What do we mean when we say we’re looking for Volunteer Accountants?15.09.2015

You may have browsed our website at some point or received an email from us. Or perhaps seen an article in an accounting institute magazine or newsletter. “Volunteer Accountant required for XYZ charity in ABC”. But what do we really mean by that? What are we really seeking for our charity partners? When we say we are looking for ‘Volunteer Accountants’, what we should more accurately (but perhaps more convolutedly) be saying is that we are looking for accountants to volunteer as consultants.
So what’s the difference?
An accountant can be responsible for a whole host of crucial and skilled functions on a day-to-day basis such as bookkeeping, auditing or producing financial statements and reports. The problem with a ‘Volunteer Accountant’ arises because eventually the volunteer won’t be there day-to-day. At some point the local staff will be on their own, and both they and the organisation as a whole need to be equipped to survive and indeed thrive without that outside support.

An Accountant volunteering as a Consultant
An ‘accountant volunteering as a consultant’ can help our partners improve their financial performance and donor reporting capacity through the analysis of existing problems and the development of plans for improvement. Crucial to this is of course the coaching and mentoring of the local staff who will ultimately be putting the plans into action over the long-term.
We work with our charity partners on an ongoing basis, with the ultimate aim being that after a series of assignments the skills of the local staff and the financial capacity of the partner are raised to such a level that they are able to function effectively without the need for outside assistance. The role of our volunteers is therefore much more of consultation rather than accounting.
What does this mean practically on the ground?
Potential volunteers could conceivably find being labelled as a ‘consultant’ rather than an ‘accountant’ seem overly daunting. But acting as a consultant to one of our small grassroots charity partners is very different to the intuitive image of a ‘consultant’ we probably all have in our minds.
A consultant in our professional experience might be expected to develop new systems, policies or procedures. But how does this translate to consulting for one of our grassroot charity partners? It could be as simple as putting some flip chart paper on the wall, writing everything that needs to be done on it and highlighting effected parties and crucial deadlines. 

The need for skilled accountants is largely driven by a lack of training at a local level, combined with the complex reporting requirements of overseas donors. Donors will typically restrict their funding to specific items on a project’s budget and limit the allocation for core costs. When you are a headmistress, a doctor or even a nun trying to run an small community project with very limited resources, it can be very difficult to keep accurate records and perform your normal duties; especially with a different set of accounts, reporting formats and sometimes bank accounts required by each of your many donors.
A consultant might be expected to review and implement changes to internal controls. With one of our partners that could be implementing a change as modest as ensuring two members of staff have to sign cheques or ensuring cash receipts are used effectively. It is not uncommon for our partners to spend many hours, sometimes days adding figures to complex and confusing Excel spreadsheets, with little knowledge of how the software works. A volunteer could conceivable give valuable time back to the staff by offering basic guidance and simplifying these charts.
Of course these are simple examples. The stage a particular partner is within their programme of support will determine the complexity of the consulting required - from the very basics through to much more strategic and considered modifications. This means there will always be a need for accountants from all backgrounds and levels of experience. All will need to adapt the knowledge they take for granted and simplify it so local staff can use it in a sustainable manner. Here lies the biggest challenge for an AfID volunteer/consultant.
An AfID volunteer’s role is not to do the job of the local bookkeeper better than they can over a few small weeks or months. It’s much more than that. The primary focus of all of our assignments is to develop and enhance the skills, confidence and potential of local people and to develop the processes the organisation needs to deliver more effective and sustainable services to their many beneficiaries.

Key Qualities of an Effective Mentor?

More important than any technical skills are the personal qualities that make someone an effective mentor; excellent communication skills, patience, enthusiasm & positivitiy, approachability, honesty combined with diplomacy, objectivity and fairness, compassion and genuineness. Not forgetting a good sense of humour, as this is supposed to be fun too!
We all know that we can obtain a huge amount of personal satisfaction from completing a task really well, and take comfort in the fact that we know it’s crucial to the ultimate success of the organisation we’re working for. But what can be more gratifying and inspiring than facilitating others to be the best that they can be and enabling organisations, doing great work in extraordinarily difficult circumstances, to continue doing that work stably and on a sound financial footing long in to the future.
Take the first step to becoming our next Volunteer Accountant (sic. Accountant volunteering as a consultant) by visiting clicking here, emailing info@afid.org.uk or calling (0)208 741 7000.