Beyond the Comfort Zone | John Fallon's Story | Audit and Risk Magazine 12.09.2013

While I was studying for my ACCA exams in Ireland I read an article about volunteering time for charity. I thought I'd like to do it, so, after moving to Australia and qualifying with the IIA (Australia), I came 
back to the idea. The partners at Grant Thornton agreed that I could take up to 12 months' leave to work for a charity as a volunteer.

I came across Accounting for International Development (AfID), which was started in 2009, and contacted the founder Neil Jennings to ask whether he had anything suitable. AfID offers experienced finance professionals the chance to use their skills to make a difference as volunteers and gain rewarding hands-on international development experience. Many of its assignments are short (two to six weeks), but it had an organisation in Zambia that was proving a challenge. The previous volunteer had done great work, but the improvements hadn't lasted and they wanted someone with senior management experience to go in for six months.

In 2011 I flew to Lusaka to work for EduSport, a local non-governmental organisation that brings together young people from local communities through sport and offers education in vital areas such as AIDS prevention, family planning and nutrition. It also runs a project called Go Sisters, promoting gender equity and empowerment.

The main focus of assignments is to develop and enhance the skills, confidence and potential of local people, helping organisations to develop the financial management capacity they need to deliver effective programmes, and provide the assurance needed to attract donors.

EduSport’s main donor had become frustrated with its reporting – problems had occurred on several occasions and it was threatening to pull funding. I attempted to repair the relationship and, after the donor visited during my assignment, a decision was made to replace the local finance person. This was tough because I was there to help, not disadvantage someone.

However, it enabled us to promote Nyachi, the assistant accountant. She had started as a participant in the Go Sisters programme and had worked her way through the organisation to become a leader. She shone in the role and it was great to see her progress so quickly. I still mentor her by e-mail.

As Nyachi was performing so well I suggested that I should work on another assignment for a few weeks and then return to see how she was getting on. AfID put me in touch with Diza in Rwanda, an organisation supporting child survivors of the genocide of 1994. Its main project was running and building a school in Rwamagana and I volunteered for a month to do a similar role as in EduSport.

This assignment was much smoother. Nyachi coped brilliantly and had only a few questions on my return. I spent another ten days with her before I left Africa.

Much of the work I did in Africa drew on my IIA qualification and really expanded my experience. I had to identify risks, review and enhance accounting and operating environments and create policies to prevent issues arising in the future including a disaster recovery plan. My internal audit skills supported my ability to perform the role.
I learnt a lot working for AfID. I am more motivated because I appreciate what I have after experiencing the challenges there. It was incredibly rewarding to see the difference donors can make in the developing world. I’m better at understanding how to work with people of varying abilities too, and at seeing the big picture.

AfID was extremely supportive throughout. Everything was set up in advance and I received all the necessary information. It put me in touch with previous volunteers and maintained contact to the end.

My best memories are running through the towns and countryside with kids either staring at me or running behind me while training for the Kigali marathon. You hear so much that's negative about Africa, but I was never in danger and people were always friendly and welcoming. It's important for the locals to see you living their life, from shopping in markets, chatting in bars and watching football to eating BBQ goat.

If this is something you want to do, then do it. Arrange time off and go and help an organisation in need. Have a good time.