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Student Insights

What’s it like to… be a volunteer

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 02 Dec 2021

What's it like to

A third-year trainee in not-for-profit audit, Aaron Thompson is involved in a variety of voluntary initiatives. His mission is simple: to help people.

“My dream for life is to have a charity that works with the homeless, and works to improve access to education and training for people from disadvantaged backgrounds. Part of it would also be a dance academy, and a lifestyle brand embodying positivity: being your true self. I want people to be at their best, and I want to help and give of myself to do that.”

Aaron Thompson’s passion for helping others started young, when he became involved in various fundraising activities at school. “There would always be a bake sale or a run or a skip or something happening, and we would go around and get sponsorship,” he remembers. “So that idea of fundraising has always been around me. I also put it down to my faith: I’m a Christian, so I hold values like loving thy neighbour, not judging people, and giving to the poor and those in need. Also, I have a big heart and I care a lot, so I just want to help people.”

School was also the starting point for one of Aaron’s other great passions: dance. “A performance theatre roadshow came to my secondary school, and I tried a dance workshop and really enjoyed it,” he says. He went on to join a local dance team, and a year later qualified as a dance fitness teacher. When it came to a career path, though, accountancy was a clear choice. Having studied maths, economics and accounting at A level, Aaron decided on an accounting and finance degree with a year in industry at the University of Kent, graduating in 2017 with first class honours.

While at university, he taught at the Kent Dance Society, becoming president in his final year, and was also inspired to start his own business. “My year in industry was based in Surrey,” he explains. “I wanted to continue dancing, but I couldn’t find a group in the area that I wanted to join – so I decided to set up my own. For the first couple of months we were losing money, but after a performance at a local school we quickly grew to four classes a week and about 35 students. At the end of my placement year I had to leave the area, and ultimately I couldn’t find the right person to replace me. It was my first business and I didn’t get everything right, but it showed me that sometimes in business you are the brand – people invested in me, they came for me, who I am and what I was setting up.”

Towards the end of his final year at university, Aaron was approached to join the Students’ Union. “The vice president at the time, who looked after societies and fundraising, wanted me to run for her role,” he says. “I kept saying no, but then she organised a meeting with the chief executive – and he completely changed my mind. He said one line to me: ‘When you work for a company you work to make someone profit, but when you work for a charity you work to make the world better.’ And I thought, ‘That’s literally what I want to do in life!’”

He spent a year as vice president of Kent Union, and was then elected president. “That experience gave me a love for charities and an appreciation for what they do,” he says. “After that, I had to decide whether I wanted to go back to working for profit – and the answer was no. But I also didn’t want to waste my degree. So I’ve tried to marry them up, and not for profit audit is where I am.”

Aaron joined BDO as an ACA trainee in 2019. What appealed to him about the firm? “It was the first firm I saw where I felt they wanted to know who I was,” he says. “They talked a lot about their culture and the support they offered, and that was something I felt was missing from some of the other places I looked at.” Since joining, he has continued to take on voluntary roles, becoming involved in setting up several of the firm’s networks, including the Trustee Network, the South East BAME Network, and the ESG Executive. 

“There’s been a BAME network at BDO for a few years now, but I helped to co-found the South East BAME Network. My involvement really came out of the George Floyd murder, and a statement my firm made afterwards. It was a good statement but I wanted to discuss it further with the partner who made it, so I reached out to them with my views. We had a really good conversation; we talked about our experiences of racism, and he mentioned he was planning on setting up a board of Black colleagues who could work with BDO to address the issues and really drive race action within the firm, which he invited me to join.”

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His involvement in the Environmental, Social and Governance Executive has probably been the most humbling, he says. “The rest of the Executive is made up of partners, directors and managers, whereas I’m just a third-year trainee,” he says. “My role is to offer the employee voice, and be the citizenship champion. It’s been really insightful for me not only to understand the strategic issues the company faces, but also what it is doing around those issues. It can be intimidating at times, talking to partners and dealing with issues at a firm level, but it’s good to be able to challenge opinions and perceptions, and encourage them to be bolder and think differently. And just to be in a space where a young person’s voice is appreciated and is involved in the conversation is great, especially when we’re thinking about long-term strategy – we are going to be the leaders of the next generation after all.”

Aaron has also been involved in setting up the firm’s Trustee Network. “That came about from the idea that, especially in an accounting firm, there are likely to be a lot of people who have external appointments as trustees,” he explains. “Sometimes when you’re on a trustee board, issues come up where you might not be the expert – it could be an HR issue or a legal issue, for example – so we wanted to find a way to connect people who had that expertise.” 

It’s something he’s familiar with, as the current vice chair and director of Birkbeck Students’ Union. “My two years at Kent Union gave me a love for higher education and students,” he says. “I took a year out to feel what it’s like to be in a career and what time I had available, and then I decided I wanted to get back into it. I saw that Birkbeck was looking for an external trustee and it really appealed to me: Birkbeck is unique in that it only offers evening classes, and the Students’ Union has a long history of campaigning for equality and diversity, so its values clearly align with my own. It keeps my ear to the ground in terms of what’s happening in the student movement and allows me to give back in a way that I am connected but not too involved. I love to do things for people, so it ticks the box for me.”

How does he find time for all his various roles and responsibilities? “I genuinely feel like you have enough time to do whatever you want,” he says. “Yes, our time is sparse and scarce, but if you want to do something, if you prioritise it, you will do it. I think when you see it on paper, it sounds like a lot, but when you understand what it actually entails, it’s quite manageable. It’s all about the passion. It’s all about the ambition. It’s all about your priority and what you want to get out of life. My priority is people – and this has led me to starting a motivational Instagram platform, Salt and Light.

“I’ve learned a lot on my journey but I’m only just beginning. My advice to students is that leaders are not made by being the same. Leadership requires being different, thinking different, acting different and inspiring others to do the same. Don’t be a thermometer adapting to the temperatures/norms already set – be a thermostat, setting the temperature/culture and fundamentally changing society.”

As an ACA or ICAEW CFAB student, you can join the Charity Finance Professionals Community for free. The community offers regular webinars, newsletters and resources for finance professionals working or volunteering in the charity sector. As a community member, you will also be able to access relevant training at discounted rates, including the ICAEW Charity Conference.

If you’re interested in volunteering, you can search for an opportunity here. You can also volunteer with ICAEW by working with your local school or university, promoting a career in accountancy – find out more here

You can also access ICAEW trustee training for free. It provides an overview of charity trustees’ legal and financial responsibilities, and their strategic and operational considerations, including risk management, planning for success and impact, and managing relationships and board dynamics. Find out more and start today here.

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