PracticeConsultingVolunteering: make a difference

Volunteering: make a difference

The British people have responded to the tragic recent events in Asia by giving aid on an unprecedented scale. At times like this money really is one of the most effective forms of help we can offer. But professional skills are also key to continued aid programmes, and it is here that accountants can offer their much needed experience.

Through the Accountancy Age-sponsored Everybody Counts awards, chartered accountants can earn extra money for charities they represent. Everybody Counts was launched in October 1999 by the ICAEW to encourage and support members involved in voluntary work and to help connect volunteers with charities looking for assistance.

Members give themselves a chance to win £2,000 for the charity or community project they work with. The deadline for applications is 16 March 2005, so there is still time to enter. For full details visit We talk to three people who have given their time and experience to help those in need.

Alex Jacobs, director of Mango:
‘It was a very humbling experience. It was wonderful to feel that it could all make a difference’

Alex Jacobs knew only too well how accountants’ skills can make a huge difference in stretching donations further.

‘NGOs need professional financial planning to organise the funds effectively,’ says Jacobs, who is a director of Mango, a not-for profit organisation that matches professional financial skills with the needs of NGOs.

‘Accountants can offer financial planning, reporting and management. It’s particularly needed where NGOs operate all over the world. There’s a lot of pressure to move money and spend it quickly and that’s where accountants can help,’ he says.

But Jacobs isn’t one for sitting in his ivory tower. His knowledge and experience is founded in the field.

After qualifying with Pricewaterhouse-Coopers he set off for southern Africa where he found a way into a voluntary organisations that needed his skills. Since then he has made a career out of using them in the voluntary sector. Most recently he worked for the Disasters Emergency Committee, evaluating how donations were spent by agencies working in Malawi and Zambia.

Prior to his work for Mango, Jacobs worked for Oxfam in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

‘It was a very intense experience working as a finance manager in Kinshasa. We had to deal with all the issues of keeping a busy office running and organising the timing and delivery of aid,’ he explains.

All of this was done against a backdrop of civil war. But, he assures, it was very fulfilling and helped him develop both personally and professionally.

Jacobs’ financial management and planning work for Oxfam during his time in Kinshasa lead to a huge reduction in water wastage and created much needed employment.

But he emphasises that the work is not for everyone. ‘You must have good interpersonal skills and respect cultural differences; languages are a bonus; and you have to be flexible and tolerant to work with people from very different cultural and educational backgrounds,’ he says.

Caroline Cookson, trainee with KPMG:
‘When a project is close to someone’s heart, you have to be diplomatic in applying your skills’

Caroline Cookson is due to fully qualify as an accountant this autumn, but she has already started forging alliances in the voluntary sector after realising the benefits of doing so on both a professional and personal level.

Through KPMG’s links to Business in the Community, which operates through a network of business partnerships to improve the impact of business on society, Cookson has worked on two voluntary projects.

Her first assignment was at Project Compass, a programme that helps homeless ex-services personel find long-term employment. Cookson had to work with the programme’s staff as well as the Ministry of Defence, which partly funds Training For Life, the UK-based charity that oversees Project Compass.’I helped out by doing a plan for the project, incorporating all their ideas into a business plan,’ says Cookson.

The amount of time that Cookson needed to invest in the project clearly shows that there are many routes on offer for professionals to contribute to charities. You don’t necessarily have to take a year out of your day job to make a difference, unless of course you want to.

For Project Compass, Cookson had to work ‘a couple of hours over several weeks’ but the rewards, by far, outweighed the efforts involved, she says.

‘On the practical side I learnt to put together a business plan, which I hadn’t done before. We had to approach different people to get funding for the project so I learnt fundraising skills and improved my meeting skills.’

On the personal side, Cookson says she ‘was exposed to all sorts of people through the stakeholder meetings, who I wouldn’t have met otherwise.’

Diplomacy is another skill the KPMG trainee says she has honed since being involved in these charity projects. ‘When a project is close to someone’s heart, then you must realise how to be diplomatic when applying your skills to their projects.’

At the moment, Cookson is working on a new project; one she personally selected.

‘I’m doing another business plan, but this time it’s for Until the Violence Stops, a project that aims to stop violence against women through the medium of the arts. I’m involved with the funding and planning side,’ she says.

‘The best thing about it is being able to do something worthwhile that helps people, and that I care about. You also get to meet very different people in a working environment, which I might not encounter in my job,’ explains Cookson.

With the rising profile of corporate social responsibility, more and more organisations are becoming flexible in their working patterns to allow staff to take time off to dedicate to charity work.

‘The more promotion that companies, firms and professional institutes give to this kind of work the better it’ll be, as many people want to get involved but often don’t know where to start,’ says Cookson.

‘It’s what I have to do’
Eduardo Loigorri, managing director of Exchequer Software and chairman of BASDA, was in Thailand when the tsunami struck. He stayed on over the new year period to help the relief effort. Here, he recalls his experiences along Thailand’s stricken coastline.

‘It is impossible to adequately describe the scale of the Asian tsunami disaster. There are harrowing survival stories like that of the two year old boy who climbed a 60-foot coconut tree having seen his parents swept away, and then clung onto it for two days without food or water. He was so traumatised that rescuers were unable to coax the boy down and had to fell the tree in order to save him.

Entire fishing communities in the Khao Lak region, some 180 kilometers north of Phuket, have been obliterated. We organised convoys to distribute water, food, pots and pans to help these people survive the initial impact.

As we travelled north the scenes of devastation became more depressing, the acrid smell of death filling the air. We passed local temples where I saw hundreds of coffins stacked up as the authorities tried vainly to identify bodies before decomposition meant it was impossible.

The local people’s gratitude is heart wrenching, their unbroken spirit humbling and the generosity of local suppliers is astonishing.

Thankfully, Khao Lak’s immediate needs for life have been deployed and the main task now is the provision of long term aid to help these people rebuild their lives and livelihoods.

This disaster has shown me the best and worst of human nature. What I have seen and experienced will leave an indelible mark.

I am numb, exhausted and there is a vague sense of guilt at having to leave. But I will return. It’s what I have to do.’

The Disasters Emergency Committee is an umbrella group of UK aid organisations, including Action Aid, British Red Cross and Oxfam, working to provide clean water, food and shelter to survivors of the tsunami disaster.

To pledge a donation go to or call 0870 60 60 900.

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