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Volunteering Community

International volunteering in a global pandemic?

Author: David Busby, Volunteer Services Manager at Accounting for International Development (AfID)

Published: 12 May 2021

UK Social Enterprise Accounting for International Development have been sending accounting and finance professionals, including many ICAEW members, on volunteer assignments across the globe for more than 10 years. But what happens when overseas travel becomes impossible, practically overnight?

AfID’s volunteer manager Dave Busby explains: “When the true extent of the pandemic first hit, our immediate priority was of course to get our overseas volunteers home safely.

“And then the reality of the situation really hit home. Our overseas charity partners were still very much in need of crucial financial management support, often for their very survival, but there was little prospect of being able to send volunteers to work with local finance teams for the foreseeable future.

“Our overseas volunteers often do some preliminary work from home with the organisations they’re heading out to support, and we started thinking about how this could be extended.”  

AfID’s first all ‘remote’ volunteering assignments were with organisation who were due to receive the support of a volunteer in person. The original assignment briefs were adapted to suit the new circumstances.

One of those first remote volunteers was Julie Violet ACA, who supported Health Improvement Project Zanzibar (HIPZ).

Julie Violet being handed a present

Julie Violet shown here on a different, on-site project with SMV Wheels in India, being handed a present on her last day with them

UK Fundraising Manager at HIPZ, Jess Price, explains: “We were due to have a volunteer join us in person, but when coronavirus put a stop to that, AfID helped us to find a solution.”

Julie worked with HIPZ for a few hours at a time, 2 or 3 times a week over a couple of months. She helped them create a chart of accounts and worked with the team in country and in the UK office to improve their financial processes and systems including the development of their Finance Manual.

Jess adds: “Julie made a real impact on our work, even though she wasn’t there in person, and I’d recommend a remote placement as it’s amazing what can be achieved through virtual working."

Another early remote volunteer was Sharida Hassan ACA, who provided part-time support to NGO Brooklyn Bridge to Cambodia (BB2C) over a four-month period. She worked primarily with their CEO and Founder Paula Shirk to streamline the way the organisation works with their accountants.

Commenting on her experience, Sharida says: "Even whilst working remotely, I built a great connection with Paula and could feel the impact of the great work BB2C does. 

“Flexibility is key with working remotely due to the different time zones that we were in with Paula in the US, the local team and third-party accounting firm in Cambodia and myself in Malaysia. We made it work and managed to have a smooth transition of part of the accounting function to the new accounting firm."

Paula adds: “Sharida came to my rescue. It was interesting to watch her work across three cultures: her own, American, and Cambodian. I would be lost without her help."

AfID are hopeful of being able to start facilitating overseas volunteer assignments, initially to a limited number of countries, before the year’s out. But they also see ‘remote volunteering’ as something that will continue alongside this.

Dave Busby says: “Throughout the coronavirus pandemic AfID volunteers have been continuing to provide crucial remote technical support and it’s been a real success, perhaps more so than we had envisaged at the outset.

“Although we are incredibly eager to resume overseas placements, we’ve seen that for many organisations part-time remote support over a longer period is exactly what best fits their needs.

“It gives local staff the time to absorb new information and put what they’ve learned into practice, before checking in with the volunteer at a later date to pick up on any queries or gaps in understanding.

“A huge thank you to our remote volunteers and charity partners for their flexibility, adaptability and patience in making it such a success.”

Accounting for International Development want to hear from ICAEW members interested in using their skills and experience to support one of their non-profit partners, either remotely or in-person post Covid. Email info@afid.org.uk or visit www.afid.org.uk for more information on how to get involved.

*The views expressed are the author’s and not ICAEW’s.