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Powerful ways accountants can volunteer

Employing their professional talents to make a difference outside work, ICAEW members are supporting myriad non-profits and worthy causes. David Adams outlines how accountants can use their powers for good.

Accountancy plays a positive role in society, helping clients manage their finances and businesses effectively and ensuring the right amount of tax is paid on time. But some accountants may wish to go a step further and have a more direct positive impact on society during their spare time. 

One way is to volunteer for any of thousands of local, national and international charities and other not-forprofit organisations, many of which can offer a huge range of volunteering opportunities very suitable for a trained accountant, from a spell as a treasurer or a trustee to much shorter project-based engagements, such as helping an organisation install a new finance system. 

Volunteering helps those organisations, but it’s also very good for the volunteer: they enjoy the satisfaction of knowing they are doing good, and may also benefit from honing skills that could prove useful in their day jobs. Employers benefit too, from free staff development, and improved employee engagement, morale and retention. An employer co-ordinating volunteering activities for its staff also enhances its public image. 

ICAEW facilitates volunteering opportunities for members through its Volunteering Community. A joining fee of £30 includes free professional liability insurance covering all pro bono and volunteering work for a UK charity or not-for-profit organisation; and access to ICAEW’s trustee training modules. There is a huge demand across the voluntary sector for individuals who could serve as treasurers, pro bono bookkeepers or trustees, according to Gillian McKay, head of charity and voluntary sector at ICAEW. “Charity finance is no less complex than any other form of finance, but there tend to be fewer people with those skills working in the charity sector,” she says. 

“Charities are not trading organisations, meaning that the ability to plan and think strategically is very important. Our members are helping organisations to think ahead, plan sustainably, and diversify income streams.” Janet Thorne, CEO of charity and volunteering network Reach Volunteering, says that finance skills are “far and away the most requested skills for our service and we cover every kind of volunteering opportunity you can imagine”. 

In particular, she says, there is a constant need for treasurer trustees. “I know some accountants think ‘I don’t want to do it – because that’s my day job’, but actually a lot of charity treasurers are pleasantly surprised by how much time they spend doing other things,” says Thorne. “It’s more about governance and leadership.” She highlights the potential value to younger people of serving as a trustee: “You’re getting experience of a non-executive role, a leadership role and all the things that go with it. You’re also networking and working closely with professionals from different backgrounds. It can be a very rich learning experience. 

It may also help your understanding of your clients. It’s a good way to improve professional development, because there’s nothing like experiential learning.” Thorne also highlights the diversity of the charity sector, which means accountants could work with a huge range of organisations, supporting causes related to specific health conditions, community organisations, or development work overseas, for example. Some accountants are able to take a sabbatical of a few months or longer, meaning they can volunteer for projects in other countries. 

Many more volunteer on a smaller scale, giving up a few hours of their time each month a bit closer to home. Reach’s honorary treasurer, Graham Warner, is himself a volunteer: a former CFO and FD who now serves as a non-executive director at two investment firms and as an honorary treasurer at Reach and another small charity, the Medical Council on Alcohol. Warner says he would recommend that any accountant consider volunteering. “Dip your toe in first, to see how you like it,” he says. “The other thing you have to do is your due diligence. Think about what you would like to do, the time commitment you’re prepared to give it; and the type of people you’re going to be dealing with. 

“I would say that it’s well worth it. It gives volunteers a chance to expand their horizons, both in terms of the diversity of people you deal with and the different types of problems you face.” Many larger firms have also developed extensive volunteering programmes for staff. At EY, much of this activity is co-ordinated by the EY Foundation, which runs programmes across the UK supporting schools, colleges, social enterprises and other organisations. 

Through its Smart Futures programme, EY staff mentor young people in their final year at school or college, who also complete work experience placements and communication, problem-solving and leadership training. Steve Parker, a manager in the advisory business at EY, has mentored students in each of the past three years. 

He cites the example of a young man he helped in Manchester who was very uncertain what he might do after completing his A-levels. “We had lots of conversations about different routes he might take,” says Parker. “We’d meet in my Manchester EY office. Just bringing him into that environment was really valuable. He’s now gone to study engineering at Leeds. To see how he’s evolved is fantastic – just knowing I had a small part to play in that is incredibly rewarding.” He says he’s recommended the programme to many colleagues: “It’s one of the best parts of my job.” 

At PwC every member of staff is allowed to take up to six working days each year to volunteer. Elements in the firm’s own community engagement programme include support for charities, social enterprises and education, but there are other themes too, including improving both social mobility and mental health in society, as part of which the company has worked extensively with The Samaritans. PwC volunteers also provide mentoring and practical support to social enterprises to help them increase their operational capacity. 

“It’s great for social enterprises to get free business advice and help with accounting, but it’s also great for our people, because they can see the impact their work is having,” says head of community engagement David Adair. Work in schools includes helping students write CVs and UKAS statements, employability skills workshops; and Dragon’s Den-style competitions that culminate in students presenting to senior PwC managers. 

John Power, an assurance transformation manager at PwC, has been giving his time to non-profits for five years and helps co-ordinate volunteering opportunities for colleagues in London. He enthuses about working in inner city schools in the capital. “These are really engaging days and lots of fun for everyone involved,” he says. “It’s tiring, but very rewarding.” He is certain that participating in these events is also enabling him to improve his professional skills. “It’s helping to develop leadership skills; and you’re working in a very different environment,” he says. 

“It helps to give people some meaning to their occupation. When people have done some volunteering you can see it all over their faces. They’ve had a really good time and they want to do it again.” At Deloitte the flagship volunteer/community engagement programme in the UK is One Million Futures, which again offers volunteer-led support to schools, charities and social enterprises. Work with schools focuses on those with a high proportion of pupils on free school meals. Laura Robinson, a senior executive assistant at Deloitte, has served as corporate responsibility relationship lead for its work with Swanlea School in Tower Hamlets, east London, developing a programme tailored to the needs of the school and its students, including a range of activities for both older and younger pupils. 

Initiatives include mentoring and work experience programmes for sixth form students and a reading workshop for pupils with high reading ages, aiming to help them fulfil their potential in exams taken further up the school. “From a personal point of view it’s great,” Robinson says. “I wanted to be a teacher when I was growing up, so it’s a chance for me to fulfil that wish, in a way. From a professional point of view it’s giving me new skills and experiences.” 

Claire Burton, director of responsible business at Deloitte, highlights the value of participation as a way of improving employee engagement. “We know it plays a key role in recruitment and retention,” she says. “The number one benefit that people list when they talk about what they get out of these activities is the satisfaction that they’ve used their skills to help society.” That theme, of using professional skills to help other people and organisations besides clients, is repeated again and again when discussing volunteering with accountants. 

“It’s bound to make you feel better about yourself, to know you’re having a positive impact,” says ICAEW’s McKay. “It’s about feeling appreciated: knowing you’re giving something to an organisation that’s going to really value it.” As Thorne puts it: “The main benefit is feeling like you’re making a difference to something you care about.”

Risks and liabilities

Voluntary organisations have a legal duty to have employers’ liability and/or public liability insurance to cover volunteers. Trustees should consider taking out trustee liability insurance, to cover the costs of compensation claims and associated legal costs resulting from mismanagement. Members of the ICAEW Volunteering Community receive professional liability insurance cover as a benefit. The Charity Commission has published detailed information and guidance on becoming and serving as a charity trustee.

Case study: John Tennent

John Tennent spent much of his early career working for Deloitte & Touche, but is now managing director of the business learning solutions specialist Corporate Edge. Outside working hours, Tennent has been volunteering for many different organisations throughout his career, with his first major contribution being service as a treasurer for Hardy House, a home for the elderly, for six years from 1987. Between 1996 and 2011 he was a trustee of PACT (Parents and Children Together), an adoption charity originally created in the Edwardian period by the then Bishop of Oxford. 

When Tennent joined the board the organisation still drew almost all its annual income from the Oxford Diocese. He is very proud of the part he played in helping the organisation to become financially sustainable in its own right. In 2018 he took up a new role as treasurer for The Samaritans, which relies above all on the 20,000 volunteers who take incoming phone calls from vulnerable people. 

Tennent suggests this is another way ICAEW members could volunteer – their life experience and perhaps also experience of working in stressful jobs could prove invaluable to some callers – although many local branches of the Samaritans would also welcome their contribution as treasurers or fundraisers. 

He says he enjoys the contrast between his experiences as a volunteer and his work in the corporate world. “I think it puts your faith back into humanity,” he says. “To be among 20,000 people whose sole purpose is to help others is a wonderful, refreshing experience.” 

This article was originally published in the April 2019 issue of economia.