In addition to supporting Hong Kong’s development as a financial centre, CPAs support the community in meaningful ways. Julian Hwang talks to Institute members dedicated to showing others the true power of their expertise and the profession
Photography by Joanna Lai
While attending his children’s school activity, organized by a small non-government organization (NGO), Jacky Lai noticed the struggles the NGO was facing. “This NGO was run by 10 or fewer staff and, without even mentioning finances, the problems that it encounters daily were probably headache-inducing,” says Lai, Assurance Partner at EY and a Hong Kong Institute of CPAs member. Yet, the NGO persevered.
Inspired by the NGO’s dedication, Lai joined the Institute’s “CPA for NGO” programme as an “accountant ambassador,” a title that launched in 1996 when the Institute started gathering members to contribute back to the community.
Institute members are well-known for their prowess in accounting and business, but many choose to go above and beyond through their active involvement in social programmes such as “CPA for NGO” or “Rich Kid, Poor Kid.”
“CPA for NGO”, in collaboration with the Hong Kong Council of Social Service, provides an avenue for over 460 NGOs of all sizes to receive professional accounting services and management advice from CPAs like Lai. “I wanted to dive in and use my knowledge to help these NGOs,” he says.
The majority of NGOs who seek their help are smaller scale organizations. “Both large and small NGOs have their own problems, but the majority of large NGOs are better equipped than small NGOs,” explains Lai. “With more resources, they have the option of employing extra help.”
As a core member of the programme, Lai designs workshops and provides talks for various NGOs. “The participants of the workshops are the board members, including treasurers of NGOs, and they are usually from a non-accounting background.” With the participants’ lack of accounting knowledge, the workshops focus on introducing critical topics such as corporate governance, internal control and risk management, and financial reporting.
“The biggest challenge is that there is no one-size-fits-all way to deliver content, because each NGO’s needs are so different,” says Lai. As a result, each workshop needs to be meticulously arranged to accommodate the specific NGOs attending.
“The goal of the ‘CPA for NGO’ programme is not to provide a permanent crutch for the NGO’s everyday accounting needs. For example, if they need an auditor, we aren’t there to fill that spot,” explains Lai. “Rather, the work we do is meant to improve the NGO’s development and self-sustainability.”
On top of workshops, Lai will begin offering one-on-one advisory sessions with small NGOs under a new initiative launched this month. Four meetings will be held over a six-month period with the organization’s progress being tracked throughout. With his persistence in helping those who need guidance, Lai continues to make a difference to the community.
Supporting from within
When the Institute first launched the “CPA for NGO” programme in 2013, it sent out emails to all members asking for volunteers. Isaac Cheng, now Director of Finance and Administration at New Life Psychiatric Rehabilitation Association (NLPRA), snapped up the offer and has become fascinated with social work ever since. “I was doing commercial work at the time, but I wanted my work to be more rewarding, so I decided to apply my professional knowledge to help the development of NGOs,” says Cheng, also an Institute member and an accountant ambassador.
“NGOs are just like commercial businesses, and they need proper financing to remain in operation,” explains Cheng. While the programme aims to benefit non-profits, the impact it had on Cheng ended up being life-changing. Having worked with NGOs for several years, he decided to leave the commercial world and join the NLPRA in January full time.
Through the NLPRA, post-recovery psychiatric patients can receive residential services and vocational rehabilitation. “We offer sheltered workshops, including farming, the production of soybean milk and running special convenience stores,” says Cheng. He adds that work involving food production or the service industry prepares patients with practical skills that they can use when they return to the workforce.
“Contrary to popular belief, NGOs can’t just reach their hands out and ask the government for money when they need it.”
“While we are a not-for-profit organization, our staff still need to be paid like any other business if we want our patients to continue receiving quality care,” says Cheng. “Contrary to popular belief, NGOs can’t just reach their hands out and ask the government for money when they need it, otherwise it’d cause a significant financial burden on the government.” Working directly at an NGO, Cheng uses his CPA skills to make the most out of the organization’s finances.
Besides optimizing spending, Cheng is also focused in advocating the practice of good corporate governance. Given that much of an NGO’s funding is from public sources, Cheng believes transparency and accountability are essential components to an NGO’s success. He points out that the public has a right to know exactly how their money is being spent as well as how the NGO plans to improve in the future.
Cheng advises aspiring accountant ambassadors who wish to help NGOs to learn their language. “The people you talk with include social workers, clinical psychologists and psychiatrists, and the conversations are often filled with social and medical terms,” says Cheng. New accountant ambassadors should also note that some NGOs are bound by different rules. “For example, depending on whether the NGO’s funds come from the government, the Hong Kong Jockey Club or from the Community Chest, there are different reporting standards to observe.”
Jeanie Wong has developed her own unique way of telling stories to children
Secrets to storytelling
Jeanie Wong, the Financial Planning Manager at Manulife and an Institute member, has always enjoyed interacting with children. So when she found out about the Institute’s “Rich Kid, Poor Kid” programme, it was the perfect match.
Under the programme, Wong accompanied by another accountant ambassador visits various primary schools throughout Hong Kong to teach children the value of money using the stories of May Moon, a book series published by the Institute depicting a fictional girl and her adventures. “The story follows May Moon as she learns to manage finances through concepts such as how to save money and differentiate between needs and wants,” explains Wong.
With 50 minutes only per session, Wong teaches the young students the three “magic words” of the programme: saving, spending and sharing. Each talk would include more than 100 young children, and with them grouped together in one place, maintaining discipline can prove to be challenging. “Noise control is a problem we face often,” says Wong.
“For example, one story involves May burning her school down by accident, and that part usually causes children to lose control.” To keep order, a special phrase like “One-two-three, red light, green light” is established at the beginning of each session. Upon saying it, children must respond by clapping their hands in a specific rhythm before the story will continue. “It’s a job that requires a lot of patience,” she describes.
“One story involves May Moon burning her school down by accident, and that part usually causes children to lose control.”
Time management is a critical skill that eloquent children’s storytellers possess. “During a session in May, we were suddenly told that we had to condense our content into 35 minutes,” recalls Wong. Apparently, the session was booked too close towards the end of school, and the students needed to catch their school buses.
Thinking quickly on their feet and with less than 10 minutes before they were to appear on stage, Wong and the other accountant ambassador revised their content flow by reducing the question and answer period and trimming out less important information. “It was quite an achievement for us, because we still managed to tell all our key points despite cutting 15 minutes of content,” says Wong. “It also helped immensely that we knew the information by heart.”
When presenting, every speaker has a unique way of delivering the story. “For me, I like to get close to the children and then asking them questions up close,” explains Wong. She finds that the proximity helps keep the young audience more engaged. The Institute provides a standardized script, but she alters it to make it more colloquial and Cantonese-style. “That way, the information is easier to recall and it’s also more relevant to the children.”
“The education system today doesn’t teach the management of finances too well,” explains Alan Kam when asked about why he wanted to become an accountant ambassador for the “Rich Kid, Poor Kid” programme. “Children aside, this problem is also evident with some adults who spend their money recklessly, unethically or unsustainably.”
A consultant at Brilliant Norton Holdings Company and an Institute member, Kam joined the social responsibility programme in 2010 because he wanted to instil the value of money to children while their minds were most absorbent. “The ‘Rich Kid, Poor Kid’ programme is taught to both primary and secondary school students,” says Kam. While the content for primary schools features storytelling with May Moon, secondary schools require the key messages to be taught using more mature scenarios, including short videos on stories about teenagers’ attitudes towards money, how to address the challenges that they face and the consequences of mishandling the situation.
“Having talked to both primary and secondary students, I prefer talking to primary students because they have active imaginations and can ask unexpected questions, like ‘do you know many rich people?’ or ‘how much do you make per month?’”
“Unlike talking to adults who listen to you out of politeness, children don’t have to follow the same etiquette.”
According to Kam, secondary school students are undergoing their “rebellious phase,” so their focus tends to wander and the enthusiasm in their responses is usually weaker than primary students. “Getting secondary school students to pay attention is quite the challenge,” says Kam, “but it’s a challenge I enjoy, because unlike talking to adults who listen to you out of politeness, children don’t have to follow the same etiquette.”
Kam found that bringing his Qing Dynasty Emperor Daoguang’s bank draft, which was issued by the Rishengchang Exchange Shop in the 18th century, considered the first draft bank in Chinese history, gets the children’s attention. “I’d start by passing this around to the audience and saying that I won it at a Sotheby’s auction for US$500,000,” says Kam. “Then I’d reveal that it’s just a replica worth about HK$3.” By beginning with an interesting prop, Kam is able to captivate the students immediately.
Apart from teaching the benefits of financial management, the programme also gives Kam the opportunity to share the real roles of accountants. “There’s a stereotype that accountants only crunch numbers, but through this programme we can tell them more about what we really do and the career options available to accountants in the future,” explains Kam.
“Some people think that this programme only benefits the children, but I can learn from it too,” he says. The questions and feedback that the children give are his motivation to continue delivering talks, and inspiring them to one day pursue accounting. ◆
Since 1996, the Institute has run its volunteer Accountant Ambassadors programme through which members can give back to the local community.