Volunteering as a Vacation | Arizona CPA magazine article 30.12.2013

When you tell people that you spent your vacation setting up the accounting system for a women’s holistic health organization in Cambodia, they look confused. But that’s exactly what I did.

Several years ago, I read an article in The New York Times about the transition in the Sudan. When a country goes from a dictatorship to a democracy, the problems include a lack of accounting skills. When the assets are owned by a dictator, they are not tracked. Asset tracking, building a simple spreadsheet and basic accounting are all skills that do not exist typically in a dictatorship.

When I read the article, a light bulb went off for me. Using my skills as a CPA could make a difference. I decided that I wanted to volunteer my skills as an accountant.

My search led me to an organization called Accounting for International Development (AFID) based in London. In simple terms, AFID takes applications from individuals and small non-governmental organizations around the world. They then match the needs of the organizations with the skills of the accountant. Volunteer assignments can last anywhere from two weeks to 12 months.

Finding the right time to be away from work was one of my biggest challenges. It is never convenient to be away for an extended period of time, but I had the benefit of a work cycle that lulled in late August and an amazingly supportive staff.

AFID offered me three choices of assignments including Guyana, Zambia and Cambodia. Although all three were worthy organizations, my final choice was Our Strength, a women’s holistic health organization in Battambang, Cambodia. 

Our Strength coaches women about reproduction and childbirth. They have four team leads that go to a different local village each day of the work week and provide an education session to the women in the village. Formerly an offshoot of the Catholic Church, the organization had fully developed programs, but no back office. As I had just finished reading “Half the Sky,” I knew that providing women access to health care and information could have long-term impacts on physical and financial health. Other considerations were the quality of lodging nearby, the overall cost of flight and lodging, the languages spoken and the attractions nearby. Cambodia uses the U.S. dollar, many people speak English and the hotel was inexpensive and a short walk (less than five minutes) from the office.

Volunteering overseas can be expensive. In addition to the flights, hotel, and placement fees, there are hidden costs as well. Shots and, in my case, malaria medication, sunscreen, and bug spray all add up. It is important when volunteering that you understand all the costs you may incur.

In mid-August, I boarded a plane, and headed off to Cambodia. It took a full 24 hours of flying (Phoenix to San Francisco to Seoul to Siem Reap) to arrive in Cambodia. The next morning, I had a hired car that took me from Siem Reap to Battambang, about a three-hour drive. The traffic rules of Cambodia appeared to be nonexistent. Cars, bicycles and light motorcycles, known locally as motos, were everywhere. Motos are light, inexpensive and take only a small amount of fuel. Motos carry everything in Cambodia: live pigs to market, families of three to five, harvested rice and even live turkeys.

On Monday, I arrived at the offices of Our Strength. Our Strength is run by the charming Theary Ros and her four Village Health Leaders: Sochenda, Channa, Sokha and Vanna. They also had a part-time accountant, Visal.

The work day was very different from a U.S. work day. Each morning, we would arrive and sit on the mat in the center of the office. We spent time just talking. All of the staff was learning English. They would ask questions about American idioms they had heard but did not understand. One of my favourite discussions was trying to explain names like “honey” and “sweetie” and when they are used.

The Cambodians arrive early but take a long lunch and close at 4 p.m. I do not want to give the impression they do not work hard. All of the staff members at Our Strength worked during the day and attended school all day Saturday and Sunday. Several also had second jobs to support their families from 4 to 8 p.m. each evening. I had nothing but admiration for these women.

Although they had stated they had an accounting system, what they had was a spreadsheet —a broken spreadsheet. It took me about two days to understand the operations and realize the problem. Cambodia operates in two currencies, the U.S. dollar and the Cambodian Riel. Dollars are used for large charges including rent. The riel is used for small charges like gasoline and copying. 

Technically, the fix was some of the easiest work I have ever done. I added a column and allowed them to record transactions in both currencies. What was harder was not doing the work. CPAs by definition are typically Type– A personalities. We want to ensure we have accomplished the goal. Before I left, I received some sage advice: if you take over, they will let you. Instead, I took a step back.

After discussions with Theary, I suggested we train both Visal and one of the team leads to use the spreadsheet. We went backwards through the year and created financial statements for each month going back to January. I spent a great deal of time sitting and waiting for the staff to have a question.
I am pleased to say that at the end of the trip, we had completed eight months’ worth of financial statements, a user’s manual for the template and sample forms to use for internal controls. More than those deliverables, I made friends. The women of Our Strength, and the other people I met in Cambodia, will always be a part of my life.

For three weeks, I lived, worked, ate and breathed something different. I did not just work; I ate at local restaurants, took a cooking class, visited local temples and took countless photographs. Those experiences are now a part of me.

Many people will say I did not need to go around the world to make a difference. They are right. I can make a difference, and so can you, right here. Skilled volunteers are needed here and around the world. But I know that there are women in Cambodia that are better for my efforts and so am I. For the entire story, please see my blog at www.girltriing.com.