Accountants go the extra mile for a good cause

Volunteer work can bring enormous rewards for both accountants and the charities they take their skills to.

Volunteering can enrich your life with new purpose and put your hard-earned accounting skills to work at the same time.

By Nina Hendy

Despite the significant commitment she knew it would entail, Melbourne-headquartered Guests Accounting director Ha (Hannah) Nguyen CPA jumped at the opportunity to volunteer with social enterprise KOTO International

Nguyen has been a board member for just over a year and spends about a month doing whatever she can for KOTO, which is an acronym for “Know one, Teach one”. 

According to Nguyen, she wouldn’t change her decision for the world, because KOTO provides at-risk and disadvantaged youth from Vietnam an opportunity to learn and thrive.  

“The benefit for me is that I get to give back to the community, and I don’t mind at all that it’s pro bono work,” Nguyen says. 

“Being the only person with Vietnamese heritage on the board means I have unique insights to contribute, which is also very rewarding.”

KOTO’s philosophy is that learning should be shared; its stated objective being “to end the cycle of poverty by empowering and helping our targeted youth to forge a better future for themselves, their families and their communities”. 

Indeed, KOTO has trained more than 700 students in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), with 200 currently enrolled.

Nguyen helps KOTO’s board with decisions on planning and strategising fundraising events to support underprivileged Vietnamese youth. She is currently organising a fundraising Gala Ball to be held in February 2018. 

“Some charities give money to children, but I believe it’s far better to give them an education that can help them forge their own career and become independent in the world,” she says.

On a personal level, Nguyen says being on the KOTO board is particularly special. She was born in Vietnam but received a scholarship from the Australian Government and moved to Australia to study in 1997 in what she says was a huge opportunity. Her father, who was a pilot, died tragically in an accident which resulted in a “difficult” upbringing.

“I was very fortunate to receive the support I did to move here, and feel fortunate now to be able to give back to the community,” she says.

Nguyen has been a senior accountant with Guests Accounting since 2002 and was appointed a director of the firm two years ago. She became a partner in March 2017.

“I tell my story to encourage other young CPAs to think about how they can volunteer and what they could get out of the experience,” she states. “There’s huge value in volunteering, and I hope others look for opportunities to give back.”

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Building a new support pillar

Joss Fenton CPA is a tax agent and business adviser for small business and not-for-profit (NFP) organisations and also owns a boutique retail shop in Hobart called ecoHaven.

Having worked as an accountant in the NFP sector for more than a decade, Fenton believes all accountants should consider a volunteering role. 

Indeed, he is currently designing an internship program for NFPs, the benefits of which will be two-fold. Clearly, accounting students and recent graduates need experience and NFPs need accounting support, particularly in areas such as bookkeeping and a treasurer for their board or committees.

Fenton’s idea for the Tasmania-centred program will enable accounting students and graduates looking for practical experience to be partnered with NFPs that generate income of $250,000 to $500,000 per annum. 

Candidates would probably need to commit between two and five hours a week and be needed for three, six and 12 month periods in unpaid roles, he explains. 

Paid mentors from local accounting firms with a good level of relevant experience would be matched to each candidate, with a ratio of approximately one hour for every five hours of time committed by the candidate. 

An online accounting system such as Xero or MYOB would most likely be used for ease of access by all parties, he says.

“These paid roles would be at a discounted rate from their standard fees and charges, compensated predominately by not-for-profit clients,” Fenton suggests. 

“Candidates would receive the meaningful experience they require to prepare themselves for the workplace, and the not-for-profits receive a good quality service at a rate discounted to less than they would receive in the normal marketplace.”

Related: Complimentary PII for accounting services in the community

What you need to know when you volunteer

Before you put your hand up, understand both the risks and rewards.

Public practitioners sometimes shy away from conducting unpaid audits and other accounting services because of a fear of potential liability, such as liability for financial discrepancies or related matters. 

While volunteering your time as an accountant is to be commended, you do need to understand that some activities entail risks, says Josephine Haste, CPA Australia’s manager for quality review education.  

Haste notes that following a series of corporate collapses over the past two decades, the Australian Auditing Standards received the full backing of law, meaning that regardless of whether you’re auditing in a paid or pro bono capacity, there are penalties for non-compliance, which can be substantial. 

“It doesn’t matter if you’re volunteering for the local kindergarten or a major corporate, the auditing standards apply equally, meaning that a pro-bono audit can quickly become a significant cost burden to the practitioner,” says Haste. 

“As such, we’re noticing many in public practice moving away from volunteer positions, simply because the consequences are severe when the rules aren’t followed appropriately.” 

Nevertheless, volunteer work can bring enormous rewards for both accountants and the charities they take their skills to. CPA members have used their skills in a wide range of roles: to help communities in need, save the lives of endangered animals, or improve educational opportunities, to name just a few. 

“Make sure you take the time to understand your professional responsibilities when considering volunteering to ensure you manage any risks that might come with the role,” Haste says.

Read next: Volunteering abroad from the laptop in your home office

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