Giving back, c. 2014

For many accountants, skills-based volunteering offers an ideal way to lend a hand in developing countries — while gaining rewarding experience, too

Cows and buffalo roam freely through the city of Pokhara, best known as a staging site for travellers trekking in Annapurna, one of Nepal’s largest mountain ranges. White-peaked mountains give way to rice farming along the hillsides. It’s a scene Robin Wong describes as breathtaking and far removed from his own experience growing up near Lake Ontario. Wong left a management role in a Markham, Ont.-based accounting firm to make the journey from Toronto to Pokhara by way of Hong Kong and Kathmandu last October. He had a definite goal in mind: to lend his technical expertise as a volunteer for KOPILA-Nepal, a local not-for-profit that helps people deal with the psychological fallout from the country’s recent civil war. It also offers support to abused women and children living in poverty.

Wong learned about KOPILA and its efforts in Nepal from UK-based Accounting for International Development (AfID), a social enterprise that puts experienced finance professionals in touch with opportunities to put their skills to work as volunteers in developing countries. Assignments can range from two weeks to 12 months and are geared to helping build the financial management capacity, transparency, efficiency and sustainability of some 256 charities and nonprofit organizations around the world.

Neil Jennings founded AfID in 2009 after his quick ascent up the corporate ladder in the UK left him disillusioned. He quit his job as regional director for London with global recruitment firm Robert Half International and took on a seven month volunteer assignment to help an NGO in Rwanda create the infrastructure necessary to secure long-term funding for its school projects. “The NGO was receiving funding from overseas but the donor wanted to ensure the money was being well managed,” says Jennings, who helped gain government accreditation for the school, set a new strategic course and updated internal reporting systems. His efforts had the desired result: the school is going strong.

The experience set Jennings on a new life course. When he returned to the UK, he volunteered with Bond, a UK membership body for organizations working in international development or supporting those that do. "I quickly realized that the hundreds of charities Bond was supporting were dealing with similar issues that the school in Rwanda had in terms of a lack of skills and experience around financial management and reporting", says Jennings. It proved to be an aha moment. "I was a volunteer in Rwanda and I used to recruit accountants in my professional life. I thought maybe accountants would want to volunteer as I had." As it turns out, they did - and do. To date, some 500 accountants worldwide (14 from Canada) have volunteered more than 65,000 hours of pro bono financial management services through AfID. Those numbers continue to grow as more and more accountants from across Canada and around the world seek out opportunities to give back in a meaningful way.

Welcome to the new volunteers, keen to use their skills to effect change. Paula Speevak-Sladowski, Volunteer Canada’s director of programs, policy and applied research, says that professionals have always given time and volunteered their services to nonprofit organizations but in the past five years there has been an increased focus on skills-based volunteering. "They are taking on short-term assignments that can have significant impact because they are using their skills and experience to help build capacity."

Here are three Canadian accountants who are volunteering their skills for international organizations.

Robin Wong, Markham, Ont.

Julianne Favron, Ottawa

Daniel Chow, Edmonton


The process is straightforward:

  • Contact AfID to set up a phone consultation with a member of the program team.
  • Complete the registration form, which includes professional qualifications, skills, experience, employment references and CV. You will also need to supply a police check.
  • The program team will provide assignment options based on your personal profile, preferred travel dates, desired destinations and interests.
  • Once you decide on an assignment, AfID will introduce you to your host organization and past volunteers and help with travel arrangements.
  • The program team will stay in regular contact with you while you are on assignment.
  • You will be required to pay a placement fee (the amount varies).
  • You are responsible for covering travel costs, food and accommodations, which vary based on the assignment. Sometimes flights and accommodation are covered by the placement fee. Visit AfID for more information.


If you want to volunteer closer to home, Volunteer Canada will link you to more than 200 volunteer centres. Endeavour Volunteer Consulting for Non-Profits is a Canadian charity that recruits volunteers to provide management consulting to nonprofit organizations across Ontario. Since 2007, more than 300 volunteers have helped improve capacity at more than 60 community organizations.