Sam Wei in Zambia (eighth from left)

Matt Warner, journalist

Tired of the same old routine? Feeling like you’re stuck in a rut? You’re not alone, but there’s a way you can get off the treadmill while keeping up your professional skills.

Sam Wei FCCA was looking for just such a change when he had a chance meeting at a wedding with a fellow accountant.

‘I wanted a break from my career to travel and explore different options, but also be helpful to other people,’ he says. ‘I met a guy who told me about his assignments with AfID, and I realised that it would be a perfect opportunity for me, too.’

‘The work the volunteers do in just a few weeks will serve the organisation for years to come’

Sam Wei in Cambodia (seventh from left)

Accounting for International Development (AfID) puts accountants who want to use their skills to benefit others in touch with organisations across the developing world who need financial expertise. In 14 years, AfID has arranged assignments for more than 1,600 accountants with more than 500 organisations in nearly 60 countries.

Sam contacted AfID and before long was on his way to Cambodia, the first of two placements (the second being in Zambia). ‘The whole process was very streamlined,’ he says. ‘They provided me with training and preparation for the inevitable culture change.’

Volunteer placements usually last between two and six weeks and a surprising amount can be achieved in that time, says David Busby, AfID’s volunteer services manager. ‘Our volunteers are keen to support a worthwhile cause, and they can actually have a big impact over short periods.’

The work usually revolves around capacity building by improving processes and systems, and upskilling local staff. For charities, this is especially important for improving relations with donors and helping to attract new funding.

‘The work the volunteers do in just a few weeks will serve the organisation for years to come,’ David says. ‘The aim is to get to a point where the local finance team has been given the skills and confidence it needs to take things forward successfully without further outside support.’

Bespoke solution

Experienced FD Stuart Roseman FCCA has now volunteered twice. He saw for himself the impact AfID can have when he worked for a women’s welfare charity in Kenya.

‘You don’t want to overwhelm people; you figure out the needs and work around that’

Stuart Roseman in Kenya (back row)

‘I was trying to financially educate them and improve the recording of data, as they didn’t have an accounting system per se,’ says Stuart. ‘They were light on governance, and I spent a lot of time on developing better reporting for them.’

Discussing online what the organisation needs before the volunteer sets off for the location is very important. ‘When you know what they want, you can drip feed it in,’ says Stuart. ‘You don’t want to overwhelm people or develop some top-spec solution that is more than they need. You figure out the needs and work around that.’

Structured adventure

Volunteering can be hard work but with it comes the excitement of travel, often off the beaten track. Stuart flew to Nairobi but then took an internal flight, followed by a three-hour drive out into the Kenyan bush.

Despite this promise of travel and freedom, the experience is also well organised. ‘Perhaps some accountants aren’t the most adventurous people, but with AfID it is an adventure and at the same time quite structured,’ says Sam. ‘This might seem contradictory, but it makes it easier to take that step.’

‘My shower had no hot water for the first five days; you change your mindset’

Alternatively, if professional accountants want to support charitable projects but do not have the time or desire to travel, they can contribute their skills remotely. During the pandemic when travel was mostly impossible, remote volunteering was the only option, and this practice has endured.

‘Our remote projects have been very successful,’ says David. ‘But it does require complete focus from the volunteer and organisation to make it work so that things don’t drift.’

In fact, Stuart is continuing to support his host organisation remotely since returning from Kenya.

Embrace the challenges

The experience of being on location is still one of the biggest attractions of volunteering, but volunteers should be aware that it can be challenging. ‘My shower had no hot water for the first five days and I washed using a bucket,’ says Stuart. ‘But you take in the environment, you change your mindset.’

He found aspects of the work environment hard, too. ‘One day we had no internet because someone had forgotten to pay the bill. Sometimes the electricity would just go off and we were left with no IT. Someone who can’t deal with these things would be on the next flight home. You must immerse yourself in the experience.’

‘I joined in football matches and the staff once played the local children’

David points out that the challenge is all part of volunteering: ‘It is meant to be a different experience that is outside of people’s comfort zone,’ he says.

As for the high points, Sam has many fond memories. ‘The best part was interacting with the local people and seeing how the NGO is helping them,’ he recalls. ‘I joined in football matches and the staff once played the local children. That is a favourite memory for me.’

Having been on two placements, Sam decided to join an NGO full time and now works for Transparency International, which is not uncommon after an AfID placement. Stuart has also done two trips and would certainly consider another: ‘It is so rewarding, and I had a really great time.’