Why all accountants should volunteer abroad with AfID

I first heard about Accounting for International Development (www.afid.org.uk) during a lunch time chat with a colleague. She was telling me about her friend who was working in Cambodia as an accountant for a charity. I hadn’t been enjoying my role for a while and had been struggling with what I wanted to do with my career. That afternoon I called AFID for a chat to find out more.

They explained to me that they place accountants around the world volunteering at non-profits/charities; supporting organisations that may not have the funds to access the financial management skills they need.

Instantly, I decided it was the kind of project I wanted to do. “Trapped” in a role that was quickly diminishing my desire to remain working in finance, I hoped that using my qualifications to the benefit of a charitable organisation was a good way for me to regain some job satisfaction and build on my skills even further.

I have now completed my 6 week placement working for SACD (sacdbelize.org), in a rural fishing village called Sarteneja in northern Belize. It’s been an amazing experience, and here’s why I think all accountants should take the opportunity to do something like this:

 

…because your to do list could include “Dolphin Watching”…

The reason SACD had requested a volunteer from AFID was because they wanted to explore opportunities to generate income more like a business rather than rely solely on government/international funding. First of all I set up a workshop with the whole team to explore ideas, brainstorm and add more detail to it. It became clear that the main opportunities lay in tapping into the tourism opportunities within the national park.

We identified four main areas to explore; Excursions (e.g. a 5 day tour package), a Water Taxi (to get locals & tourists to and from the village), Researcher for a Day (where tourists/students could join SACD’s research trips and help/learn about the conservation work they do), Tour Operator (providing half day/full day tours of local sights).

The next step was to do some cost-benefit analysis on these potential revenue streams. But to do that, I needed SACD to take me out on some example tours so we could understand timings, interest (i.e. did I, as a tourist, find it interesting?), fuel usage etc. This information would then help us understand if the 5 day excursion, for example, would work and I would be able to cost it up as part of my analysis.

The rangers took me out on the boat for the day on a sample tour and we saw Dolphins, Manatees, Vultures, Iguanas, snorkelled ancient coral reefs, visited a mayan temple, ate lunch at a beautiful remote beach resort and swam in the bluest of seas. A day “at the office” doesn’t get much better, right?

 

…because the work you’re doing could be supporting the conservation of an endangered species…

The charity I was working with, SACD, are responsible for overseeing the management of Belize’s largest national park; Corozal Bay Wildlife Sanctuary. The national park was established by the Belizean government to protect the native manatee population amongst numerous other objectives such as tackling the issue of over-fishing in the bay. Whatever is the mission of the charity you’re working with, you get a real sense of satisfaction from using your skills for the greater good. SACD works with a local manatee rehabilitation centre and I got to go and meet some of their very cute animals.

 

…because “Business Partnering” and “Relationship Building” in a different language, on the other side of the world is just what your CV needs…

 

Now, Belize is a bit of a confusing one. English is the official spoken language here, but Sarteneja borders Mexico and as such the locals use Spanish day-to-day. All documentation and official business was in English, but day-to-day the team spoke to each other in Spanish.

AFID will try and place you where the charity speaks your mother-tongue to reduce language barriers. But regardless of language, working in a different country on the other side of the world, getting to know your colleagues and how to work with them is a rewarding experience in itself; the pace of life in Belize was very different.

Those buzzwords, “Business Partnering” and “Relationship Building” are so important in the success of a placement with AFID, where you’re going to need to quickly develop relationships and work with the team, get to know them, what they do and how you can coach and help them to achieve your placement objectives.

Similarly, those buzzwords are more and more crucial in the finance world back home and having proven experience of being able to successfully apply and develop those kinds of skills within a completely different culture is only going to benefit your career and help you stand out from the crowd.

 

…because a lunchtime swim is rather refreshing…

The family I lived with kindly gave me a bike to use, and I would go exploring. I discovered this peaceful jetty along the coast and would sometimes go for a quick dip on my lunch break to cool off!

 

…because going to a meeting might mean a boat trip through the Caribbean sea…

SACD took me along to a meeting in San Pedro (an Island town off the coast of Belize). I don’t know about you, but 1.5hours cruising on a speedboat through the ocean, soaking up the sun, beats my commute anyday!

 

…because your office could step out onto the sea like this…

I’m just showing off how beautiful Sarteneja is here, because this is a photo of SACD’s old offices, which were situated on the seafront. I didn’t work here, but the previous volunteer did, and I sure wouldn’t mind going to work each day if I got to look out over those blue waters.

 

…because living with a local family is a great experience…

 

To be clear, not all AfID placements offer free accomodation, but I was fortunate that the charity I was working with arranged my accomodation. I lived with a local family who ran a guest house. My meals were included and I ate with the family each day. I got to experience Mayra’s lovely cooking and we built a great bond; at meal times they would try to teach me Spanish, and I didn’t do too badly to be honest! We would chat about English and Belizean life. Living with the Arceo family was one of the highlights of my placement.

 

…because going fishing for your breakfast before work is fun…

Sarteneja is a fishing village, and all along the coast they have these heart shaped fishing traps. It’s such an important part of local culture here that the executive director of SACD arranged for me to go out with a local fisherman one morning. We were back in the village by 7am and a colleague’s wife cooked me up a tasty breakfast with our catch. And all before a day at the office.

 

…because snorkelling the second largest coral reef in the world isn’t a bad way to spend a workday…

As part of their Education & Outreach programme, SACD had arranged to take a local school snorkelling to educate the children on the importance of protecting the reef for future generations. I was invited to go along and it was great fun! And all in the name of “field work” 😉

 

…because your colleagues might teach you how to make ceviche…

As I got to know the team at SACD better, Leomir welcomed me into his home one Saturday to teach me how to make Ceviche! We drank beers, chatted with his family, watched a film (it was raining) and enjoyed this delicious food which is so popular here. What an experience!

 

…because even the shortest serving employees need a leaving party…

I may have only been at SACD for 6 weeks, but the team arranged me a great leaving do. On my final weekend,, we drank tequila, beers and they did me a BBQ to see me off on my travels. 🙂

 

So there you have it, an amazing experience by any measure, and believe me I could go on with more reasons! I’ve come away from my placement knowing I’ve built on my skills and CV, but above all with memories that will last a lifetime, knowing I’ve made a difference.

Perhaps I’ve convinced you to do a placement? Or maybe you need even more reasons? Or perhaps you just fancy a chat. Whatever it is, feel free to email me on kyle.sandham@gmail.com for more info (we might even be able to make use of AFIDs referral scheme).

Rather than heading back home to the UK, I’m now setting off travelling round the world. Follow me on:

  • Instagram @life.by.kyle
  • Facebook lifebykyle.com
  • or keep checking back on this blog to follow my journey. 🙂

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