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Risks when volunteering becomes working for free

Following last month’s article by Richard Joseph on the personal benefits of volunteering, SELAS chair Vicky Andrew looks at striking the balance between volunteering and working for free.

May 2019

Richard Joseph’s excellent article in last month’s London Accountant (When volunteering isn’t just about giving), together with my recent experiences, gave me food for thought, and has led to me adding my perspective to the debate. There can be a grey and woolly dividing line between volunteering and working for free, and we need to be aware of our boundaries.

Like many readers, I give up some of my time to volunteer for ICAEW and its various branches and committees.

However, as a result of my committee work, I often find myself being asked to deliver output pro bono over and above the remit of my role. This free work can range from giving advice via a ‘quick word’ on the phone or at a social gathering, to giving presentations for which I am not expected to issue an invoice, but involve preparation and travel time, in addition to speaking time.

For example, I was recently approached (in my capacity as SELAS chair) by one of our members, looking for advice, in the form of a ‘quick chat’ about a practice acquisition for which I was not expected to invoice. I took the view that the advice he would need was way outside the scope of the time I was prepared to spend giving free advice.

I have been thinking about the boundaries I need to set when doing this free work. Does the advice I am being asked to give carry a liability risk? Do I therefore need to issue an engagement letter, and charge a fee to compensate me for the risk I am taking on? When I had my own accountancy practice, I found it much easier to answer these questions; either there were published guidelines, or my insurance company was able to provide advice (designed to limit its exposure!).

For the past couple of years, my day job has involved providing advisory services for small accountancy practices, as well as small businesses in general. This makes it harder to work out my risk.

We also need to consider how we allocate our time. In my case, I still have to earn a living, so some of what I do needs to be for financial reward! In addition, I feel justified in placing a value on my skills, experience and expertise.

All of us, whether or not we are involved in volunteering, need to set boundaries for ourselves, and be clear of our reasons, when we decide to step outside those boundaries.

Vicky Andrew is chair of the South East London Area Society.

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