Meet the CAs of the third sector

By Ellen Arnison, CA magazine

15 February 2017

The pay may be less in the third sector, but the personal benefits are real. Ellen Arnison spoke to the CAs making a difference by working with charities.

Angkor Hospital for Children, based in Siem Reap, Cambodia, provides 170,000 treatments each year in a region that still has one of the highest infant mortality rates in south-east Asia. Gregor McKellar CA is CFO at the hospital, which is run as an independent charitable organisation.

What drew him to a career in the third sector? He said that at first his reason for working in the third sector was “the notion of being part of something which I believe has a positive impact on its community”. 

However, he added: “While I still hold on to that notion, I now have a much greater appreciation of the complexities and I’m proud to feel part of an institution that is working to set quality standards of health care in Cambodia.”

I thought that it would be great to work for an organisation whose sole aim was to help to improve children’s lives, rather than to maximise the bottom line.

John McIntosh CA is another who has chosen to work in the world of not-for-profit, in his case as Executive Director for Finance and Support Services for the Kibble Education and Care Centre, which offers a range of services for young people in Scotland.

He said: “I thought that it would be great to work for an organisation whose sole aim was to help to improve children’s lives, rather than to maximise the bottom line. It mattered that the job was going to be a challenge too – I didn’t want a sinecure.”

The personal reward

Jerry Nicholson CA, who runs Bangladesh-based impact investment organisation Tindercapital, said: “I am motivated by a desire to work on issues of inequality and injustice. In particular, to support the growth of businesses in the majority world that benefit the poor, either as owners, employees, customers or suppliers.

“There is nothing like the feeling you are making a difference. I recently visited a manufacturing business which we have invested in that now turns over £1m and employs 130 people in a poor district of northern Bangladesh.”

Mauricio Preciado-Awad CA (pictured below, right) also works in the field of impact investment for his role as Christian Aid’s Commercial Analyst for Social Enterprise.

“It’s about job satisfaction," he agreed. "If I work crazy hours, which I do, and spend a lot of my non-working time thinking about work, I know it’s going to benefit a community that needs support.”

Mauricio believes that CAs bring an important way of looking at things to the sector. “A CA brings additional big-picture thinking that sometimes doesn’t exist within finance departments."

However, philanthropy isn’t the only advantage to getting involved with a charity or not-for-profit organisation. Many of them offer more flexible ways of working and their wide range of objectives can signal relief from more 'traditional' profit-related activity.

There isn’t really such a thing as a generic charity – in fact, I’ve never seen two the same.

Gillian Donald CA, who set up Scotland’s first specialist charity team at Scott-Moncrieff and works with the Scottish Charity Finance Group, agreed there can be more flexible working patterns in the third sector but also said: “There isn’t really such a thing as a generic charity – in fact, I’ve never seen two the same.”

And that variety, even within organisations, is just as appealing to some CAs – as their work or charitable interests bring them into contact with a wide range of people and places.

This is certainly true for Mauricio who currently lives in Colombia and looks after projects in 12 countries, including Palestine, Kenya, Zimbabwe and Nicaragua.

He lived in Congo for six months, describing it as “an amazing place” but not without its eventful moments. “I had to get evacuated from Goma because the M23 rebel group was surrounding the town and they had to evacuate people. But it’s part of the job and they train you properly for these situations.”

An alternative to switching to a career in the third sector is to volunteer on a part-time basis and apply the skills gained in your day job to a not-for-profit cause.

Best of both worlds

Olivia Ng CA, an Internal Auditor with pharmaceutical giant GSK (GlaxoSmithKline) spent six weeks with a social enterprise in Kumasi, Ghana, the Bright Generation Community Foundation. Her placement came through Accounting for International Development (AfID), which specialises in matching accountancy skills to not-for-profit projects around the world.

She said: “[It was an] incredible experience. On a windy day you could stand outside the office, trying to catch mangoes bouncing off the roof. There is also a constant stream of small vendors offering delicious local food: doughnuts, coconuts, sobolo (bissap juice). Oh, and chickens just casually stroll past the front door.

"Workwise, it is such an inspiring experience bringing experts from different fields around the table to develop the project.”

You’re using your most precious commodity, your time and skills as a CA.

Indy Hothi CA, Economist with EY (pictured below), is a Trustee for Khalsa Aid, a small humanitarian organisation that provides aid in disaster and war zones.

He commented: “It’s very hands-on. I get to see the world through the lens of a humanitarian aid worker and go to places I wouldn’t necessarily have visited. I’ve been involved in projects in the Middle East, such as Iraq and Lebanon. I’ve also been to Haiti.

“Alongside that, the fact that you develop such strong relationships with people on the ground there and you’re supporting them in their time of need, you fast-track the relationship so, all of a sudden, you build these lifelong friendships.”

Indy Hothi

Indy also spoke of how much he has learned professionally from working with an organisation from a grass-roots level as well as seeing it as a platform for professional and personal growth. 

“It’s very rewarding and the CA qualification gives you the toolkit of skills to help. You’re using your most precious commodity; your time and skills as a CA.”

Career prospects

While advantages seem legion, the downside that most CAs working in this sector agree on is that it does not pay particularly well.

“There’s a significant financial hit,” admitted Mauricio, who trained with PwC. “Out of my peer group, if I think of my five closest friends, I’m earning less than half what they are.”

Earnings aside, there are other frustrations inherent with the not-for-profit realm, including the pace of progress and the challenge of dealing with many stakeholders and their different objectives.

If a CA is motivated by salary rises, benefits and bonuses, then they won’t move into the charitable sector.

The increasingly complex reporting requirements, combined with heightened competition for limited resources, is a common theme across the sector. There is also an added layer of complexity in communicating finance issues to non-executive board members.

Adrienne Airlie CA, charity specialist and Chief Executive of Martin Aitken & Co, pointed out: “As soon as you’re a CA in a charity, whether working within the charity or on the board, board members will rely on you. There’s a level of expectation, that you’re a CA so you’re adding a stamp of quality to the financial figures just by your presence there.

"Be careful because as soon as you join, people will immediately say ‘that’s fine, finance is getting taken care of’.

Khalsa Aid

“You must be sure that the organisation has the integrity you’re prepared to support, or you come in and very, very quickly flag up what the issues are. Do your own due diligence.

“If I was joining a charity, I’d have to make sure I was comfortable with governance structures, internal control, risks and compliance procedures.”

Donald agreed: “Understand what you’re dealing with. And culturally, there will be lots of people who are not business minded or experienced in and around your charity, so you need to be able to communicate jargon-free and effectively.

“I know lots of charities crying out for the skills of a CA in their organisation. There is a need, both at board and senior management levels, for those skills.”

Read the full version of this article in the February 2017 edition of CA magazine.


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