Canadian CPA's Volunteer Experiences | CPA Canada Magazine04.04.2014

Cows and buffalo roam freely through the city of Pokhara, best known as a staging site for travellers trekking in Annapurna, one of Nepal’s largest mountain ranges. White-peaked mountains give way to rice farming along the hillsides. It’s a scene Robin Wong describes as breathtaking and far removed from his own experience growing up near Lake Ontario. Wong left a management role in a Markham, Ont.-based accounting firm to make the journey from Toronto to Pokhara by way of Hong Kong and Kathmandu last October. He had a definite goal in mind: to lend his technical expertise as a volunteer for KOPILA-Nepal, a local not-for-profit that helps people deal with the psychological fallout from the country’s recent civil war. It also offers support to abused women and children living in poverty.

Wong learned about KOPILA and its efforts in Nepal from UK-based Accounting for International Development (AfID), a social enterprise that puts experienced finance professionals in touch with opportunities to put their skills to work as volunteers in developing countries. Assignments can range from two weeks to 12 months and are geared to helping build the financial management capacity, transparency, efficiency and sustainability of some 256 charities and nonprofit organizations around the world.

Neil Jennings founded AfID in 2009 after his quick ascent up the corporate ladder in the UK left him disillusioned. He quit his job as regional director for London with global recruitment firm Robert Half International and took on a seven month volunteer assignment to help an NGO in Rwanda create the infrastructure necessary to secure long-term funding for its school projects. “The NGO was receiving funding from overseas but the donor wanted to ensure the money was being well managed,” says Jennings, who helped gain government accreditation for the school, set a new strategic course and updated internal reporting systems. His efforts had the desired result: the school is going strong.

The experience set Jennings on a new life course. When he returned to the UK, he volunteered with Bond, a UK membership body for organizations working in international development or supporting those that do. "I quickly realized that the hundreds of charities Bond was supporting were dealing with similar issues that the school in Rwanda had in terms of a lack of skills and experience around financial management and reporting", says Jennings. It proved to be an aha moment. "I was a volunteer in Rwanda and I used to recruit accountants in my professional life. I thought maybe accountants would want to volunteer as I had." As it turns out, they did - and do. To date, some 500 accountants worldwide (14 from Canada) have volunteered more than 65,000 hours of pro bono financial management services through AfID. Those numbers continue to grow as more and more accountants from across Canada and around the world seek out opportunities to give back in a meaningful way.

Welcome to the new volunteers, keen to use their skills to effect change. Paula Speevak-Sladowski, Volunteer Canada’s director of programs, policy and applied research, says that professionals have always given time and volunteered their services to nonprofit organizations but in the past five years there has been an increased focus on skills-based volunteering. "They are taking on short-term assignments that can have significant impact because they are using their skills and experience to help build capacity."

Here are three Canadian accountants who are volunteering their skills for international organizations.

Robin Wong ( KOPILA- Nepal):

Right from the time he was a student at Brock University, Robin Wong dreamed of seeing the world. "There were posters around campus offering the chance to work and volunteer in Japan, Korea, South America," he says, "but I was part of the co-op program and didn't have the time."
As it turned out, Wong wouldn't have the time for another five years. After graduating in 2008, he got his accounting designation in 2010, then worked full time. But he continued to feel the pull of an international career.

In the summer of 2013, Wong's father received a copy of CGA Magazine that had an ad for AfID. Wong visited the website, submitted his resumé and set up a call with one of AfID's consultants. That is how he learned about KOPILA-Nepal and its counselling work with people affected by the country’s armed conflict. "KOPILA is helping raise awareness about mental health (in Nepal, where the topic is stigmatized). The war may be over but the problems persist and people are struggling," he says.

Wong arranged to spend two months giving QuickBooks training to KOPILA’s finance department and also worked with managers to prepare reports for overseas donors. While on site, he had the opportunity to go on a field trip to see the work the counsellors were doing with families of missing persons. "Seeing up close the results of KOPILA-Nepal’s work drove home the importance of this organization. Without KOPILA, these people would not be getting any long-term help. My career to that point was tax returns and financial statements. Being in Nepal, seeing the impact and knowing I played a part was powerful."

So powerful, Wong is currently in Siem Reap, Cambodia, on his second volunteer placement with AfID. He's looking into a new career trajectory in international development. "I want to use my skills to make life better for people."

Julianne Favron ( Village Health Works- Burundi)

Daniel Chow ( Prison Fellowship- Cambodia)