How Volunteering Adds Up | AIA Magazine Article03.06.2014

Skilled volunteering is both a socially responsible and cost effective way for accountants to develop key skills, while at the same time enabling grassroots community organisations to access a vast pool of otherwise unobtainable talent.

It can be frustrating as a finance professional trying to break into the international development sector. You’ve taken the time to write a covering letter, you’re fully qualified with 10 years’ experience and yet your applications still aren’t being acknowledged. As if often the case with most jobs, possibly even more so in international development, relevant experience is highly sought after. Employers simply cannot afford to make the wrong appointment with the funds being so valuable.

Breaking into international development

Helen Ord, Finance Director at War Child, believes her previous experience within international development shows an understanding and willingness to work long hours in potentially lonely environments with limited resources.
But how do you get that experience in the charity sector without being given the initial opportunity? 

One proven method is to volunteer. Accounting for International Development (AfID) gives small charities a rare opportunity to work with experienced, qualified accountants and build their financial capacity. At the same time, it offers accountants an invaluable experience which could be priceless when beginning a career in international development.

Neil Jennings, founder of AfID, believes accountants increase their employability within the international development sector after a volunteer placement.
“I might be wrong but, from my experience talking to charities and many past volunteers now working in the sector, without relevant experience you will find it almost impossible to even get an interview. You need to demonstrate you are able to adapt your technical skills to a wide variety of new environments; you will need to prove you have finely honed social skills and the commitment and patience to work in an under resourced location” he says.

“You simply can’t beat practical hands-on experience and there is really only one way to get this – volunteering. Yes there will be sacrifices, but the return is enormous.”

Real Insight

Finance professionals who have swapped the hustle and bustle of city life for a more exotic location think their voluntary experience aided them significantly too. Timea Szeteiova, a qualified accountant, decided upon a voluntary assignment in Cambodia as a career break. After swapping south-east London for south-east Asia, Timea decided she wanted to pursue a career in international development. While it was a hard market to break, she found her voluntary experience invaluable.

“I came back to London and I was looking for a role in a non-governmental organisation (NGO), but as I did not have previous experience in this sector it was hard. Although my AfID assignment was only for three months, I think without this experience I would not have been able to secure my current role within a NGO.”

Another accountant who broke into the international development sector following her volunteer experience was Sarah Broad, whose two-week placement was enough to aid her application for a Managing Director's position at an international charity.

Sarah believes volunteering was beneficial to her career in two ways. "First, my placement helped me to decide that I wanted to move into the charity sector on a permanent basis. Second, my time as a volunteer helped to demonstrate my commitment to moving into the charity sector during the
job application and interview process."

The benefit of volunteering does not just exemplify your commitment in to international development, but it is a chance to prove you can work with limited resources in what are often highly pressured environments. According to Andrew Paul, an AfID volunteer now working full time for an international charity, that is why an "actions speak louder than words" attitude can really set you apart from the rest.

David Woodbine, Finance Director at ActionAid, agrees that prior experience is vital for the individual: "Volunteering can give you a real insight and determine whether it's right for you before making a long term commitment.
"It provides a rare opportunity to experience the real challenges of making change happen 'on the
ground'. Most people find being in the international development sector very rewarding through contributing to a cause they are passionate about, but it's not without its trials and frustrations."

Benefits of volunteering

The benefits of volunteering are not reserved to those accountants that wish to gather the experience essential for a move into the development sector. Many volunteers have seen a positive impact on their careers when they return to their day jobs.

Adrian Storey, an Internal Auditor at Shell, did exactly this. His head of department, Dominic Osborne, said volunteering had "resulted in a more 3 to 1 committed and motivated colleague the in the audit team and widened the perspective of the whole team".

Similarly, David Adair, Head of Community Affairs at PwC, an organisation that has had over 50 employees volunteer with AfID, said that volunteering with AfID has had a huge impact on the personal development of all the individual staff involved.

The influence on an individual's personal development is something that is reflected in the feedback of many AfID volunteers. Of those asked. 90% said or an they had developed more patience, 94% said they felt more confident and 97% said they were more resourceful, more comfortable with unfamiliar situations and more culturally sensitive after their volunteering experience. 


While volunteers use their experience to develop the skills of local people, 80% still felt they had acquired new skills whilst volunteering that benefited them in their current roles and 92% said that they had developed their existing skills, resulting in an improvement in their performance.
Many volunteers find the idea of working in a challenging environment with limited resources and cultural differences hugely appealing. As a result, 87% said they now felt better equipped to manage change in their own workplace and 96% were confident they could adapt to a varied and challenging environment better than before they volunteered.

For so many reasons volunteering can be a defining moment in one's career or life and should not be missed.