AAT News: Home & Away - How accountants are playing their part in the UK and overseas24.04.2020

AAT News: 'Home & Away: How accountants are playing their part both in the UK and overseas'


The nation’s support for the NHS at a time of crisis was underlined in late March when in the space of four days, approximately 750,000 people answered the rallying cry from the government for an army of volunteers to help our health service with vital support at local levels. This was three times the target set by the Prime Minister. 


Accountants will of course have been among them. But following this month’s International Microvoluteering Day on Wednesday 15 April, which is designed to help enable individuals better the world via bite-sized actions, two AAT accountants have shared their stories about how they have used some of their time and skills to volunteer for worthy causes away from home in the past, and how this is aiding their home efforts today. 


JJ Pisharello helping at the Baobab, a children’s home in Tanzania


"Within 48 hours we raised £2,000 for an Indian community in response to Covid-19"


Sonya Ashbarry has ample experience of volunteering both at home and abroad. Way back in late 2012, when the London Olympic Games were fresh in the memory but coronavirus (Covid-19) and the concept of no international travel were a long way off, Sonya began her volunteering experience in southeastern Africa, in order to share her accounting knowledge and experience.


Prompted by a comment on an AAT Facebook group about Accounting for International Development (AfID), a social enterprise designed to place accountants with small non-profit organisations across the world who could benefit from their skillset, Sonya travelled to Kasungu, Malawi.  


There, she worked at the Good Health Youth Organisation (GHYO) as an accounting technician for nearly a month. Her tasks included putting new processes and procedures in place for the organisation to provide donors with audited financial reports. She was also required to gather information about the organisation and its financial position. At the time of her journey to Malawi, Sonya was Director of training centre Eagle Education and Training Ltd. 


"I had to identify areas of strength and weakness and make recommendations to improve systems, procedures and financial reporting," Sonya says. "There were many challenges involved – not least whether I had the right practical accounting experience to transfer to a non-governmental organisation (NGO) abroad. In addition, I suffered from heat exhaustion, frequent blackouts of our equipment, and no water." 


Despite the challenges, Sonya reaped the rewards of her experience – not least thanks to a small team she was able to train up. 


"The team were fast learners, and could see the benefits of the bookkeeping systems and procedures we put into place and how they translate to donor records,” added Sonya. “Most of all, they were extremely appreciative.” 


Sonya Ashbarry


This was just the start for Sonya. Her African adventure encouraged her to spend time in December 2019 working at another NGO, the Helping Hands Social Trust, this time in India, and this time accompanied by her daughter Kerry – who also holds AAT accounting qualifications, and who remains in the country helping with the aid effort. 


“Whilst there I saw how an accounting technician could add significant value to the organisation I was working for,” Sonya explains. “I contacted AfID and the NGO was going through the application process when Covid-19 hit. 


“The crisis caused an emergency situation there. The community that benefits from the NGO were left without access to food. We took action and within 48 hours had almost achieved a fundraising target of £2,000 from incredibly generous British people. 


“We were able to pull strings to allow some people to purchase and deliver an emergency supply of food. Kerry and the team are working in the country to find out what’s available, how to access it, and most importantly how to communicate it to the community.” 


“It was extremely rewarding to combine volunteering with travel and a true cultural experience,” she adds. 


And while Sonya herself returned home from India, she’s been able to continue with volunteering efforts herself, helping out as a business mentor for Business Wales. 


“I think it will be all hands to the pump to help people get back in their feet. But I encourage anyone to volunteer – either now on the home front or abroad in the future. 


“People often fear giving back, and sharing their knowledge and expertise. They don’t appreciate how much they have to give. Live life with no regrets. And even more wonderful is you benefit more than you could appreciate too.” 


"I’m working remotely from my Gibraltar home to help a Sri Lankan social enterprise"


Like Sonya, for Jose Julio “JJ” Pisharello, it was the experience of volunteering abroad which has helped him at home during this time of lockdown. JJ, a 56-year-old accountant based in Gibraltar and a member of AAT since 1992, got the international volunteering bug last year, when he spent time working at The Baobab, a children’s home in Tanzania, East Africa.


“My wife Jackie told me about the work of AfID from a Faebook post,” JJ explains, “and I was captivated by its ability to help provide tangible, hands-on accounting support to many deserving charities around the world. 


“We were looking out for a project that would appeal to us both, and allow Jackie to participate in its activities while I could review accounting systems, procedures and controls. The Baobab home, which helps orphaned, vulnerable and HIV+ children, proved perfect.” 


While at the Baobab home, JJ was able to support and train the local team to help them gain confidence in their financial understanding abilities.  


“My audit and assurance background served me well, but seeing the bigger picture and how things should fit together is crucial. You need to manage your ego and don’t try to impress with accounting jargon – always listen and understand non-verbal cues and communication. Fundamentally it's about communicating basic accounting concepts and practices in a straightforward manner."


As a result of his successful placement in Tanzania, JJ was keen to take on a new challenge with AfID, and was scheduled to travel to Nuwara Eliya in Sri Lanka for a fortnight’s trip in early March this year. This time, he was set to support AMMA, a social enterprise that trains and employs mothers on Sri Lanka’s tea estates to produce natural textile dyes from food waste and plants.  


Just days before JJ was due to travel, however, the Covid-19 pandemic escalated. The trip was called off, and Gibraltar, like the UK mainland, has been largely in lockdown ever since. Sri Lanka has also been affected. 


“We had tentatively agreed a programme of work for my two week visit,” JJ says. “While it was a massive disappointment to cancel the trip, I felt that the key objective of an organisational-wide assessment of AMMA’s financial systems could be met via a desktop review.” 


It was crucial to establish two key factors in order for JJ to conduct his work remotely. First that there were no communication hurdles with his main contact, and second that technological platforms could be used – not just for online meetings but also file sharing and storing documents online. 


Despite the obvious challenges of communicating remotely with a different continent, AfID has received word from AMMA, for whom it was the first experience receiving tailored support in strengthening their accounting function, to say that the placement went really well. And JJ concurs, feeling that the objectives were achieved. 


“In particular, I was able to act as a coach to Josie George, co-founder of AMMA and my main contact there, which was the most significant and satisfying aspect of my role, observing how quickly she has developed her confidence. 


“During my Zoom calls I got to understand the harsh reality of the pandemic in a country with less developed medical facilities and infrastructure. If anything, it inspires you even further to try and make a difference.” 


Like Sonya, JJ would encourage accountants to consider volunteering – both during and after the Covid-19 pandemic. 


“Whilst you miss out on the immersive experience when volunteering from home,” he concludes, “you still benefit tremendously from the experience and satisfaction of helping charitable organisations in building their accounting capacity and thereby allow them to continue doing remarkable and inspiring work in the most challenging circumstances.” 


AfID offers accountants the opportunity to use their skills to support a broad range of non-profit organisations throughout the world. Since being founded back in 2009, 11 AAT-qualified accountants and bookkeepers have volunteered for overseas assignments, with one volunteering on three separate occasions. 


This article was first featured on AAT's website. You can find the original article online here.


You can also read more about JJ's experience volunteering with AMMA remotely in our case study here.