved with the fundraising team, looking at strategy, setting targets, helping with market segmentation and trying to support and motivate the team in this critical area.
I am also involved in preparing costings and financial analysis for grant submissions. There is a tricky juggling act required to find a way to cover all of the NGOs costs, because some donors only want to contribute to program costs (not to overheads) or want to be associated with a certain flagship project, which has already been funded. I’m helping to give a better understanding of our cost base and distinguish between direct, indirect and overhead costs – and building a cost allocation model which donors will accept (so that overheads can be funded).
Cash management is another big part of the role and this is the same as in the private sector. Costs are known with a high degree of certainty, but income is the variable, so it is important to be able to look a few months ahead and see where problems may lie.
In general, my role now is more people focused and broader. NGOs do not have the luxury of employing pure specialists; they need generalists who have specialist skills. I am the oldest staff member (by about 15 years) and the team in general is very young, so I have a role to play sharing my prior experience in different situations and generally encouraging the team (finance and non-finance).
Many accountants worry about the transferability of their skills when moving to a new country and sector; have you found any specific experience from your past roles have been particularly relevant?
I am amazed at how relevant my skills are – and by this I mean all the skills from the different parts of my career. Firstly, I can speak the corporate language when communicating with donors, particularly those from CSR departments of big corporates. I’m able to see things for their business perspective.
My spreadsheet modelling skills have been very useful too. I produced a financial forecast which was seen as a work of alchemy. The organisation hadn’t had anyone in-house before capable of doing this and found the picture of the future financial position amazing and helpful for decision making.
I have found that by simply being able to focus finance and lift the burden from others that I have been able to take pressure off the organisation and reassure the board. Program staff are focused on delivery and are used to working with whatever financial resources they have. They have not been able to take a strategic approach to funding to find a model which will give them greater resources and greater freedom and they have not been confident that costs have been properly tracked and controlled. These are skills that are directly transferrable from the private sector.
Further, INCLUDED is a young NGO, now in its sixth year, and is, like many growing SMEs in the private sector, trying to focus on its core mission and values, trying to build and retain an committed team, needing to ensure that it can fund its growth and trying to carve out a market niche. I helped start an oilfield service business ten years ago and experienced challenges, stresses and growing pains, which are very similar to what INCLUDED is going through. I can see that a lot of my learning from this time is directly transferrable to INCLUDED.
How easy was it to adapt to living and working in a different culture?
Adapting to and living in a different culture has been hard. I knew that it would be and was determined to work hard to integrate socially as well as at work. However, China floored me in the first two weeks. I hadn’t been prepared for the scarcity of English speakers in Beijing, the lack of signs in English or English characters, the strangeness of the food (delicious, but not always clear what you are eating) and the remoteness of city life.
I have had a lot of support at work (for example, to help me order lunch, fix me up with a phone etc) and have made good use of a social networking group (Internations Beijing) to meet people, join film and book groups, go hiking etc. I am also trying to learn Chinese and am very slowly making progress with the basics
Why did you choose to work in the International Development sector?
I wanted to work for an organisation with a sense of purpose. I’ve worked hard for private equity/venture capital backed businesses for the last 10 years, where making money was the prime goal – and I simply lost the motivation for this.
I worked in Swaziland, as a newly qualified auditor almost 30 years ago, and have donated to development charities ever since. When I helped start up an oilfield service business in my early forties, it was with the goal of selling it within ten years, so that I could have the freedom to do what I really wanted to thereafter. The sale concluded last year, which enabled me to make this goal a reality.
The prize for me is to be able work with committed and passionate people helping to improve the lives of others. I met really interesting people in the NGO sector in Swaziland and now I’m working with interesting people in China. We have a mission statement which really means something and a great sense of teamwork. Perfect.
You were volunteering with Included when you accepted the permanent position; do you feel this experience helped you gain this role and prepare for life in China?
Definitely. I saw volunteering as an ideal way to put my toe in the water. I wanted to see if my skills were suitable and adaptable to the NGO sector, to experience what working in an NGO is like and also to get experience for my CV when applying for jobs in the sector. I think NGOs are right to question the motives of someone coming from the private sector; to determine whether you are running away from something or running towards something. Therefore, I decided to volunteer for a six month period as the first step of my transition from the private sector and in order to show my commitment, ‘stickability’ and suitability to potential employers.
This period certainly helped me prepare for life in China and to consider a permanent role with INCLUDED. This is not a country I had remotely considered living and working in before the volunteer opportunity with INCLUDED arose, but, having been here for three months, I now have a feel for the work and what life in Beijing will be like.
What would you say are the pros & cons of your decision to work in the sector?
A sense of doing something meaningful and worthwhile. Also challenging, exciting and different. The role is broad and varied and I am involved in developing the organisation at a strategic level. I have a chance to see a new country and from a very different perspective than if employed by a multi-national company. I’ll be working with people motivated by the mission of the organisation and with a great sense of teamwork.
Salary is much lower (base salary around 33% of private sector and without typical expatriate benefits). The financial resources of the organisation are tighter and need close control and monitoring.
What ‘do’s and don’ts’ would you give to anyone thinking of travelling and working in a less developed country?
Beforehand: Be clear in your mind why you want to work in the sector. It will be tough, because money is always tight, and so you need to be willing to work in this environment. Be sure that you can live on reduced income and that your affairs at home are sorted out. Be ready to work on your own initiative and without a wider finance support network.
When you arrive: Take time to understand the country, culture and people. Learn some language basics. Find out how local residents live and travel and what they are wary of. This will enable you to live well with less money and have a better experience of the country. Do ensure that you have the basics covered ; somewhere you can call home, work hard at making connections outside work, find something you like to do to relax (and do it), ensure you are prepared for emergencies (e.g. medical cover, local phone contacts). Keep an open mind, try new things, keep a sense of humour and smile.
Don’t think of an assignment as a holiday. The work of the accountant is crucial to an NGO and you will be expected to work hard. You may be able to down-shift though by concentrating on is really important to the organisation without the noise of corporate life and spurious reporting requirements.
Don’t let the new experience overwhelm you. It will be disorientating moving to a new country and you need to be aware of how this is affecting you and what you need to do to settle and feel at home (even if this means buying an outrageously expensive packet of cornflakes once in a while). Don’t expect things to be right from the start, but do keep checking your sense of well-being, until you reach the ‘safe’ level. Don’t let the little things bother you (e.g. chaos on the road, lack of courtesy for pedestrians) - accept what you can’t change.
Don’t overthink it. If it feels right, do it.
What would be your advice to other accountants considering a similar career change or looking to break into the sector?
I would advise other accountants to volunteer initially so they can experience working life outside the corporate world and see if it suits them.
I suggest they look at what they have learnt and achieved in their career to date and decide whether the time is right for a move into an NGO. I expect there will be few other finance staff to support you in many NGOs, so you need to be confident in your skills, and be resilient and self-reliant. I think the broader your experience has been to date, the better you will fare.
If the time is not right, but the idea for working for an organisation with a real sense of purpose appeals, then work out a plan to get to the point when the time will be right. Thinking and dreaming about the move are the easy parts, getting to the cliff edge and then jumping off are much harder. I had a ten year plan, a financial cushion and a supportive partner before I made the leap.