This article was first published in CA magazine. You can read the original version here.
“I’m deep in the heart of Guatemala, sitting in a courtyard overlooking the mountains, watching people coming and going from the local market,” describes retired finance director Agnes Kidd CA.
But Kidd isn’t simply spending her post-work years soaking up the culture in far-flung destinations. Rather she is pursuing a passion to share her wealth of accounting expertise where it’s needed most.
Accounting for International Development (AfID) offers finance professionals from around the world the opportunity to use their skills to support a broad range of non-profit organisations. They have so far sent around a thousand accountants such as Kidd on volunteer assignments and long-term placements to work alongside more than 500 non-profit partners.
The inspirational 62-year-old is already on her fourth placement, and has been able to provide the financial management capacity the projects need to deliver more sustainable programmes in their areas of operation.
Currently stationed in Guatemala City as part of a six-week placement, Kidd is working with the MAR Fund – an organisation that is aiming to drive regional funding and partnerships for the conservation, restoration and sustainable use of the Mesoamerican Reef.
Having spent more than 10 years working as a finance director for NSG Pilkington, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of glass and glazing products, Kidd was no stranger to leaving the comforts of her home in Edinburgh for long-term postings in far-flung places.
“We’re helping to demystify finance, and that’s the best thing that you can do when it comes to charities. It is about how much you can achieve from small changes” Agnes Kidd CA
Much of her working life has involved living abroad, with long periods in Finland, Spain, Brazil and the US, shorter ones in Portugal, Mexico and France, aided by her flair for languages – she has been fluent in Spanish, among others, for 25 years.
“In the first three places I have been to, we have rewritten the chart of accounts because the existing one didn’t give [the local staff ] the information in the way that they needed it,” explains Kidd, who describes her various experiences as “rewarding” and “enriching”.
“It was through reposting the previous years’ accounts [of a small NGO in Malawi] that we uncovered how much the previous manager and accountant had been stealing. Unfortunately, we found out the current accountant was mismanaging funds, too.
“We’re not talking about big sums of money by UK standards, but for this charity to lose £30, that’s a lot.
“We’re helping to demystify finance and that’s the best thing that you can do, especially when it comes to charities. A lot of it is about how much you can achieve from small changes.
“In Malawi I showed the people I was working with how to file things and it made such a difference, but here in Guatemala I am doing a lot more governance work.
“You learn how a country operates,” adds Kidd, who always takes some time out to explore at the end of each placement. “When you explain to people why you’re doing it, and what they will get out of it, it’s amazing what you can achieve.”
Kidd’s decision to take up placements with AfID stemmed from wanting to avoid feeling bored or unproductive, as many retirees do, as well as an urge to use her expertise to give back.
But the organisation relies on finance professionals, with varying years of expertise, to support the international charities and grassroots NGOs that they work with. In fact, some 22% of AfID volunteers now work full-time in the charity sector.
And Kidd isn’t the only volunteer who, after providing support in places where, due to limited resources, people are often unable to access vital financial management training, has been keen to continue their efforts by seeking additional placements.
It’s a story that is shared by Charlotte Thornton CA, AfID’s youngest returning volunteer. Leaving behind her full-time job in Leeds, the 24-year-old, who had been working as an assistant manager in KPMG’s Financial Services audit department, set off on a career break in 2019.
During her travels Thornton undertook two placements, the first of which was in Malawi with Hope for Relief, the second in Laos with Association for Development of Women and Legal Education.
“Although I have been to developing countries as a traveller, this has been a very different experience,” says Thornton.
“During my time in Malawi there were frequent power cuts due to load shedding. A lot of the cooking was done on charcoal fires, so home life was manageable, but it was difficult if it happened while you were at the office.”
Thornton is now just a few weeks away from returning home to resume her life in West Yorkshire. And she’ll be bringing a raft of new skills and life experiences along with her.
“The hands-on approach to the project means that you have the chance to see how the decisions made within the accounting team influence the day-to-day running of the organisation,” she says.
Her work involved leading meetings of the trustees to produce a long-term strategic plan, something far removed from her work back in the UK.
Though she’ll admit moving in with a local family – as some volunteers choose to do – was something of a culture shock, while the cold showers began to take their toll after seven weeks, the overall experience has been so rewarding that Thornton is already thinking about her next AfID assignment.
“Although there are times when you feel homesick, and some of the things you see can be difficult, it only spurred me on. It made me realise how important the work that we’re doing is.
“If the charity wasn’t there to provide this support, would anyone else be doing it instead?” she questions.
“I want to volunteer for another assignment, and although I’ll be going back to my job in England soon, I can do short stints overseas using holiday time. I would definitely encourage other professionals in the industry to take on a project, too.”