There are many distinct ways CPAs can serve the community. Julian Hwang meets two Institute members doing inspiring yet different work, helping to improve lives
Photography by Joanna Lai
Wilson Wan performing his metallic hoops magic trick.
Magic and community work have intrigued Wilson Wan since his adolescence, so it seems natural that he would integrate the two things together. “When I turned 18, I tried doing magic tricks during a visit to the elderly,” says Wan, Council Chairman of the Hong Kong Caring Magic Circus (CMC), a charitable start-up. “Magic helped spark intimacy between us, and it inspired them to become more outgoing and willing to share their thoughts.”
Since then, Wan, or MagicWilson as his friends call him, continued to use magic to bring people together, alongside his role as chief executive officer at Jacob Walery, a firm providing accounting advisory and human resources management and executive training consultancy services. But in 2009, a traumatic life experience inspired him to cement his passion in community work. “It was a very turbulent time for me because my wife and I were in the middle of our wedding plans, then my father began suffering from the initial stages of cerebral atrophy and my future father-in-law had passed away,” recalls Wan. “Work was also extremely stressful because of the financial crisis and many of my international clients backed out of the firm.” One night, the stress nearly proved fatal, and Wan was sent to the emergency room after he suddenly couldn’t breathe.
As Wan laid in recovery, he contemplated the future. “I realized the importance of our bodies, health and happiness,” says Wan. Within a month, he and several likeminded people with a passion for magic and helping the community founded the CMC.
Targeting a broad audience range from young children to the elderly, the CMC aims to bring joy and promote a positive attitude, but rather than following the old saying, “magicians never reveal their secrets,” the organization enlightens people on how a magic trick is done so that the audience members can try doing it.
“Magic may look difficult to do, but some tricks are rather simple once you attempt to them,” says Wan. “It promotes a hands-on experience for audiences and helps them stay observant throughout.” In one of his tricks, Wan holds a metallic hoop that seemingly defies gravity and is able to keep another hoop suspended in the air. “These two hoops symbolize two people, and by placing them together, it signifies human interaction,” he says.
The CMC has grown from 17 volunteers to more than 700, and has provided 650 services totalling over 10,000 service hours in 2016. “I’d say about 70 percent of our volunteers are magic-oriented, and the rest are more towards dance and the arts,” says Wan. Before the rise in the number of volunteers, Wan would attend each show – whether as the performer or as videographer and editor. Now, he takes a more management role, in charge of planning, funding, expansion and marketing to attract more volunteers.
Wan’s experience as a CPA was critical in helping to build the start-up from scratch. “Once we started projects, we had to do audits as well. Being a CPA had an advantage because I knew how to run the organization and submit project proposals,” recalls Wan. The CMC takes cost minimization and operational efficiency very seriously. “When we minimize expenditure without sacrificing efficiency, it’s better for our sustainability in the long run.”
In just two years after its founding, the CMC achieved a 2011 Guinness World Record for hosting the world’s largest magic lesson in one session with 435 participants – a title formerly held by renowned magician David Copperfield with 255 participants. At the same time, Wan’s team successfully ran a government-funded anti-drug campaign with an audience of over 10,000 students and teachers for 25 secondary schools across 18 districts. “Before the anti-drug campaign, we wanted to be more of a service-oriented organization, but having met so many students, we felt that youth education was equally important,” says Wan. “As a result, we’ve recently established a social enterprise under the CMC, the Academy of Magic Arts, to develop future leaders through magic and hopefully inspire them to give back to society as well.”
Out of the many achievements that magic has done for Hong Kong’s community so far, Wan is particularly impressed with his apprentice. “I met him four years ago through a community project when he was 15,” recalls Wan. “He came from an underprivileged background, and what inspired me was that he wanted to learn magic not because he wanted to show off, but because he wanted to bring happiness to other underprivileged households. “He still tries to be involved now, but I told him to focus more on his education instead, as he’s supposed to complete his Diploma of Secondary Education this year.”
Leading from within
Peter Wan was pleasantly surprised when a senior partner offered him the opportunity to help an NGO as its honorary treasurer. “It happened during a casual conversation when I worked at Coopers and Lybrand [now PwC],” recalls Wan, Executive Committee Vice-Chairman and Finance Sub-Committee Chairman at Heep Hong Society (HHS). Without even knowing what the organization was or what his role would involve, he accepted. He has since remained an important leader of the HHS for nearly three decades.
Established in 1963 by a group of Chinese women, HHS sought to run activities for Hong Kong’s handicapped children – particularly those who had motor control problems due to polio. “School wasn’t compulsory back then, and many of these children came from grassroots families without ways to entertain them,” says Wan. The HHS was founded to accommodate these children.
Years later, when the widespread polio vaccination programme had almost completely wiped out the virus the HHS changed its focus to children with learning difficulties such as autism spectrum disorder, developmental delay and attention-deficit-hyperactivity-disorder which were becoming more apparent. “There weren’t many studies on children with special educational needs (SEN) in the past, so we’d assume the child was being naughty.” New research showed that early interventions had a higher chance of enhancing their abilities, so in the late 1980s, HHS shifted its focus to these children.
“I needed to take on a role beyond simply receiving funding and signing off cheques.”
Initially appointed as honorary treasurer and an executive committee member, Wan’s main tasks involved managing the organization’s funds. “Many NGOs at the time wanted CPAs as a treasurer, because the government had better peace of mind funding organizations that had professionals managing it,” says Wan, “but we realized that HHS needed to examine and manage their finances more carefully, and that meant I needed to take on a role beyond simply receiving funding and signing off cheques.”
Wan helped form the NGO’s finance, investment and fundraising committees, and served as the chair to both the finance and investment committees in the mid-90s. Through the committees, the organization was able to make prudent investments and attract funding from external sources to further bolster their finances.
In 2000, the government abolished continuous funding to NGOs in favour of a new lump sum grant system. “There were more and more charities and organizations being created, so the government determined that an annual fixed amount of funding based on the mid-point salaries of pay scales of an organization’s staff would be more ideal,” recalls Wan. The change was generally thought to be more helpful to newly developed organizations, but less so for larger existing ones like HHS with longer serving employees. Furthermore, some staff were worried about job security and that their workload would increase because of government funding containment. “When the lump sum grant was launched, we were close to operating at the costs of our mid-point, so the funding would not have been enough in a few years’ time,” says Wan.
Despite the challenges, Wan and the finance committee focused on creating a better future for the youth, and attracted funding from alternative sources including the Jockey Club, the Lotteries Fund and organizations with similar values.
Because of his strong leadership, Wan was also elected as the chair of the organization between 1999 and 2004. “The organization did not have an established rule as to how long a person can be chairman, so I could have stayed on for longer,” says Wan, but with his CPA knowledge on governance , he understood that change was necessary after a certain period.
More recently, HHS has piloted and pioneered on-site support for SEN children attending kindergartens (now known as On-Site Pre-school Rehabilitation Services) in 2014. “Due to huge service shortfall, children diagnosed with special needs used to wait for almost two years before they could be provided a pre-school place,” says Wan. “Even at Heep Hong, there are extremely long queues for our services.” Through the on-site support programme, professional teams are sent to kindergartens to offer guidance to teachers and provide intensive training programmes for SEN children on the waiting list of pre-school rehabilitation services. The results of the pilot project have been very positive, and the government has committed substantial funding for the continuation of the service.
Wan finds his work truly rewarding. “An accountant’s life can be very boring if we only stare at numbers for the whole day,” says Wan. “There’s a mutual benefit – I’m able to expand my network with doctors, lawyers and social workers, and using my own network, I can help drive the organization’s growth and achieve their service goals.”